‘While mindfulness, a once obscure term, has quickly become a coin of the realm, I prefer to call it affectionate attention. Whatever its name, this quality of attention is profoundly liberating. ‘ John Prendergast
In the last few years, the word mindfulness has become so ubiquitous that it is difficult to know what it means anymore. It has come to describe almost anything which involves pausing for a moment, sometimes for no more than a minute. There seems to be a heartfelt longing for more mindfulness in the lives of many people, and there are many different pathways to cultivating a greater sense of being mindful. So rather than trying to find one ‘correct’ definition of mindfulness, it could be more useful to ask ourselves what mindfulness actually means for us – for each of us as unique individuals. Why did we become interested in mindfulness in the first place, and why are we intrigued enough to stay engaged with the idea?
For me, one of the aspects of mindfulness which I appreciate most is having a greater sense of connectedness to my life – feeling more present within my life, rather than rushing through it on automatic pilot ticking off a never-ending list of ‘things to do’ as I go. There’s also a greater sense of friendliness, appreciation, and engaging with challenges rather than avoiding or inflating them, and these are all welcome benefits of a regular mindfulness practice. So mindfulness for me could mean ‘being present rather than absent from my life’. Music, gardening, walking in nature – these all help to cultivate this sense of presence as well.
When I teach mindfulness, it’s not uncommon for participants to share that they somehow feel guilty for not being ‘mindful’ enough, for not making the time to meditate regularly, for finding themselves caught up in unhelpful patterns. Rather than trying to attain some idealised state of mindfulness it might be more useful to ask ourselves – where does my yearning for more mindfulness come from? What does mindfulness mean to me? What practices are helpful for me, and what seems to easily lead me into a sense of mindlessness? Sometimes there are powerful reasons why we may struggle with mindfulness. We may have experienced traumatic events, including being bullied, spending time in hospital as a child, or having a parent who was moody and unpredictable. Or our current life may be so demanding there seems no room left for us to pause and reflect.
It is our inner motivation, our inner call, which can best guide us on our mindfulness journey. What is this inner yearning about? And if we didn’t call it mindfulness, what other word or phrase might best describe it for us?
Mindfulness practice idea:
Set aside ten minutes or longer to explore the place of mindfulness in your life. You could start a sentence, ‘for me, mindfulness means…’ and go from there, either through journaling, meditation, or some other form of creative expression. What did you discover? Which words stood out for you?
‘If we’re not careful, it is all too easy to fall into becoming more of a human doing than a human being, and forget who is doing all the doing, and why.’Jon Kabat Zinn
We are known as human beings, but, as Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, life can sometimes feel more as if we’re ‘human doings’. Our days are filled with tasks we need to accomplish, often with a fair bit of time pressure, and even as we’re ticking off one task we’re already thinking about the next. Where, in this hectic hive of activity, can we find the time to ‘simply be’?
A mindful life is not just about stopping to pause from time to time, grounding ourselves for a few moments in the here and now – although those times are certainly valuable. Mindfulness is about bringing a sense of ‘being’ into all the ‘doing’ aspects of our lives, regardless of whether life is relaxed or hectic right now. So rather than rushing through our tasks half-heartedly, caught up in thoughts about something completely different, we commit to being fully present with whatever we’re doing, whether it’s writing an email, washing the dishes, or crawling along in a traffic jam on the way to an important appointment. Whatever it is, we bring our full attention to the task – we become fully embodied within it.
So what are the challenges to living in this way? It can be interesting to explore these for ourselves. Sometimes we literally have a lot ‘on our minds’, such as anxious thoughts which keep intruding. We may have people who keep distracting us, or constant notifications from our electronic devices. Other times it might feel easier to do something we don’t particularly enjoy with only minimal attention, as if this makes the unpleasant or boring task less real. To be a human ‘doing’ might feel like the path of least resistance, but if we spend a lot of time in this mode, we run the risk of feeling a sense of absence from our own lives.
Mindfulness practice idea:
Each day, choose one unexciting task and turn it into a mindfulness exercise. It could be brushing your teeth, folding and putting away your laundry, or washing the dishes after a meal. Slow down, and allow yourself to experience every aspect of the task, to embody it fully. How does this feel?
‘Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart
And try to love the questions themselves.’
