“We can’t expect since our New Year’s resolution was to be mindful that we will all of a sudden be mindful and see clearly. We have honed the habit of running on autopilot, rehashing the past, worrying about the future and strengthening those neural pathways every day for the past so many years.” Gloria Green
If we get down on ourselves because we have fallen back into running on autopilot, rehashing or being anxious about the future, 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. And beginning again and again and again.
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.
“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
Or as Daniel Tiger says, “When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.” I modified it a little after teaching my grandson a new word, squall. We sing, “When you feel so bad that you want to squall, take a deep breath and count to four.” It may not rhyme, but it covers all the negative emotions that may come up. We all have times when we want to squall.
Those are the times we need to create a gap. 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.
“Mindfulness is a skill, generated most commonly through meditation, where you learn to see what’s happening in your head right now, clearly, so that you don’t get yanked around by it.” Dan Harris
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. Many of our unskillful reactions are deeply entrenched habits. So, it requires discipline to first see the mindless habit and then to change it. Often, we get so caught up and distracted by the details of our life, that we run on autopilot, mindlessly all day long.
When we are mindless, 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. We do things that are not skillful as we are not paying attention. How many of you have made a stupid mistake because you were not paying attention?
When you don’t see clearly, your mind is filled with mental chatter. Amidst all that chatter, your negative emotions may look scary. But when you see clearly, those negative emotions lose some power and aren’t so scary. Your brain had by lying to you telling you that you could not handle them and that they would last forever. You see they are just emotions you kept hidden; you’ve never dealt with them. When you see clearly, they are not so bad as you thought. Instead of thinking if I feel this emotion, I will fall apart; you see that you can be with it for just a moment. You see life as it really is, not how you are afraid it is or think it should be. And you 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
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, and the future, it also spins out 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.
My wishes for you: 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.