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.
I’m in a state of rage. I’m thinking about something a colleague said to me the other day and it really ticks me off. I think about things I can say to him in return that will set him straight and force him to treat me with respect. Quietly seething, I plan my revenge. I decide that this person will not be able to push me around anymore! There are things I could do, things I could say, that could really cause problems for him. Or perhaps, I could simply withdraw from contact with this person and do my best to erase his existence from my mind. Then, all at once, I realize what I’ve been doing. I’ve simply been indulging in rage. In that instant I’ve remembered to be mindful.
Taking a mindful stance, I become instantly attuned to my physical and mental state. I notice how my body feels in this state of anger. I notice the tight sensation of heat in my chest, the burning in my throat, the quickening of my pulse. I see that the anger I’m feeling is made up of these unpleasant physical sensations. I recall the thought, This person will not be able to push me around anymore! I realize that this is just a thought that feeds the anger, and that the thought arose because of these sensations of hurt in my body. I also realize that those sensations arose just now because I remembered the words that he spoke to me. I realize that part of me actually believes his words. Otherwise they would have no affect on me.
Okay, I reflect, he may or may not respect me. But I can’t control that. I can only control how I react to what he says. So, if I can’t control him, what am I left with? The answer: my feelings of hurt. So I breathe with them, feeling the heat in my chest, the constriction in my throat, the coiled-spring urge in my arms to strike out. As I do this I allow the thought This person will not be able to push me around anymore! to reprise now and then. As I keep breathing and letting myself be with the sensations without trying to change them, I notice that the heat in my chest and throat has started to cool. And now the thought This person will not be able to push me around anymore! seems pretty silly. I begin feeling more relaxed. I still don’t feel comfortable with this person, and think he probably disrespects me, but the anger just isn’t there anymore. As I keep breathing I reflect, Wow, that anger seemed so real, so solid! Where did it go? Where is it now? Now I think back on the words the person used that hurt me so — ooh, yes, I feel a slight twinge in my chest just recalling them. A little more hurt arises. But that’s okay. The hurt doesn’t define me now. I’ll keep breathing with it whenever it surfaces, recognizing that the part of me that knows the hurt isn’t feeling hurt at all. I’ll forget this, of course. But the thing is, the knowing is always there. It’s up to me to remember it.
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.
I had been looking forward to celebrating the end of the year and the start of 2017 at a party with my partner and some friends. Instead, I spent the day in bed, swamped with fever and chills, tormented by an incessantly dripping nose and a vicious hacking cough. I was sick for about 6 days overall (and in fact am still recovering). While that is not that long of an illness it did provide me with plenty of time to contemplate the nature of healing, and the relationship between physical and mental wellness.
Although I have been somewhat miserable over the last week much of the time, I’ve also been interested in the physical experiences involved in falling and being ill and in slowly recovering and healing. I watched my body go from being tired one day, to being tired plus sneezing and having a scratchy throat the next, to being so profoundly drained of energy that I could barely stand the day after. Then, for the first time since I was a young man or child, I think, I experienced multiple days of continuous fever. Fever does interesting things to your perceptions. It carries the strange clarity of a waking dream – you know you’re awake, but what you see, and how you see it, is not quite real. Later, when the fever abates, and your sense of reality emerges as if from the ocean floor, you realize how skewed things were when you had the fever. I was still making rational decisions when I had the fever (like making sure I drank gallons of water and juice, or staying in bed for more rest, etc) but I experienced the world through the smokey lens of a contracted mind. A mind that did not have the same clarity that I am used to. My fever went up and down for a number of days, and I became obsessive about taking my temperature. When the fever was gone, I suddenly realized that I was seeing the world with that old familiar clarity again.
I am in awe of how the human body can heal. How the simple act of sleeping can contribute to that healing. But maybe the most useful thing about my illness is that it forced me to stop everything and just be. When I was able to walk a city block again, after days of being in a bed, I moved very slowly, at a pace that I could handle. I had to be in my body to do this. Getting sick forces you to be in your body. In fact, when we are sick, the mental intention of taking steps down a city street is not separated from the physical act of taking those steps — the way it often is when we are taking our health for granted. Actions that we take when we are sick are by nature very intentional – we can’t waste time doing other things. The body and mind become unified by the body’s physical inability to do more than it’s able to do. It’s the mind, in fact, which has to let go of its habits and goals and slow down to take care of the body. This process of the mind coming home to the body to take care of it is a beautiful thing, and watching it happen within the hothouse container of being ill is very illuminating.
The body slows down out of necessity to get itself well, and the mind is forced to meet it at its own pace. But when illness is no longer present in the body, the mind’s woes start all over again. It begins to plan and worry, contrive and judge, rehearse and rehash. In a sense our habitual busy minds are in a state of illness all the time. Or at least in a state of dis-ease. But when the mind is ill in this way it can get itself well again by remembering the body – by devoting itself to maintaining a close connection to the body. Before making a decision, or at that distinct moment in time when you are about to respond to someone in a way that might prove fateful, staying close to the body will help you stay close to the truth of what is needed. And staying close to the body and all its myriad signals – of pleasure, pain, fever ache and snot – will also help you stay close to feeling alive. And to the aliveness of this precious mortal life that we have. One of my resolutions for 2017 is to not abandon my body, to stay close to it in everything I do, so that I can be more alive and wise when I’m doing it.