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
A common question we might ask ourselves during meditation from time to time is simply – ‘what is actually happening right now?’ We pause, and bring awareness into our moment by moment experience. What is happening right now? Often there’s quite a lot going on. There are many layers of sound – everyday sounds, unusual sounds, sounds we perceive as pleasant or unpleasant, sounds we usually don’t notice at all. What is happening in our bodies? Perhaps our back is sore, and that’s all we are aware of. But there is also the contact between skin and clothing, between our face and the air around, there may be a slight feeling of hunger, and subtle sensations in the face. Where is our mind? How long since we were aware of the content of our mind? Is it focused, or jumping all over the place, or a bit of both? Are we experiencing any emotions? If yes, are there one, or two or more? Are they changing or fairly stable? Where do we feel them in our body, in our mind?
Another question we could ask ourselves is – ‘what is the point of all these questions? I just want to meditate, and then feel a bit more calm and relaxed…’
And yet another question – ‘why meditate?’
We can read about the benefits of meditation, and nowadays there is no shortage of research to indicate a wide range of positive effects. And yet, to start a meditation practice, and to keep it going, we usually look within. Yes, the research can seem compelling, but plenty of people live perfectly happy lives without meditation. Meditation is not so much an answer – ‘this is what has been shown to happen when people meditate’, but instead a curious, often playful, and sometimes challenging exploration of the state of our lives. What is really happening right now? Is it helpful for me to explore this, to sit with it, to be present to it? As Rilke said in his letter to the young poet:
‘Live the questions now
And perhaps without knowing it
You will live along some day into the answers.’
Mindfulness practice idea:
A few times a day, pause for a moment and ask yourself – what is happening right now? Try to be present to multiple aspects of the experience – physical, sensory, mental and so on. Notice how it feels to tune in like this.
‘Who or what we are is defined by the quality of our engagement with this moment, whatever its content.’
Most of us hopefully have memories of one or two teachers at school who stood out in the way they fostered a love of learning in us. When we reflect on what made these teachers special, it is often the quality of their engagement with us. They weren’t simply going through the motions of delivering the curriculum, but were really present to the class and responsive to us children as individuals. It’s likely that they kept good order in the classroom, but they didn’t withdraw or become spiteful when students acted up. To maintain a high level of engagement as a teacher year after year is quite a gift – there are usually all kinds of pressures within the classroom and the school system which can wear a teacher down. Yet to the children they teach, this consistent level of engagement can really allow their students to shine, and sometimes set them on a positive path for life.
In our own lives, the quality of our engagement with what is happening right now can fluctuate wildly from moment to moment. Sometimes we may be fully present, other times half-heartedly so, and we may also go through stages where we’re so distracted and absent-minded that we have little awareness of our lives at all. As we become more mindful, those times when we are absent can begin to feel like a loss – the loss of an opportunity to just simply be present in our lives.
Engagement doesn’t always have to be ‘over the top’ enthusiastic. Sometimes it can be more of a quiet presence, like someone sitting next to a hospital bed and keeping a silent vigil while their family member is sleeping. Engagement is really about saying ‘yes’ to our life as it is right now, rather than a conditional ‘maybe’ or even a ‘no’. And, as the quote by Barry Magid suggests, the quality of our engagement will play a part in forming the person we are.
When we are feeling disengaged, disconnected, what is really going on? A bit of escapism every now and then can be relaxing, but if much of our life is spent like this, what is it we’re actually missing out on?
Choose an activity you might usually do in ‘automatic pilot’ mode – perhaps cleaning up after dinner, or having a shower, or walking across a car park. Next time you’re doing this activity, pretend you’re a wonderful teacher who is teaching a child how to be curious, fully engaged and enthusiastic about this task. What do you notice?
We hear a lot about the negative effects of stress, so it’s easy to think that any stress must be bad for us. And it’s true that chronic stress can place great wear and tear on our bodies and minds, and eventually become a leading cause of illness. Yet a life with not enough stress can feel boring, pointless. In such a life, our abilities and talents aren’t tested and developed, and we don’t have the satisfaction of rising to a challenge and emerging stronger and wiser.
In traditional Buddhism, the human realm is only one of several realms we can be reborn into. There are others like the heavenly realm, jealous gods, or hungry ghosts, the hell or animal realms.
