To live fully, we have to be mindful. Let’s explore some definitions of mindfulness.
“Mindfulness is the ability to know what is happening in your head at any given moment without getting carried away by it. Mindfulness is the ability to acknowledge your thoughts and your emotions and respond wisely rather acting blindly.” Roger Moore
“Gateway into the full dimensionality of being human and being alive.” Jon Kabat Zin
Mindfulness is a state where we are aware, accepting, and non-judgmental 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.
Mindfulness starts with being aware of the present moment. Where are your thoughts? What are you feeling? Being aware of what sensations I feel in my body is one of my bells of Mindfulness. When I feel the heaviness, I know not to talk or act. If I do, I will probably regret it.
Our minds are hardly ever in the present moment. We are either lamenting the past or projecting the future. Even if we are aware of what is happening in the present moment, we are coloring it with our perceptions from our past baggage or our worries about the future.
No one can be aware of the present moment 24/7. Each moment you can begin again by noticing your wandering mind. And you can remember that no matter how spacey, forgetful, impulsive, or reactive you’ve been, you can always begin again. We begin again, so we don’t miss the present moment, the only moment we have to make decisions, to grow, to heal, to be there for the people we love. When we are not mindful, we live our lives on autopilot, lost in thoughts.
Once we are aware of what is happening around us, we need to look at what is happening in our head. Are we accepting what is? Or are we judging whether we like, dislike, or can ignore what is happening? Are we getting stirred up because we don’t like what is happening?
As with many of you, COVID impacted my holidays. Family members all had different ideas about what was safe. Trying to navigate family getting together and staying safe left me with a very negative feeling tone. I was down in the dumps and finding fault with everything. During one of my meditations, I realized that I was missing out on enjoyable time because I worried about COVID.
I finally quit beating myself up for being negative by remembering that our minds are wired to scan for danger and look for the negative. Once we see something negative, we hold onto it. Our minds are Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good. And when we are holding onto the negative, we color everything with darkness.
We should not brush anything negative under the carpet. If we do that, the problem is likely to continue to grow. But it does mean to 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.
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 have the opportunity to become aware that I am thinking or realize that I have been lost in thought. When I become aware or notice that I’m thinking, 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.
In meditation, we use an anchor as the place to direct our attention when our mind wanders. And each time our mind wanders, we can bring our attention back again and again and again. We are not pushing the thought away or fighting our minds to stay quiet. That would be a losing battle. Often, we use our breath as an anchor, but it could easily be sound, a mantra, or the feeling of your feet on the floor.
“You know those nights when sleep eludes you, and the harder you try to sleep the less you can? You are trying to force yourself to be peaceful, and you feel the resistance inside of you. This same sort of resistance is felt by many people during their first experiences with meditation. The more they try to calm themselves, the more restless they become.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Instead of trying to quiet your thoughts, observe your mind. When a thought comes up, label it thinking. Then gently bring your attention back to the sensation of the breath. Creating a neuro pathway takes repetition, so practice bringing your attention back over and over again. Just as you might practice a golf swing repeatedly until it becomes natural, we practice changing the focus of our attention over and over.
When we continually bring our attention back to our anchor, our mind begins to settle. We can see more clearly. On the bright side, we can see our joys more clearly. But we also can see our sorrows more clearly. By seeing our sorrows more clearly instead of brushing them under the carpet, we can make more skillful decisions about what actions to take. We can stop covering up our sorrows with consumption or busyness.
Some people blame meditation for making them feel anxious. But actually, meditation puts you in touch with what is making you anxious. So, it takes courage to start a meditation practice. We start the practice because we want to live a more peaceful life. Sometimes our meditation does not feel calm, but it helps us to train our brains to become more mindful throughout the day. When we are more mindful throughout the day, we will make more skillful choices. Thus, we can become more peaceful, not yanked around by external events. This peacefulness does not happen with a single meditation but with continued practice.
While breath meditation is an excellent foundation for mindfulness, there are other formal meditation practices such as body scan, loving-kindness, eating meditation, and walking meditation. There are also informal practices such as “Taking in the Good,” mindful pause, or gratitude journal. You can choose what helps you become more mindful.
Mindfulness enables us to make wise choices. When we have stressful thought patterns, it’s hard to see through the mental clutter. We get confused and react instead of responding. So, we are more likely to be unskillful, perhaps saying something we later regret. When we practice mindfulness, we are more likely to be aware of our reactive tendencies, catch ourselves, take a conscious breath, and choose a more skillful way to respond.
Habits, the opposite of mindfulness, are behaviors that become automatic because they are repeated frequently. The habit may be a habit of wanting, distraction, resisting, or doing. It may seem impossible to change our unskillful habits, but we can if we meet them with a kind, interested, accepting awareness. Instead of beating ourselves up for having a habit that we would like to change, we can look underneath the habit to see what need it is trying to fulfill.
One habit I let go of was my Diet Pepsi habit. I tried for years to use will power to give it up, but the craving was too intense. Finally, I tried mindfulness, paying close attention to how my body felt when the urge came up. I looked at the need the craving would fill. It was belonging. When I was young, I wanted to be a big kid because they got to stay up and have “POP.” I paid attention to how it tasted. The first few sips were delicious. But after that, it was just OK. I also paid attention to the fact that having a Diet Pepsi would mean that I would be anxiously waiting for a meeting to end so I could go to the bathroom. And that meant that I did not chat with my co-workers after the meeting. So, it backfired on filling the need for belonging. Instead of making me happy, Diet Pepsi was an obstacle to my feeling of belonging and causing me anxiety.
With mindfulness, we can pause before reacting and choose the appropriate response to the situation. Victor Frankl’s powerful insight is: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”
Mindfulness can help us to be aware of all the moments of joy in our lives. But the flip side is that we are also aware of all the moments of sadness. We learn to choose where to place our attention. When we are mindful, we truly taste the cookie, the cheese, the guacamole, and the warm bread. We learn to walk unhurriedly and notice the touch of the breeze on our skin, the sound of birds, the beautiful sky, or the ground beneath our feet. Just as with exercise, the more regularly you meditate or do mindfulness practices, the more likely you will see the positive benefits in your life.
My wishes for you:
May you learn to be aware of your thoughts and feelings so that you can respond skillfully.
May you not be yanked around by external circumstances.