As the great Ajahn Mun observed:
In your investigation of the world, never allow the mind to leave the body. Examine its nature, see the elements that comprise it, see the impermanence, the suffering, the selflessness of the body while sitting, walking, standing, lying down. When its true nature is seen fully and lucidly by the heart, the wonders of the world will become clear. In this way, the purity of the mind can shine forth, timeless and delivered.
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.
If you practice mindfulness meditation, you’ve had this experience: you are focusing on your breath, one inhale and exhale at a time, when suddenly a compelling thought arises, distracting you. Maybe the thought is about work, or a relationship, or the vacation that starts next week, or whatever. That thought then leads you down a series of mental rabbit holes until – five minutes in – you realize that you’ve completely lost the breath. It can be humbling to realize how little control we have over our minds. Those thoughts are so compelling!
One powerful way of working with distracting thoughts is the simple technique of labeling. Whenever you notice that your mind has been wandering, silently say to yourself, thinking, thinking, or wandering, wandering. If you’ve been planning your day instead of noticing your breath, you can note planning, planning. If you’ve been remembering an event from yesterday, you can say remembering, remembering, and so on. Labeling our thoughts can have the effect of giving us some distance from them, leading to what I call “dis-identification.” We tend to identify with our thoughts and believe them to be true. Haven’t you noticed this in your own experience? Even if our thoughts are destructive, we give them credence because we are familiar with our mental patterns. That familiarity breeds an auto-pilot relationship to our thoughts. Because of this we tend to act on our thoughts without questioning or examining them. But when we label our thoughts in meditation, it’s as if we are freeing ourselves from the spell our thinking cast on us, as if we are waking up from a dream. We no longer believe the thought automatically. We see the thought merely as an event in consciousness. It may be an important thought that we need to act on; it may be a worthless thought that can be easily discarded. The important thing is that the act of labeling creates some space around our thoughts, allowing us to be aware of them and therefore giving us a choice about what thought to believe and act on and what thought to ignore.
This labeling technique also works with emotions. When we are feeling angry, we can note, angry, angry, or sadness, sadness, or desire, desire, etc. And labeling is something we can do even when we’re not meditating. It can be especially helpful during difficult conversations. If you’re talking politics with a close friend and you find yourself getting angry at an opinion your friend is sharing, acknowledging your anger can give you much needed separation and time to process the emotion. As a result you will probably be less likely to respond to your friend by saying something you might regret.
Research has shown that the inability to identify emotions makes it harder to regulate them.(1) Other research has shown that labeling emotions tends to lead to a lowering of stress levels.(2)
Keep the labeling simple. One word labels are best. The tone of your labeling is important as well. Simply note the bare experience without adding any emotional tone to it or any commentary. If you’re frustrated that you keep getting distracted by your thoughts, labeling THINKING! THINKING! impatiently will just make you feel bad about yourself.
Like just about any other meditation technique, mental labeling doesn’t always work. And it works better for some people than others. But it works often enough to be a useful addition to your meditation tool box.
Bill Scheinman is a mindfulness teacher and corporate mindfulness facilitator in the San Francisco Bay Area. His next 8-week class in mindfulness-based stress reduction starts Feb. 20 in Berkeley. He also offers online mindfulness courses which you can learn about here.
1. Vine & Aldao, Journal of Social & Clinicial Psychology, April, 2014; 2. Craske, UCLA, 2012.
In meditation, when things don’t go our way, we tend to resist. Feeling restless? Then fidget incessantly as a way of not feeling the restlessness or what may be behind it. Have a hard time focusing on your breath? Then berate yourself as a bad meditator and despair at ever getting “good” at the practice.
It’s like this in daily life as well. If someone has betrayed us, we might spend a lot of time ruminating about how the betrayal shouldn’t have happened, about how the person had no right to do it, and perhaps float creative ideas for getting revenge. Your candidate didn’t win an election? Then blame those who didn’t vote, or shame certain groups of people as being somehow less worthy of your respect. Or begin fantasizing about moving to Canada.
The problem with resistance is that it tends to make things worse. There’s an old Buddhist teaching about the two arrows. The first arrow that hits you is the inevitable pain of life. The second arrow that hits you is your resistance to your pain. You may not be able to control the inevitable pains and sorrows of life – in fact, count on that. But you can control how you respond to your pain. In a more modern context we can describe it as an equation of suffering, as:
When our minds are untrained, or when our training is forgotten, our default way of handling a stressful event is to lash out and resist based on our unconscious habit patterns, biases, and personal conditioning. We are on auto pilot and have no chance to accurately appraise the situation. Instead we try to fix, attack, control, rationalize, blame others, or avoid the truth of what’s been happening in the deluded hope that such tactics will somehow make us feel better. When we swat a fly that’s been crawling on us, we may be removing the discomfort of that experience – but we’ll end up knowing very little about flies. This is certainly true for those humans who annoy us as well. We can swat them away but what will we learn about them or what motivates them?
In contrast, when our minds are trained our default way of handling a stressful event is first to allow things to be as they are. That doesn’t mean liking or agreeing with the suffering we’re experiencing. It means giving space to it in a way that helps us metabolize it physically, mentally, and emotionally. Research has shown that when people can be with things as they are, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. This is often referred to as the “rest and digest” function of the nervous system, or the relaxation response. When we take time to digest the pain we are experiencing, the body can relax and the mind can become still and clear. Not only can suffering be seen clearly, but the natural wisdom of the mind can begin to reveal the appropriate response.
