At the San Francisco Insight Meditation Community, March 15, 2017.
At the San Francisco Insight Meditation Community, March 15, 2017.
As you read these words, sense your body and notice your breathing…
Mindfulness has certainly become a buzzword these days. For people like me who are passionate about mindfulness and know the freedom it can bring, that’s really good news. More importantly, it’s good news that this simple yet profound practice of presence is making its way into the mainstream and into the lives of everyday, ordinary people. Twenty years ago mindfulness scarcely registered in popular culture. Now there is a global mindfulness movement featuring mindfulness classes in schools, universities, and prisons, and at corporate workplaces and board rooms. And mindfulness is being taught to just about every type of person. There are mindfulness courses for therapists, leaders and teams, pregnant women, young children, teens, addicts, people with depression, lawyers and doctors, and social justice activists.
Yet a danger lurks in all this good news — the danger of the fad. People will hear about mindfulness, have an idea about what it means (“Oh, you mean living in the moment? Sure, that’s a good idea!”) then dismiss it without ever being curious enough to try practicing it. While it is true that the word “mindfulness” has an established place in our lexicon, it is still often a misunderstood concept. People have all sorts of ideas about what it means to be mindful, as in, “I forgot to bring my book. I guess I wasn’t being mindful.” Well, yes….but no.
Here’s the thing: mindfulness is not rocket science. It isn’t some new belief system or technique. Mindfulness isn’t a belief system at all. It is simply a focused, non-reactive awareness. This awareness already exists in each and every one of us. Everyone can be mindful because everyone has the capacity. Not only that, everyone already is mindful. We all know how to stop and pay attention when something is really important to us. And all of us have experienced those accidental epiphanies of presence when the whole world, if just for an instant, seems to stop and show itself in high relief. The practice of mindfulness is simply the cultivation of this wonderful quality of non-judgmental awareness that each of us already possesses. The purpose of training oneself in mindfulness is to make it our default way of responding to our life and its challenges instead of leaving it to chance.
Mindfulness is as natural as breathing, and with the world becoming ever more complex and challenging, it may soon become as necessary to our survival as the breath itself.
Plenty has been written about mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. Most texts rightly treat it as an aspect of Buddhism (like Analayo’s riveting but technically dense Satipatthana), while some treat it as a research-validated and purely secular method for reducing stress (like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living.) My desire in writing this book is to present a clear, straightforward guide for cultivating mindfulness in life’s daily situations and to help people decrease the stress in their lives. It is mostly free of research (you can always get Full Catastrophe Living for stats or else Google them). It is also almost entirely free of references to Buddhism or spirituality. Yes, mindfulness derives from the wisdom of the ancient East and to the supreme spiritual genius of the man known as The Buddha. But you don’t have to believe in anything to cultivate mindfulness: it’s the birthright of every human being, whether that human being is a Buddhist, a Christian, an atheist, or Other.
There are two kinds of mindfulness practice: formal periods of mind training while sitting, walking, and moving, and the informal practice of mindfulness available to us in each moment of our daily lives, whether we’re managing our emails, holding a meeting, planning our day, having a conversation, navigating change, commuting to work, shopping for groceries, walking to catch our bus, or reclining in a dentist’s chair. I tend to emphasize mindfulness in ordinary moments because they make up the majority of our lives. Most of us are not formally meditating most of the time, nor do most of us live in secluded monastic conditions that provide the simplicity and silence to support the deepening of our awareness. For most of us, our lives are composed of non-exotic moments of doing. Moments that are easy to dismiss. Yet it is the attitude we embody in these “dismissable” moments that shapes our very destiny and determines whether or not we will be overwhelmed by our challenges or able to transmute them to deepen our experience of life. These ordinary moments are really the fabric of our lives. If we miss out on them, we aren’t really living. When we start paying attention to our ordinary moments, we start inhabiting our lives fully.
That being said, the best way to train oneself to become more mindful during these ordinary moments is to engage in regular periods of formal practice, which is the equivalent of going to the gym and building your mindfulness muscles.
Adapted from Moment by Moment by Bill Scheinman, available for purchase on Amazon.
What do you have a hard time letting go of? Perhaps it’s letting go of the little time-honored personal rituals that you enact in your life. Like always grating your cheese or chopping onions a certain way. Or always listening to a certain program or reading certain publications to get on top of current events. Or making sure you always get to a movie early enough to watch the trailers. Or perhaps it’s the idea that you always need to be the best at something, the smartest person in the room? Or that you always need to be right? Or that your body should always look a certain way? Or that only certain people are worthy of your consideration? Maybe it’s hard to give up a plan, or an ideal, or a relationship. But think about this. When we talk about letting go, what exactly are we letting go of? What’s behind the letting go of, say, the idea that you always need to be right, or chop your onions in a certain way?
What we’re letting go of is really a habit. And a habit is really all about clinging. But when we cling to a habit, what are we clinging to? We are clinging to what we know. We’re clinging to the known world. To what is familiar and comfortable.