We can think of these various realms as psychological states which we all pass in and out of at various times in our lives. For example, the hungry ghost realm is when we feel deprived, and nothing is ever enough, no matter how many possession or achievements we accumulate, or how much others are trying to help us. It is the realm of addiction and discontentment. The jealous gods are always fighting, trying to be superior and more powerful than others. The animal realm is the space of non-reflection, being driven by basic desires only. There is hell, which is a period of intense suffering. The heavenly realm, a state of blissful contentment, certainly sounds most appealing. Yet interestingly, the heavenly realm is not considered to be a good rebirth, as the heavenly beings have no motivation to practice kindness and compassion, to alleviate suffering, and to thus develop their better qualities.
Just like our lives, our meditation practice also passes through the six realms at various times. Yet sometimes we may be caught up in an expectation, whether conscious or not, that at some stage our meditation should reach the heavenly realm and remain there. No more dissatisfaction, strive and jealousy, suffering or ignorance! No more obstacles! This desire for the contentment and peace of the heavenly realm is very understandable, yet it can potentially stunt our meditation practice if it becomes our sole focus. We can spend time in blissful states during meditation, and these can be strengthening and supportive. Yet during the next meditation we may come face to face with jealous feelings against a good friend, and this ‘jealous gods’ meditation may ultimately be much more beneficial to us, and our friendships, than the time we’d spent in peaceful bliss.
The more difficult meditations are the ones which encourage us to change, to find new ways of approaching the challenges of our lives. We develop new capacities, new inner resource and an increased resilience. We become less reactive, and are able to see the bigger picture. If our life is currently like walking along a steep, stony path, then meditation won’t suddenly turn this into a comfortable shaded avenue. Yet meditation gives us the shoes which protect us from the sharp stones, and a wider ‘big-picture’ perspective which allows us to explore other pathways, rather than simply trudging along the same narrow path forever. Seen from this perspective, the obstacles don’t block our path in life, but assist us to grow and mature in our practice.
Mindfulness practice idea:
In the next few days, note times when you become frustrated by something, and take a moment to pause. Instead of getting upset, is there an opportunity to practise a virtue you value, such as patience, or kindness?
‘A good meditation is one you have done.’ Shinzen Young
When we reflect on the expectations we have of ourselves, we might notice that we often tend to set the bar pretty high. This can be true for meditation, where we might feel as if everyone else in the world is meditating like little Buddhas, with their minds at rest in perfect peace and equanimity, and it’s only us who is struggling with intrusive thoughts, physical discomforts, an inability to focus for more than a few seconds, and general feelings of restlessness and frustration. In fact, virtually all meditators have experiences which are far removed from bliss and calmness, and each tradition has techniques for working with our inherently restless mind, and systems of thought for putting these experiences into context. This is why it can be difficult to learn meditation on our own, without a teacher – we don’t know what to expect, and how to work with the challenges which inevitably arise when we meditate regularly. It can be helpful to regularly be in touch with more experienced meditators who can guide us, by attending courses or meditation evenings or retreats. And if we’re fortunate enough to find a teacher we trust long-term, this can be wonderful opportunity to deepen our meditation practice.
Meditation is about seeing clearly what is actually going on – not getting caught up in avoidance or projection or excessive drama. Sometimes, what is going on are strong emotions such as frustration, sadness, resentment. We might sit down to meditation with the idea of gaining some relief from these, and then find ourselves confronted with the current state of our mind, with nowhere to escape to. Mindfulness meditation cuts off our usual escape routes, the many ways we might have at our disposal to avoid being with ‘life as it is’. We are left instead with the bare bones of our existence.
These bare bones can become the building blocks for a less reactive life, a life where we are more present, more grounded. Regular meditation involves simply showing up to the practice, and staying as present as we can during the time we have set aside for it, whether it be five minutes or thirty or an hour. Some days we may notice sensations of peace, whereas other days we realise that our mind is really quite busy today. As Shinzen Young says, a good meditation is one that you have done. Sometimes the most challenging meditations are the ones which are ultimately most useful to us, as they invite us into a different way of responding to the challenges of everyday life.
Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper, and on the left hand side, write down your expectations of how meditation ‘should’ be, and on the other side, some of the experiences you’ve had during meditation. What do you notice?