Non-resistance doesn’t mean that we ignore injustice. In fact, non-resistance can help cultivate a more sustainable ability to resist injustice. Because when we can first be with things as they are, letting the shock and anger metabolize first, we then can practice political resistance in a responsive way – not in a reactive way. In other words, you may be fighting against oppression, racism, misogyny, and other forms of harm, but you are in control of your mental states. You are not acting because you are overwhelmed, addled with rage and fear, you are responding with awareness to suffering. Your heart and mind are steady, clear. You will not get burned out in the face of a long struggle for justice, because you are taking care of yourself. And this steadiness of mind in the face of oppression can be supported by not resisting the truth of a bad situation. The bad situation is already here; if we don’t give in to our habitual fight or flight reactions to it, let’s see how the wise and compassionate heart responds.
“There is nothing good or
bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Our thoughts create our reality. The way we think conditions our behavior and leads to results in the world. So the types of thoughts we tend to think, believe, and act on have an enormous influence on our personal destinies, on whether or not we’ll achieve emotional resilience, career success, and happiness in relationships. Yet there is a common misconception that one of the goals of meditation is to rid ourselves of our thoughts and have a clear, empty mind. But mindfulness meditation is not about getting rid of our thoughts. It’s about learning to see clearly into the nature of our thoughts and begin to relate to our thinking differently.
Here are some points to keep in mind when exploring how to mindfully work with your thoughts:
It’s been said that approximately 95% of the 60,000 thoughts we have each day are the same thoughts we had yesterday. Which means that the vast majority of our thoughts are not original and not particularly useful. And because we are hard-wired with a negativity bias, many of those thoughts tend to be of a ruminative, obsessive, and dark nature, forming the basis for our tendency to catastrophize and feel overwhelmed. It’s summed up in the famous quote from Mark Twain: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles. But most of them never happened.”
Many of these repetitive thoughts form narrative patterns that psychologists have termed thinking distortions. If left unexamined, these thinking distortions can color our perception of the world and others. Here’s an example: You’re walking down the street and you see someone you know across the street. You notice the person catch your eye and you wave, but the person doesn’t respond at all, then disappears into a store. Your first thought is, “Oh my god, so and so just ignored me. What did I do?” This particular thinking distortion is known as reading minds. It’s the idea that we know exactly what people are thinking and what must be motivating their behavior. In the above example, though, are we even sure that the person recognized us? So much suffering is caused when we let these distorted thoughts control us.
And this points to another problem with our thoughts. Which is, we tend to believe them. Think about that for a minute. If we have 60,000 thoughts a day and most of them are repetitive, not helpful, or even negative, how does it effect our experience of being alive? If we believe our thoughts and don’t even question them, then it means we’ll tend to act in accordance with our thoughts even if they are wildly inaccurate. By failing to look at our thinking critically, it means that we are literally at the mercy of our unconscious patterns and habitual tendencies.
When you try to focus on your breathing for any length of time, you’ll notice that things get in the way of your focus. Many of these “things” are thoughts – plans, memories, fantasies, inner dialogues. The more we try to focus on the breath, in fact, the more we see these thoughts. As we continue to practice, it is inevitable that at some point we’ll start noticing the patterns of thinking that our mind produces: the desires, fears, hopes, and judgments we make about ourselves, the world, and others that influences our actions – and the outcomes of our lives.
Many of these habit patterns were unknown to us before we became meditators. As we deepen our practice, though, we get to know ourselves well. Mindfulness of thought patterns helps us see two crucial aspects of thoughts that lack of mindfulness will shield us from seeing: 1) thoughts are impermanent and insubstantial, and 2) certain thoughts lead to stress and suffering while others lead to greater ease and well-being. Mindfulness helps us see that thoughts are like clouds passing in the sky. For a time they seem solid and steady, but like clouds they are just passing and will actually not last. Have you ever been able to make your thoughts last? When we see that our thoughts are impermanent, we begin to recognize that thoughts are actually just events in consciousness, not facts. I’ll repeat that: thoughts are events in consciousness, not facts. This perspective provides a critical distance that allows us to see thoughts without necessarily believing them or acting on them. By seeing thoughts in this way, we begin to develop cognitive freedom and beginner’s mind.
The act of sitting and noticing our thought patterns over and over again gives us the space to digest thoughts before believing them or acting on them. Sometimes thoughts give rise to emotions, or act as a response to emotions, so when we are mindful of our thoughts we are also aware of the emotional underpinnings that influence us. By observing our thoughts rather than reacting to them we can understand which thoughts, if acted upon, will lead to suffering, and which thoughts will support a healthy respsonsiveness.
Mindfulness teaches us the humble lesson that we are not really in control of our thoughts. But it also teaches us the hopeful lesson that we are in control of how we respond to them.
You probably know the feeling. It’s after lunch and the day seems to drag on and on. Your energy level is low, and you can’t concentrate on your work. You aren’t getting anything done, and there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do about it. You feel like taking a nap, but of course that’s not possible at the office. The afternoon doldrums are a well-known challenge to the work day, with some 28% of employees reporting falling asleep or getting very sleepy at work, according to the National Sleep Foundation. But there are ways of working with this listlessness. Here are five ways to manage your energy during the afternoon:
1. Have a lite lunch.
If we have a heavy lunch, we’ll be in danger of our energy flagging during the afternoon. This is especially true if you go out for lunch. Many restaurants offer fare with lots of starch and fat, and portion sizes can be really large. If you do eat out, it’s a good idea to get something lighter and fresher – think salad or whole grains instead of that pork burrito, giant sandwich, or heavy rice and meat dish. Even better is bringing something home that you’ve made yourself. This way you can control both the quality and quantity of what you’re eating. The payoff of a lighter, fresher lunch will be a steadier level of energy in the afternoon.
