I was contemplating the idea of mindfulness the other day, and how it seems to have lately become another victim of our age of pop culture appropriation of trendy, self-help techniques. I don't want you to misunderstand, I think the spotlight that has been placed on mindfulness is amazing in many ways, expanding our awareness of techniques emphasizing quieting the mind instead of reaching for our replacement brains: phones, ipads and such. However, I think mindfulness has become a bit stretched and pulled and battered in our collective understanding of these techniques, how they are used, and how they can help us. Many view mindfulness through the lens of meditative poses designed to disengage from the world or "shut off" your brain, and I've heard from too many that they've tried and abandoned the practice because they are simply no good at it, lamenting, "my brain just doesn't work like that" or "I can't turn off my thoughts..."
Of course, you can't. It's not really the way our brains were designed to work. Sitting down for 5 minutes, I find that my brain runs me ragged with images and ideas and to-do lists and emotional afterthoughts from the day. And I don't really want to shut this stuff completely down...sometimes it's important stuff! However, getting caught up in it all and pulled in a million different directions doesn't exactly help either....enter mindfulness here.
The origins of mindfulness stem from ancient Buddhist meditation and Hindu yoga practices. And it's largely recognized to have been introduced to the West through Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at UMass Medical School and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy. Mindfulness itself when introduced to the West was never meant as a traditional lotus-pose meditation practice, with hours of discipline required. Mindfulness is meant simply as narrowing of one's focus to present-moment awareness. That means, if you are reading a book, taking a walk, or setting the table, are you fully engaged in that singular activity? Can you smell the freshly cut grass of your neighbor's lawn? Can you feel the cool, solid touch of stainless steel utensils in your hand as you take a bite? Can you immerse yourself in a character's emotional predicament as you read? Can you feel your own emotions in this current moment, for that matter?
Mindfulness was never meant as a way to disengage, but as a way to more fully engage in all that the present moment has to offer. It's not meant to shut down our thinking but to become aware of the experience buffet in all its various options and colors, right here, right now.
Jon Kabat Zinn states:
"To allow ourselves to be truly in touch with where we already are, no matter where that is, we have got to pause in our experience long enough to let the present moment sink in; long enough to actually feel the present moment, to see it in its fullness, to hold it in awareness and thereby come to know and understand it better. Only then can we accept the truth of this moment of our life, learn from it, and move on."
Where we are has value. Rather than jetting off into past reveries or future-life planning, mindful living allows us to remain where we have the most power: the present. And there's one additional component that rounds out the mindfulness package....non-judgment. This is the part that gets sticky for most of us. Our minds have this compulsive need to tell us whether something is good or not, acceptable or unacceptable, worthy or unworthy.
Perhaps things just are.
Again, Jon Kabat-Zinn beautifully captures our human capacity for spinning stories and judgments from our thoughts...
"We may never know quite be where we actually are, never quite touch the fullness of our possibilities. Instead, we lock ourselves into a personal fiction that we already know who we are, that we know where we are and where we are going, that we know what is happening--all the while remaining enshrouded in thoughts, fantasies, and impulses, mostly about the past and about the future, about what we want and like, and what we fear and don't like, which spin out continuously, veiling our direction and the very ground we are standing on."
Here's where the capacity of our brains to shower us with memory pop-ups, informational sound-bites, and preferences tend to get in the way of mindful living. But it doesn't have to be this way. If we can only step beyond this veil of internal stimuli to see the deeper places in which we reside and allow them to be as they are, without being right or wrong, we find that this place is quite familiar. A part of us always resides powerfully in the present, waiting for ourselves to arrive again and greet us like an old friend, a treasured companion, with a hug and an empty rocking chair just for us.
Allowing all of our mental maneuvers to exist while not getting pulled in or distracted by them is our challenge. But here's the win: every time that we notice that we've wandered away, it becomes a victory, for we've found ourselves again....we've found the present moment. And that's all it takes: finding the present moment again and sitting there long enough to absorb it....until we get lost again. So the next time you tell me you can't be mindful, or it's too hard, I'll remind you that you're already there, the rocking chair just waiting to be taken up again.