Last weekend I paused as I was going out the door. I had spent the day with my girlfriend and she was curled up on the couch watching television. It looked really comfy. But I had committed to seeing a close friend of mine that night for drinks. “Why?” I thought, “Why am I going out?”
This is not the first time I contemplated my intention for going out on a Saturday night. When I was seventeen, I ran off to a Buddhist abbey in Nova Scotia for the summer, shaving my head and taking the monastic robes, precepts, the whole shebang. Shortly thereafter, I came back to my senior year of high school very "religious" (read: tightly wound and opinionated). Upon entering college a year later, I drifted back toward the other extreme (read: I was very good at keg stands). What I discovered is that it's very hard to balance staying up until 4 AM partying with waking up at 6 AM to meditate.
So over the course of those college years, I gradually learned to find my personal middle way between these extremes, allowing myself to party a bit with friends, but making sure it didn’t impinge on my meditation practice.
One of the most important things that helped me during that time, and that continues to help me now, is contemplating my intention for partying. If I know I am going to go out on the town on a given evening, I will often sit down for a moment beforehand, and meditate on a simple question: “Why?”
I invite you to engage this simple practice before you go out on a Friday night (or on whatever night you are going out). Start by taking a relaxed yet dignified posture. If you’re sitting down, place both feet firmly on the ground, and if you’re standing, bend your knees slightly. Feel the connection to the earth below you. Then elongate upward through your spine. If it’s helpful, you can imagine a string at the top of your head pulling you straight up. Relax the muscles in your shoulders and back. You can close your eyes or keep them open, resting them between two and four feet ahead of you on the ground. Once your body feels settled, you can begin the practice:
- Begin by connecting to the natural cycle of your breathing. You don’t need to change manipulate your breath at all, just allow it to occur as it always does. Simply feel the breath.
- After two minutes, switch your focus from the breath to a question: “What is my intention for going out tonight?”
- As you breathe naturally, keep returning your attention to that question, just as you did with the breath.
- Notice the sensations that arise, allowing the question wash over you like a wave. Likely a few different answers will come up. Some may ring true to you. Others will fade very quickly.
- After another two minutes, return your attention again on your breath. Then enter into your evening, ideally a bit more mindfully.
Contemplating the “why” behind the “what” is important for all of our activity — be it going to work, starting a new relationship, or launching a new creative endeavor. It’s a dangerous question though, because we may not always be pleased with the answers that arise ...
When it comes to going out to drink, for example, this contemplation may reveal that you thought you were just going out to connect with friends, but in fact, you're going out because you’ve had a really hard week and want to drink your sorrows away. Knowing that there’s some part of you that is aiming to drink to forget, you can arm yourself by drinking less (or not at all).
In my case, as I paused by the door on my way out, glancing back at my comfy couch and lovely girlfriend, I realized that I was going out because my friend has been going through a very hard time lately and I knew he would benefit from some good company. Seeing that particular motivation made it so that we didn’t go crazy, but instead holed up at a quiet bar and talked about what’s been going on with him.
A beer on its own is not a bad thing. In fact, if your intention is to relax and connect with another person, a beer is often a great motivator to get together. But if you are worried about losing your job and getting drunk is your means of escaping from reality, you’re more likely to end up drinking to excess and getting into trouble.
In either case, we can’t blame the beer when we wake up with a hangover. The beer didn’t make us do anything: it was our own mind not being able to grasp our intention that put us in such a state.
The more we contemplate our intention for going out, the more likely we will be able to see past our confusion to the point where we can engage our activity from a place of mindfulness and compassion. Before you contemplate the “what” you are going to do, try out contemplating the “why.” The next morning, you’ll be glad you did.
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