2. Go for a walk outside.
Walking is great exercise, and it’s also a way of unlocking energy that can freeze in your body when you are stationery in an office for long periods of time. Getting out of your office and strolling outside also helps you let go of whatever issue you left on your desk. A walk can change your perspective and give the brain a much-needed break from problem-solving. When the brain gets this type of break, both the mind and body feel more refreshed.
3. Do a few minutes of mindfulness of breathing.
Focusing on your breathing is a mindfulness practice of being aware of the breath and simply bringing your attention back to the breath whenever the mind wanders. By bringing the mind back to the breath again and again, the mind tends to become more unified, clear, and collected. When the mind is more unified, it also has more energy, and that will be felt in the body as well. Also, when we practice mindfulness of breathing, we are letting go of the problem-solving doing mode of the mind and dwelling in its being mode. Spending regular time in the being mode refreshes the brain, decreases energy-sapping stress and energizes our attention.
4. Do some mindful stretching like yoga or qi gong.
Doing mindful movement like yoga or qi gong can help release energy in the body, enhance circulation, and increase mental alertness. And like walking and mindfulness of breathing, movement practice is a great way of letting go of the cares of the doing mode and reconnecting to the being mode. As a result, the body and the brain are refreshed. Even a few simple movements that can easily be done at your desk can recharge your batteries.
5. Take that nap – if you can.
Shutting your eyes and lying down for even 10 or 15 minutes can have a powerfully restorative effect on energy levels. This is easier said than done, though, as a nap requires a quiet room, and most employers don’t provide one. This may be changing, though, as more and more companies provide nap rooms specifically for this purpose. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 34% of employees reported that their employers allow them to nap at work. Companies such as Google, Nike, and Ben and Jerrys have discovered that when employees can nap at work productivity goes up, thus helping the bottom line.
Many meditation teachers say that there is no wrong way to meditate. That showing up and doing the practice is what’s important. Having said that, the following list of common mistakes or misconceptions about meditation keep showing up in my teaching with students. They are:
Like any healthy habit, meditation should be practiced every day. When we embark on a meditation practice, we are essentially committing ourselves to an ongoing process of training the mind. That doesn’t mean training the mind on some days but not on days when we don’t feel like it. Sitting every day for just a few minutes is far better than sitting once a week for an hour. That’s because the continuity of mind-body observation established by daily practice keeps us close to the realm of awareness. When we practice sitting every day, we are more likely to respond with awareness in our daily activities and to be less reactive. Even if you only sit for 10 minutes a day, your practice is having an effect on your brain, on the way you relate to the world and others, and on your ability to focus. So if you take your practice seriously, find a way to carve out some time each day to do it.
It’s a common misconception that when we meditate one of our goals should be to have a blank mind, without any thoughts in it. Unfortunately the mind doesn’t tend to cooperate. One of the more humbling aspects of meditation is the recognition that we can’t really control our thoughts. They tend to come and go rather randomly. If we try to get rid of our thoughts, essentially trying to do the impossible, we place ourselves in a contentious and aversive relationship to our minds. We are being unkind to ourselves. What we can control, however, is how we relate to our thoughts. Rather than trying to get rid of our thoughts, we should aim to notice how they appear and disappear, and what mental habit patterns they reveal. When we see the transitory nature of our thoughts, and the thought patterns that drive our behavior for good or ill, we see that we have a choice about which thoughts to follow and which to let go of.
On the flip side, many people have the misconception that if we do have thoughts during meditation, they should be positive, wholesome thoughts. “I must be a terrible meditator,” people say, “because I have so many negative thoughts in my head!” Since many of our thoughts are based on a negativity bias in our brains and distorted habitual thinking from our personal histories, ruminative and unpleasant thoughts are very normal. They are a part of being human. And when we let those negative thoughts into our awareness, we are giving the fullness of our humanity its due. You are far better off knowing the judgments, biases, and fears inside your mind than not knowing about them. To know your thoughts rather than to judge them is a very helpful attitude.
Over the years many people have told me, “I couldn’t meditate this week because things were really frantic. I just wasn’t relaxed enough.” Or, “I was so agitated when I tried to sit that I knew it wouldn’t do me any good.” Etc. People have the idea that they need to get rid of all the negative stuff before practicing. But if we waited for things to become perfect before we meditated, we would never meditate! In addition, many people believe that their practice is a failure if they don’t feel relaxed at the end of it. “Isn’t being calm the goal?” they ask. No, actually. The goal of meditation is to be present for what arises without needing to change it or fix it. If you sit for 30 minutes with your anguish, doubt, anger, or fear, you will become very knowledgeable about the forces driving your behavior. You will also have cultivated patience, insight and self-compassion. If you sit with your negative states long enough, your relationship to those negative states – and the states themselves – will start to change.
When you go to the gym, every time you do a rep with a dumb bell you are developing the strength of your muscles. It’s the same with meditation. Every time you notice you have lost your focus and then come right back to your breath, you are doing a mental rep which increases the strength of your mindfulness. So instead of thinking that you are a bad meditator because you frequently wander away from your object of meditation, take it as a sign of success that you keep bringing your mind back. They call it meditation practice for a reason.