Buddhism always talks about not clinging….that’s because to cling is also to suffer. As spoken of the diligent practitioner who practices mindfulness, it is said, in the refrain to The 4 Foundations of Mindfulness sutta, “And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world.” That phrase is said over and over again in that teaching. And the value of not clinging, of letting go, is mentioned countless times in Buddhist writings.
Even the word nibbana, which we usually translate as enlightenment, implies non-clinging. The word literally means extinguishing the flame. What does the flame cling to? It clings to its fuel.
So, there’s a big emphasis on clinging as a cause of suffering, and not clinging, or letting go, as the gateway to freedom.
But what’s wrong with clinging? Why do we suffer when we cling?
Because everything is impermanent. If you cling to what can’t actually be clung to, you’re setting yourself up for suffering. For loss and heart break. And for cycles of reactivity that only lead to more suffering. Buddhism is really oriented towards realizing that impermanence is a fundamental aspect of reality. And letting go of the idea of permanence is what allows the new and unknown to emerge. It’s also what allows us to transform ourselves, to learn, to love, to deepen our experience of life.
And when we practice, there are many ways that we express the intention to let go.
Even with ethics. We’re letting go of ways of relating to the world that maybe aren’t ethical. When we experience wisdom, we’re letting go of ignorance.
And certainly in our meditation practice we’re practicing letting go all the time. Just to sit on your bench or your chair or cushion. Just doing that represents a huge act of letting go. I mean, what is a typical morning habit? You know, we wake up, and our minds start thinking about things. Maybe it’s…my god, this meeting I have today. How’s it going to go? Or maybe it’s, my god, I can’t believe that person is our president. The cortisol starts entering the bloodstream. By habit we want to get up, get our coffee, have breakfast, check our phones, hear the news, get started. Step onto the treadmill of the day’s routine. But if instead of doing that you sit down for 30 minutes and just try being with your breathing, that is a radical act of letting go…of the habit of the morning treadmill. Or maybe you sit at night. And maybe you would ordinarily have your glass of wine after work. But instead of doing that you’re sitting and being with yourself. That’s a letting go. It’s profound.
And in the act of meditation itself. We’re essentially practicing letting go all the time. We try focusing on the breath in our practice. You sit and you feel your breath coming in, and you feel it going out. And you take another breath. And another. But before you know it, even though you’ve continued to breathe, you’re actually thinking about getting plane tickets for a trip you need to take in a month. Or your son’s soccer game. Or your portfolio or bank account balance. And then you recognize that you’ve lost the breath. So, what do you do? You redirect your attention to the breath. You come back. And by doing that you’ve let go of whatever thought was worrying you. In the moment that you came back to the breath you’ve practiced letting go of worry. And then you’re with the breath again. A few moments later, you realize you’ve been fantasizing. Maybe having a fantasy of delicious food, or sex, or an exotic city. You’ve lost the breath again. So you come back to the breath. And what that means is that in that moment, you’ve practiced letting go of desire. In your meditation you are constantly practicing letting go of these mental states of desire, aversion, and delusion, just through the simple fact of being in the here and now with your breath. In the process you are transforming how you relate to yourself and the world. You are letting go of your unconscious habits and making the conscious choice of being here.
When you’re on retreat and you’re practicing intensively, you might begin to discover that your body’s in a lot of pain. Maybe you discover parts of the body that are wounded that you didn’t realize were wounded. And eventually you learn to meditate with the pain. You figure out how to do it. You’ve let go of the idea that your meditation practice has to be pain free. And to learn how to be with discomfort and pain in the body, also conditions us to be with discomfort with other things, with people, relationships, situations in our lives. So we learn about discomfort. And we learn about how to respond to discomfort rather than react to it. We cultivate wisdom just by making the conscious choice to return to the breath.
In our meditation practice we also learn to let go of the stories we tell ourselves about self/others: Our heads are full of such stories, and we see this when we practice. And we learn to let go of these stories. We practice this again and again. And eventually something becomes free in us, we don’t believe our stories so rigidly. And we realize that our thoughts are just events in consciousness, not facts. Like passing clouds.
Our practice helps us let go of emotions. It doesn’t help us get rid of our emotions. Rather the act of mindful awareness helps us metabolize our emotions so that we are able to let them pass through us and learn what we need to learn from them.
Our practice also helps us let go of the need to be in control. One of the most common delusions in life is the idea that we can control external events. It’s true that we can control some events, but most events big or small are beyond our control. And letting go of the need for that control is a great relief.
Part of what we want to control is the idea of perfection – that we can somehow become perfect. Which means that we are always seeing ourselves as a project – as somehow tweakable enough to attain an immutable state of excellence. Again there’s a tremendous relief when we can let go of this delusion.
And letting go of being perfect has a lot to do with the idea that we are a fixed and separate self in the first place. Mindfulness practice, especially when it gets deep, shows us clearly that human experience is in a constant state of impermanence and flow, and that if we can let go of the idea of being a solid “thing” and align ourselves with that flow, what we can become and be is boundless.
