There is a lot of talk about mindfulness these days. Maybe at this point you are wondering exactly what is meant by “mindfulness”. The term is dangerously close to becoming a parody of itself, it is used so often and so broadly. Here a dictionary definition:
a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
This simple definition lacks the sizzle and sex appeal that might make you think that mindfulness meditation some magical road to happiness.
It’s so simple that the media tries to spice it up. “5 ways to quiet your monkey mind!” “8 ways meditation can improve your life!” “Mindfulness—A wonderful cure for anxiety!”
Hey, I’m in favor of anything that gets people to consider a mindfulness practice. However, I also feel the need to demystify the process and make sure we are not “over-promising” in a way that creates a lot of one-time meditators, who give up when they don’t find instant bliss.
Mindfulness is not about finding the answers. Not about finding happiness, peace, bliss, satisfaction, fame, fortune, or love.
It’s about becoming more comfortable in the midst of uncertainty when there are no answers.
We are building our capacity for awareness without asking for any resolution. This awareness allows us to dispassionately explore things we are dealing with—excitement or disappointments, interactions and other things that are “on our minds.” Becoming aware in this way can be very informative and sometimes we begin to recognize patterns we might not have noticed had we not paid attention. Other times we can just see what is taking up our “mind-space”.
And it’s a challenge. Just because I teach this stuff doesn’t make it any easier when I sit myself down on my mat to meditate. It’s a journey for us all. Here are some things that I become aware of when I meditate:
- Whatever I’m watching on TV. Lately, I think a lot about Saul Goodman.
- My to-do list. All the things I need to do. All the things I haven’t done.
- Wondering where all my time goes and why I can’t get to all the items on my list.
- A tightness in my shoulders. An ache in my low back. My feet falling asleep.
- My upcoming Yoga classes and possible themes/approaches to them.
- The concern du jour about my family.
- Something I said or did that maybe wasn’t the best thing to say or do.
- A feeling of expansion. Or contraction.
- What’s for breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner. Depending on what time I meditate.
- An idea for a service I can offer.
- A vague feeling that I am not good enough. Or that I am good enough. Again depending on the day.
Oh, my mind has wandered, and I’ve watched it. I try to come back to the breath. There it is. Inhale fills me up and the exhale empties me. Expand and contract. Bring in and let go. Find that flow. Go with the flow. Be the flow. A for just a moment, I am.
Here’s an un-sexy analogy.
Mindfulness practice is like dealing with your junk drawer. Every house has one. We all toss stuff into the junk drawer and forget about it. Sometimes you go to find one thing, and you think “ugh, what a mess, I’ll deal with this later”. But now you are aware of what a mess it is, so you open the drawer every once in a while, sigh, and say “ugh, what a mess, I’ll deal with it later”. Life was easier before you realized what a mess it was. But now that you know, and you need to do something about it.
So one day, you gather up your patience and fortitude and you open the drawer and take everything out. You decide to go through it, item by item. And you start with the easy ones—pens that don’t have ink, broken paper clips. You think, this is a piece of cake, and then you find a picture of your ex and you hold it in your hand and just stare at it. After a few minutes, you put it, and everything else, back in the drawer. And slam it shut.
But you know you have to get back in there and clean out this drawer, to make room for some other things you need to keep handy. So, each day, you go in and take something out and look at it. You feel the feelings that you feel and maybe you let go of the item, or maybe you keep it, finding a more convenient place for it. Maybe you keep it for a while and then let go of it. It’s a long process and it never ends, because even as you get rid of things, you may be tossing new things into the drawer from time to time. And so it goes.
Please don’t be offended that I am comparing your mind to a junk drawer. We really do store a lot of things in both places (drawer and mind) that we don’t need. In the mind it takes the form of rigid beliefs that hold us back, emotional baggage (sounds heavy!) and past and future concerns that take us out of the present moment. And, if you can just take a somewhat objective look at it all, you really can clear it.
By exploring what is there and really, really looking at it, you slowly begin to gain some perspective. You let go of some judgement, find some compassion. You develop a “pause” response between each item and your reaction to it. And in that pause, that space, that is where the change takes place. The items don’t go away, but your ability to be with them, accept them as they are, and then act, well that ability expands as much as you allow it to. There will be detours and back-tracking, but ultimately, with consistency there will be growth.
Now, go open that drawer!