Your meditation practice is alive. It reflects the conditions of your life, your world, and the changing nature of your body, mind, and heart. Just like life, a meditation practice is something that evolves over time. It isn’t static. It lives. What worked for you for the last year may suddenly stop working for you now. What happens then? For years I knocked my head against the wall by counting my breath when it wasn’t effective for me. No one had told me there were other things I could do besides count! I finally figured it out and realized that my practice was a vital, growing thing. One of the things that makes meditation practice an art is that you need to use your intuition to determine how to work with changing experiences. Conversely, some people make the mistake of changing their practice too often. Getting bored with something they’re trying then moving on at the first sign of difficulty. Your own judgment and inner knowing, and the advice of skilled teachers, can help you stay the course when you need to, and try something else when that’s what’s needed.
Meditation is the act of sitting and being with ourselves and noticing how things are and what’s going on. A big part of this is the willingness to be curious about our experience. People have often told me that they hated doing this or that practice, because “It was so-ooo boring!” I always tell people that if you are experiencing boredom, get interested in it! Often beneath boredom there are other emotions, like doubt, anger, and fear. Boredom is a great way of putting a veil over our wounds and keeping us from knowing ourselves. You don’t need to change your boredom per se, but try not believing it either. If you stay with your boredom long enough, treasures will be revealed.
Being kind to yourself and practicing self-compassion is the most effective way of sustaining a lifelong meditation practice. Because meditation reveals the messiness of our all so human lives, it takes great courage, patience and self-care to endure it all. If we beat ourselves up, we’ll stop practicing. If we care for ourselves with an open heart, our practice will serve us for life.
When I was a younger man, I used to be something of a curmudgeon. I tended to envy people who were happy and successful. I remember times when, as a single man, I would glance at couples in San Francisco holding hands and feel bitter resentment. They seemed like such ordinary people, what right did they have to flaunt their happiness in my face by holding hands! Would love ever find it’s way to me? I’d wonder. Or I’d be walking down the street in a lovely San Francisco neighborhood, past gorgeously cozy Victorian mansions, and feel like a total failure in life because I didn’t own such a beautiful house. I’d feel the same way about people driving fancy cars, or going on long and expensive vacations to exotic climes. Or about so many other things.
Then something strange started to happen. I started catching myself smiling at beautiful houses as I walked past them, feeling genuinely happy for the people who lived in them. I also began noticing a swell of enjoyment whenever I saw couples holding hands, being openly affectionate. And when people told me they were going on long expensive vacations, I would be sincerely delighted for them.
One day it hit me: I had stopped being a curmudgeon! But what had changed? I asked myself. Then I realized: my meditation practice, which I’d been engaged in for many years, had started to show up for me as the heart quality known as appreciative joy. Appreciative joy, sometimes known as sympathetic joy, is that quality of an open and wise heart that rejoices in the happiness and success of others. When it is directed at one’s own good fortune, appreciative joy is embodied in the emotion of gratitude. What was amazing to me is that I hadn’t consciously tried being grateful for what I had or appreciative of others’ happiness. The emotions just arose naturally as a result of my practice. I realized as well that if I was spontaneously experiencing joy for others, my brain must have been changed as a result.
Through meditation, we practice letting go of distractions, comparisons, and private obsessions again and again, by simply coming back to our breath or whatever object we’re focusing on. That act of letting go and coming back, repeated countless times over hours, days, weeks, months, and years, has a structural impact on our brains, thanks to neuroplasticity – the fact that our brains can be changed through repeated experience. Those structural changes are then reflected in our behavior. The hard edges of our comparing and judging mind soften, and we gravitate towards a state of inner contentment. When we are feeling good about ourselves internally, we don’t have to compare ourselves to others externally. Feeling good about ourselves, we naturally wish others to be happy as well. If we feel inner joy, it frees our heart to feel joy for others.
And research has shown that joy and gratitude can have a protective influence on psychological and physical health. In one study by Emmons & McCullough, those who kept weekly gratitude journals were more likely to exercise regularly, have fewer physical symptoms, and felt better about their lives as a whole. And research by Richard Davidson has shown a 50% increase in antibodies to the flu in people who rate high in joyful emotions.
Because of the fact that our brains are plastic, our curmudgeonly tendencies don’t have to be our fate. We can intentionally cultivate positive states like joy and gratitude through practices such as mindfulness, concentration, and lovingkindness. We are not at the mercy of the brain’s default negativity bias or of our habitual ruminative thought patterns. In a very real sense, happiness, joy and gratitude are ways of being rather than static states. And because feeling appreciative joy also makes us a better colleague, leader, friend, or spouse, a joyful mind is also an intelligent one.
When you’re working really hard and it’s time to take a break, what do you do? What does it mean to take a break? Is a break walking away from your desk while checking out your phone for messages, visiting Facebook for updates from friends, or browsing your favorite news blog? Is taking a break eating at your desk while web browsing? Or is it visiting a colleague to have a business conversation? Many people believe they have to be productive all the time, so even when they take a “break” they have to do something potentially useful. (A student of mine once confessed that when she brushed her teeth at night, she was texting friends with her free hand. She explained that brushing her teeth wasn’t accomplishing enough!) The problem with these kinds of breaks is that they keep the mind focused on conceptual experiences. But a true break means we are giving the brain a break from concepts. Brain scans have shown that when people are focused on concepts – doing work, for example – many regions of the bran light up. The brain is expending a lot of energy when we are doing things that take conceptual focus. When we expend this kind of energy without pause, hour after hour, it can be quite exhausting. When we are exhausted, our performance suffers, our inner sense of well-being declines, and our health can suffer as well. Burnout and lack of engagement often follow.