To let go is to admit that what we’re letting go of is not the source of a permanent happiness. It should be said that letting go is not about getting rid of something. Pushing something away aversively is just another form of clinging. Letting go is simply the habit of clinging starting to relax and fall away.
Is letting go an act of will? More often than not, letting go is not willed, you don’t do it, it does you. It arises naturally in the course of a daily practice. In fact, if we try forcing ourselves to let go it won’t work. We need to live through the experience, not avoid it, and letting go happens naturally as a result of being awake with that experience. We find the grace to let go because we’ve been willing to open our hearts to holding on. If we’re not willing to hold on, to make ourselves vulnerable by exposing our hopes and fears, we won’t learn how to become free.
How is it that letting go happens naturally? It’s because there’s something in each of us which wants freedom and recognizes it.
Commuting can be stressful, can’t it? The anxiety of catching the right bus at the right time is sometimes matched by the suspense of whether you’ll even get a seat. Want to pound that steering wheel when you’re stuck in traffic? Go ahead, it won’t make a difference. Wish you could stretch out your legs fully in that cramped commuter airline seat? You’re not alone. Commuting also takes a lot of time. According to data from the Census Bureau, Americans spend 1.8 trillion minutes commuting each year, with a daily average to and from time of more than 50 minutes. And extra-long commutes are steadily growing throughout the country.
But commuting is also a great opportunity for cultivating awareness of the present moment. The following suggestions can help transform your commute into a time for cultivating presence and self-care, two important things as we prepare for our work days or after work family lives.
We identify with our cars. They become an extension of our ego-driven selves. Because of this identification, when something happens on the road we don’t like, it feels like a personal threat. Getting caught in a traffic jam, or getting cut off by another car, can be a real cause for the fight or flight stress response. A lot of the anxiety we feel when we drive is because we’re distracted. We’re distracted by thoughts of the meeting we’re trying to get to or some other challenging situation at work. We may also be distracted by the very distressing world news we’re listening to on our radio. In fact, when the radio is on, demanding our attention, our focus is inevitably split between the content of the news and the road. That split in attention makes us more agitated and more likely to get frustrated while driving and more likely to act out of that frustration. So one suggestion is to realize that you have a choice about having the radio on. Sometimes it can be a wonderful experience to just drive. For mindful driving, turn the radio off and focus on the physical sensations of driving. Feel your body sitting in the car seat, feel your feet on the gas or the clutch pedal, feel your hands gripping the wheel. And notice your breathing. Just be aware of the road and let yourself be as you are, without needing to add any other stimulation. The road itself can be quite stimulating! Many students have told me over the years that turning the radio off and tuning in to body sensations while they drive completely transformed their experience of driving, lead to much greater calm and ease on the road, and helped them feel completely relaxed by the time they arrived at work. This doesn’t mean NEVER having the radio on. It means that there are times when it is useful to just drive with awareness and no other distractions. Mindfulness helps us tune in to what we need and make the wisest choice.
We walk all the time. We walk to the bathroom in the morning, to the kitchen to make our breakfast, to the bus stop, from the train station to work. While at work we walk down hallways – sometimes very long ones – and out of one office and into another. But although we walk with great frequency, we are often not paying attention when we do so. Again, tuning in to physical sensations is very helpful for connecting us to the present moment. The human body in motion is never in motion in the past or in the future – it is always in motion NOW. When we pay attention to that fact, we are automatically aligned with the now. Many people walk with headphones on ensconced in their media bubble – again, nothing wrong with that. But realize that you do a choice in the matter. Because you are walking AND listening to your favorite podcast or musician at the same time, where is your attention really? Are you really paying attention to the music? Or are you really focused on that dent in the sidewalk that might make you stumble? The 5-minute walk from the bus to your work may be a great time to simply walk and know that you’re walking. By doing so, you are building up reserves of presence and connection that will help you at work.
Bus or Train
Instead of ruminating about your first meeting of the day on your bus or train ride, try practicing some mindfulness. For the first five minutes of your commute, do some awareness of breathing to collect your attention. Do another 5-minute session just before you arrive at your stop. Book-ending your commute ride with some mindful breathing establishes a strong sense of presence and awareness in the midst of what is often a very disorienting and mentally scattered experience.
Traveling by plane is wonderfully convenient, and can be incredibly draining as well. Cramped seats and bodies frozen into unnatural shapes for hours at a time is bad enough, but breathing recirculated in a constantly distracting environment makes it very difficult to stabilize the mind. If we are able to work on the flight, we may be even more drained of energy by the time we land. A very helpful rule of thumb that I have found to be extremely helpful for air travel is this: for every hour you are in the air, practice 10 minutes of awareness of breathing. By the time you arrive at your destination, you will feel much more refreshed than if you hadn’t trained your attention during the flight.
One of the reasons that people find commuting stressful is that there’s a tendency to think of commuting time as wasted time. It’s dead time that needs to be filled with something. But moments spent on the train are not dead moments – they are life. And if we can remember to use these gifts of down time to keep the mind focused and alert it will not only make our commutes more enjoyable and less stressful, but it will keep our mindfulness more continuous and help us bring a more relaxed presence to our work and personal lives.