None of us wants to get yanked around by our thoughts. We want to see clearly and respond to difficult situations rather than reacting unskillfully. But many of those unskillful reactions are deeply entrenched habits. So, it requires discipline to first see that we have a habit we were unconscious of and then to change it. Often, we get so caught up and distracted by the details of our life, that we run on autopilot all day long.
That is a habit we can’t expect to change overnight. We have honed that habit, strengthened that neural pathway every day for the past so many years. If we get down on ourselves because we have fallen back into running on autopilot, we are just strengthening the neural pathway of self-judgement. And self-judgement is another habit most of us would like to break. We want to create new neural pathways. We can do this by beginning or beginning again today.
I screwed up yesterday, I was very judgmental. I can start again today. I reacted unskillfully this morning. I can begin again right now. I am three words into interrupting someone, I don’t have to finish the sentence before I begin again. Every moment is a chance to begin again. And we have the choice of beginning again or beating ourselves up.
Because our habits are so strong, we need discipline and persistence. When we think we have kicked a habit, it suddenly rears its ugly head again. We must practice over and over and over. I have been meditating for more than a decade. I still need to practice over and over. Sometimes I think, ‘I have processed that; I am beyond that.’ When that happens, I can say, ‘I will never be whole, I will never be good enough.’ Or I can begin again and work with it some more. That is where persistence pays off. Joining a meditation group supports you in being disciplined and persistent.
Many of us have the habit of ruminating about the past. We can’t change the past no matter how many times we run it through our brain. Each time we run through our brain how awful we are, we are strengthening that neural pathway. It is easy for me to suggest you make a habit of pausing and taking three breaths when those thoughts come up or you feel angry or irritated. But it is very difficult to put into practice. That is why we practice by taking three breaths when you are at a stop light, when you leave your office, or when you walk into your house. We train our brains to create a gap.
Nothing trains our brain to create a gap better than a regular meditation practice. It doesn’t have to be a hour long. It doesn’t even have to be 5 minutes. It is better to do two minutes a day than 15 minutes once a week.
“One of the most effective means for working with that moment when we see the gathering storm of our habitual tendencies is the practice of pausing, or creating a gap. We can stop and take three conscious breaths and the world has a chance to open up to us in that gap. We can allow space into our state of mind.” Pema Chodron
Meditation trains our brains to create gaps. Every time we become aware of our thoughts and let them go, we create a gap. We can’t see clearly through all our mental chatter. Letting your mind quiet helps you to see more clearly.
When we don’t see clearly, we tend to fight against things as they are. We try to fight growing older. We become easily upset with life’s changes, our losses, conflicts, and disappointments. We let them take hold of us as if some external thing has control over who we are and how we feel. We get on our hamster wheel of reactivity. When we do that, we make it worse. We are looking for false security and permanent pleasures. When we are on our hamster wheel trying to get away from the unpleasant, it gets stronger because we are resisting (maybe unconsciously). We do things that are not the right thing as we are not paying attention.
When our mind is filled with mental chatter, negative emotions may look scary. But when you see clearly, they lose some power and aren’t so scary. We have emotions we have never dealt with. We have kept them hidden inside. When we see clearly, is it not so bad as we thought. ‘I am not such a terrible person. I am just a perfectly imperfect human being, like everyone else.’ We see life as it really is, not how we are afraid it is or hope it is. And we learn to deal with reality rather than our image of reality.
“When we look at our own mind, we can notice the mental states that predominate, as if we were noticing the weather. Just as a storm can bring rain, wind, and cold, we can observe the clusters of unhealthy states that appear on our bad days. We may find resentment, fear, anger, worry, doubt, envy, or agitation. We can notice how often they arise and how attached we are to their point of view. We can also notice the healthy states in our most free and openhearted periods. We can notice how love, generosity, flexibility, ease, and simplicity are natural to us.” Jack Kornfield
By seeing more clearly through mindfulness and compassion practice, we can cultivate a new way of relating to life in which we let go of our struggles. When we step back from the struggle, we see anew. We see it is our mind creating the conflict and maybe even lying to us. We see our constant judging of ourselves, things and people. We see our greed and our prejudices. There are times when I wish I didn’t practice mindfulness because it is hard for me to look at my insecurities, my imperfections and my fears. But then I see how my habitual patterns close my heart. And when I see that it gives me the strength to see clearly and let myself heal.
Mindfulness is a state where we are aware, accepting, and as non-judgmental as possible of what is happening right now. It’s about noticing your mind has wandered and bringing it back to what’s right in front of you.
Its starts with being aware of the present moment. Where are your thoughts? What are you feeling? What sensations are you feeling in your body? Being aware of what sensations I feel in my body is one of my ‘Bells of Mindfulness.’ When I feel the heaviness or the tightness, I know not to talk or act. If I do, I will probably regret it.
I am not suggesting that we brush anything negative under the carpet. If we do that, the problem is likely to continue to grow. I suggest that you train your mind so that you can choose to pay attention to the moment with kindness and curiosity. You may not like that someone cut you off in traffic. But instead of getting angry and retaliating, you could get curious. Happy people don’t cause others to suffer. When someone makes you suffer, you may wonder what is making them so unhappy. Often it has nothing to do with you.
What would your life be like if you stopped wishing reality was different and got curious about what was really going on? When you don’t like what is going on, you can run that movie over and over in your head, or you can accept that life is not fair and let it go. Mindfulness is about training our brain to respond wisely rather than acting blindly.
“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different. Enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will). Being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).” James Baraz
To be mindful, we need to train our brains to develop the neuropathways that encourage us to be aware. Meditation is a method through which we train our brains to be mindful and concentrated.
When we meditate, we want to find the mindful middle where we neither suppress thoughts nor are entirely lost in them. We are not trying to stop the thoughts. That is impossible. The mind secretes thoughts like the salivary gland secretes saliva. The goal is to become aware of when we are thinking. The more you practice paying attention to the present moment when you’re calm and happy, the easier and more effective it’ll be when you’re freaking out. The purpose of meditation is not to be a good meditator but to train our brain to be mindful.
With over a decade of meditation experience, my mind still wanders to the past and the future during meditation. My mind often spins out stories about the past, the future, or fantasies. That is what minds do; they make up stories.
When your mind wanders, begin again. Each time my mind spins out on a story, I can become aware that I am thinking or realize that I have been lost in thought. When I become aware I am thinking or lost in thought, I have a moment of mindfulness. Then I can decide whether I want to continue to observe that thought, be lost in thought, or direct my attention elsewhere. No matter how spacey, forgetful, impulsive, or reactive I’ve been, I can always begin again.
May you learn to be aware of your thoughts and feelings so that you can respond skillfully and not be yanked around by external circumstances.