A true break, on the other hand, is all about letting go of concepts and allowing the brain to rest in a being state. The idea is that when you take a break, really take a break from the doing mode – the mode that uses concepts – and rest in the being mode. An example might be sitting on a park bench, without reading or thinking, but just enjoying the park. Or doing something with your hands like washing the dishes or gardening. Going for a stroll is another being-mode activity (so is walking the dog). Doing 10 minutes of mindfulness practice is another example of resting in the being mode. As is eating a meal mindfully.
When people take a break from concepts and rest in the being mode, scans of their brains show much less activity going on. Their brains are getting rested, which means they are getting the refreshment that is needed to bring about sustainable focus and performance. Jon Kabat-Zinn once quipped that we humans are so busy all the time that you could almost call us “human doings” rather than beings. But being is a fundamental aspect of who we are. Being does not require us to get things done and perform. It has its own power and dignity. And as long as we connect with our being on a regular daily basis, it will not only help sustain our effectiveness, but it will keep our perspective on life open and responsive.
Human beings are deeply conditioned to push away what we find uncomfortable, painful, or unattractive, and to grasp at whatever is pleasant, beautiful, and satisfying. This conditioning is unconscious and usually unrecognized. Which means that most human beings are at the mercy of their likes and dislikes. This unconscious pattern makes it more likely that we will react to events rather than respond to them.
One of the most simple yet profound frames of reference for mindfulness practice is the frame of awareness of feelings, often called “feeling tone.” The basic idea is that every event, or even every moment, has a basic tone which we experience as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Mindfulness practice helps us pay attention to our experience of feeling tone. When we experience something unpleasant, if we notice and acknowledge it, we are more likely to respond to it rather than react to it. As an example, if someone says something unkind to you, by noticing the unpleasant emotions that are likely to arise, and where you feel them in the body, you are taking a pause and letting yourself digest the pain, thus interrupting the fight or flight reactivity that might have lead to a bitter argument. Once I was screamed at by my boss – not a fun experience. But instead of reacting from the pain of his words, I let myself experience the pain just as it was. That allowed me to steady myself and respond in a way that transformed the interaction in the moment.
One way of practicing mindfulness of feeling tone is during our mindfulness practice sessions. We can play with letting ourselves be with unpleasant sensations instead of getting rid of them. For example, if you have an itch, notice what it’s like not to scratch it. If you practice not scratching the itch you are developing patience and self-control, which conditions your mind to be patient and tolerant with “itchy” people or situations. When things feel neutral during practice – neither pleasant nor unpleasant – focus on the neutrality. Get interested in it. This conditions your mind to notice being alive in those moments of down time when we might normally space out and lose interest. Noticing the tendency of the mind to grasp when things feel pleasurable is a way of training ourselves to live life with more balance and contentment. Through the high definition lens of mindfulness practice, we see that pleasant, unpleasant and neutral experiences aren’t fixed but come and go, are always changing, and are not the source of permanent happiness or a permanent identity.
Being aware of our feeling tone helps us become aware of our reactive tendencies and begins to unravel them as we experience more clarity and balance in life, and more freedom of response.
When we hold our inner critic with non-judgmental awareness, its voice starts to weaken.
Most people in our culture have extremely well-developed inner critics. The voice in our head that tells us we’re not good enough, talented enough, attractive enough, etc. In our competitive zero sum world, we don’t take failure, mistakes, or falling short on our life’s goals very well. Even when we do succeed or doing everything we can to do so, the inner critic can be incredibly harsh. The voice of the inner critic can be hard to resist. It can be very believable, seductive in the way it undermines us. The inner critic’s trash talking, when repeated over and over, can form narrative patterns that psychologists call cognitive distortions. Believing such cognitive distortions can cause great harm. If we believe our inner critic, we can become despairing, sad, depressed, angry, hopeless, anxious, and panicked, and these emotions can have a harmful effect on our bodies in the form of increased heart rates, higher blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. And our natural confidence and sense of purpose can be completely derailed. Sadly, many people never question the power of the inner critic or whether what it tells us is even true.
Mindfulness can be a real life-saver when it comes to the inner critic. If you practice mindfulness formally every day you will notice something that is universally true about every human mind no matter who you are or what your history or background: your thoughts don’t last. They are like soap bubbles, evanescent, appearing out of nowhere, sustaining for a time, and disappearing into nowhere. People who don’t pay attention to their thoughts tend to believe that their thoughts are facts, irrefutable, always true and actionable. People who do pay attention to their thoughts over weeks, months, and years of mindfulness practice, come to realize that thoughts are passing events in consciousness, not facts. When we realize the impermanent nature of thoughts, it is much harder for us to believe the negative narratives spun by our inner critic. Mindfulness helps us develop awareness of our thought processes. Without that awareness we are at the mercy of our thoughts. With that awareness we have a choice about how to respond to the inner critic. Here are three ways of working with the inner critic:
1) The next time you notice that you’re feeling bad about yourself, ask yourself, What thought or story am I believing now? Just asking this question can weaken the power of the inner critic to enthrall you with its negativity, interrupting what Tara Brach calls the “trance of unworthiness.” The key thing here is to get into the habit of noticing your thoughts as objects of experience, like the sounds of traffic or sensations in your body. And also to notice what direction they are taking. The best way of establishing this habit of noticing our thoughts is simply to practice mindfulness every day for at least 10 minutes. Regular mindfulness practice puts us in a more objective relationship to all our thoughts, including the inner critic’s, which gives us more choice about what to believe.
2) Don’t be the critic of your inner critic. That will just put you in a contentious relationship to your own mind, which will cause more shame and stress. Instead, recognize the inner critic as your mind’s misguided attempt to take care of you. Hold your inner critic as a part of yourself that is wounded and in need of healing. When we can hold our inner critic with non-judgmental awareness, its voice starts to weaken.
3) Practice lovingkindess meditation for yourself. Repeating a series of phrases of well-wishing for yourself can help us connect to our basic desire for happiness and our essential worthiness as human beings. The phrases are best when they are simple, such as, May I be safe, may I be healthy, may I be happy, may I be filled with ease, etc. When our hearts are open towards ourselves, our desire for happiness becomes obvious, understandable, and basic to who we are. Repeating the phrases of lovingkindness acts as a direct antidote to the inner critic’s harsh judgments.
Practicing these techniques will over time diminish the inner critic’s hold on us. The inner critic may still tell its dark tales of our unworthiness, but we’ll believe those tales less and less. It’s as if the thoughts are still there, but their volume is much lower. And in time, the inner critic can become so weakened that its thoughts disappear too.
In mindfulness, the best way to get from point A to point B is stay at point A. By being present to what’s here, point B arises on its own. We practice mindfulness without a goal of having to get somewhere. We practice mindfulness for the sake of being present. The act of being present in each moment is itself a transformative choice.
If you are walking down the street, you may be focused on the red light two hundred feet away. You may see that red light as a symbol of all that gets in the way of you doing what you need to get done. You may think of the red light as a nudge to hurry up and move with speed toward whatever goal is next. If the light is green, you may see it as a momentary window of opportunity that you mustn’t miss. You start speeding up so you can make the light before it turns red! Because you are striving for point B, your pulse starts to quicken and your breathing gets tight. You start feeling anxious, impatient, prone to negative thoughts. You are not a happy camper.
The mindful approach to such a situation is to focus on each step while also being aware that the next intersection lies ahead. You are aware of the wider context and meaning of your environment (the upcoming intersection), but you are focusing your attention simply on each step you take. You are not rushing to make the light, you are not lost in thoughts about your next meeting or the due date of a report you’re writing. You’re simply walking and knowing that you’re walking. Being with the sensations of your walking rather than with the anxiety of your to-do list.
At some point you come to the street corner. You look up at the light. If it’s red, you wait. If it’s green, you walk. But because you were mindful while you were walking you were always in fact at your destination. You weren’t focusing on point B at all. You were staying with A – the here and now – and point B arrived without effort or striving or anxiety or impatience.
We are in communication with people all the time. We have conversations with colleagues at work, with our mechanic, with our spouses and kids, and we convey messages both verbally and non-verbally. But how often are we really being present while communicating? Because relationships can be stressful, it’s important to bring mindful awareness to the domain of communication.
Mindfulness helps us cultivate an assertive communication style rather than an aggressive or passive one. Tuning in to mind-body experiences while communicating helps us understand how someone’s words are landing for us; by acknowledging hurt or worry or fear, we create a space that helps us respond wisely rather than rashly.
Practicing empathetic listening is also a great way of establishing clarity and trust in dialog. When we let go of our agendas, we can open to what people are saying and really understand them. When someone feels deeply heard and understood, conflicts lessen and collaborations are more effective.
Here are some suggestions for maintaining mindful awareness during conversation.
-Stay in touch with your body to connect with your own authenticity. When we speak words from a place of body awareness, it’s easier to know when we might be going astray or uttering thoughts or ideas that are not in alignment with our values
-Speak truthfully. Dishonest speech leads to problems down the line that may be hard to fix. When people know they can rely on us to be truthful, it goes a long way to establishing a sense of trust.
-Speak beneficially. If what we speak is without benefit to the person we are communicating with, why do we need to say it?
-Speak with kindness. Not only is speaking with kindness more relaxing and peaceful, but people tend to respond to kind words rather than harsh ones. Keep in mind, speaking with kindness does not mean that you neglect constructive criticism when it’s appropriate. We can criticize, set boundaries, confront, and be kind while doing it.
-Speak at the right time. If you give feedback to someone who is visibly upset, it may not be the right time to do so. Being sensitive to the when of speaking supports effective communication.
-Stay in touch with your body to notice how the words land for you. If someone says something unfair, it’s better to feel how those words land in your body first – it gives you the appropriate pause and a chance to release any negative emotions that might have been triggered by the words. When you do speak, you’ll do it with more presence and non-reactivity.
-Practice empathetic listening by understanding that everyone wants to be fully heard. While advice may be useful, it’s helpful to realize that much of the time when people are struggling they really don’t need advice – they need to be heard.
-Have an open mind towards the speaker even if you know the person well.
-Return your attention to the speaker when your mind wanders.
If you practice mindfulness meditation, one thing you’ve noticed is how easy it is to get distracted. Our minds are so busy! If you’ve looked a little more closely at the nature of your distractions, you’ve probably noticed the central role that desire plays. How often have you noticed that your thoughts have moved into the realm of fantasy? When you find yourself wanting some wonderful outcome that has not yet happened, that may never happen, whether that wonderful outcome is a new job in a new city, or a windfall on an investment, or a new lover, or a new set of cool friends, or a new body, home, car, or whatever it may be. Or maybe your desire takes an aversive form – you are feeling frustrated with the meditation, you’d rather be somewhere else, doing something else, something productive, like ticking off the items on your to-do list. Or feelings come up that you’d rather not feel – physical pain, emotional pain, stress, anxiety, panic, rage. Why don’t these things just go away! You desire them to be gone.
When we desire something, it usually means that what we desire is not what is here. It’s some future or potential experience that could happen, but it’s not happening now. Now the problem with desiring something which is not here is that the desire is pointing us away from the present moment, which is – as many people have said – the only actual moment that ever is. The present moment is actually the moment in which our lives are capable of being lived. If we live in any other moment than the present moment we are not living our lives. That also means that we are not capable of making wise choices about how to respond to our daily challenges. And when we live in a moment other than the present one, intimacy in any relationship is not possible.
Desire shows up a lot in mindfulness practice. And mindfulness masters over the centuries have taught a variety of ways of working with desire when it arises. One of the most powerful ways of approaching desire is to simply acknowledge it without judging it. This is easier said than done. Many people (yours truly included) have a tendency of thinking that we need to get rid of our desires in order to practice mindfulness, in order to be “good meditators.” Desire is so messy and what we need is to calm things down, we think. This aversion to desire, to coin a phrase, assumes that desire in the context of meditation is a mistake, something that needs to be gotten rid of, purified, expunged. Unfortunately, trying to get rid of our desires doesn’t work.
It is far more powerful to acknowledge that the mind is filled with desire, perhaps with a light mental note, like wanting, wanting. And, crucially, to recognize that desire is present but without making any judgments about yourself. Desire is simply present in the mind. It doesn’t mean you are a bad mindfulness practitioner. Simply noticing the desire, even if you have to do it a hundred times in five minutes, and then returning to your breath or whatever object of focus you are using, is a powerful way of freeing yourself of the desire. By acknowledging the presence of desire as a routine mental event, then releasing it gently (without judgment) and returning to the object, you are conditioning yourself to dis-identify from the desire. You are in effect training yourself not to be ruled by your desires. Over weeks, months, and years of experience, I have found this to be a powerful tool in my own practice.
But what would happen if we could take the powerful energy of desire and apply it to the present moment? What if we were able to desire what was happening right now? And what would desiring the present moment look like anyway? It should be said that according to the classical understanding of mindfulness, there are two types of desire. One is the desire for things not in the present moment, the desire we’ve been exploring here. This sort of desire is associated more a sense of thirst, of never having enough, of inner deficiency. The second desire is something else. Rather than thirst, its characteristic is more aspirational. It’s considered wholesome desire. The desire for love, happiness, connection, good work, freedom, are all examples.
So what would it mean to desire the now? For one thing, desiring the now can be thought of as a practice, not just an idea. Desiring the now means welcoming what is here, in any moment. That means welcoming even something that is unpleasant. Welcoming means meeting whatever it is with our full attention, presence, resources, and wisdom. Whenever you forget to welcome what’s here, you simply come back to what’s here. It’s just like coming back to the breath. Desiring the now also means letting go of our fixed ideas about things. It means looking at each person and each moment with fresh eyes, free of cognitive rigidity and bias. Whenever your old ideas yank you back into autopilot, you can recognize that and return to the now, to the fresh aliveness of beginner’s mind. Above all, desiring the now means allowing yourself to become intimate with life. Interestingly enough, intimacy for me is a lot less about knowing someone or something and much more about not knowing them. To be intimate means to be open to the mystery of everything we’re doing. The human being you are speaking to may be a work colleague you’ve known for years. There are things about this person you can say you “know.” But on another level, your colleague is an absolute mystery. There is so much you don’t know about this person. In fact, there is so much we don’t know even about ourselves. Desiring the now means being open to discovering what the mystery of life is, moment by moment, as it unfolds.
When we say we practice mindfulness, we’re really talking about training. It’s just like going to the gym.
When we start on the treadmill at the gym, in the beginning we can only do 10 or 20 minutes. But if we keep doing that 20 minutes we’ll find that eventually we’ll be able to do 30 minutes, then 40. Our body responds to the steady routine of the treadmill by developing more stamina. Or when we start lifting weights, we may only be able to lift 10-pound dumbbells. Then our muscles get stronger and we can lift 20-pound dumbbells, then 30. The steady, consistent training in weight lifting expands the capacity of our muscles to lift heavier weights.
Mindfulness is the same way. When we’re trying to be mindful of the breath, at first we can only keep the mind on the breath for a few moments at a time. The breath is like a marble that keeps bouncing away from us: we keep having to chase it. But if we keep training ourselves to be with the breath, to be mindful, we discover that we can stay with the breath for longer periods and when we do lose it we come back to it sooner. Also, when we meditate on the breath on a regular basis we begin to notice that the gaps of time when we are not being present are of shorter duration.
So in the gym we build up our muscles day by day. Then one day a friend asks you to help her move a couch, and you can do it because you’ve got the strength. You’ve been training. The same is true with meditation. When we face difficulty in meditation, we’re learning how to face difficulty in our lives. If you learn how to be with the breath when it’s feeling tight, or to be with the body when there’s pain, or to be with difficult emotions, you’re doing the heavy lifting of your life — you’re training yourself to engage your challenges in a healthy and responsive way. If you become annoyed by a train of thought during meditation, the annoyance is the same as when you get irked by something your boss says. The difference is that in meditation you have a chance to work with the annoyance without getting lost in acting on the annoyance — like getting into an argument with your boss.
It all comes down to meeting our suffering just as it is. Sitting and breathing while you have a stabbing pain in your shoulder, or a maddening itch on your nose, or a feeling of loneliness and loss in your belly — staying with these things without trying to fix them opens our hearts and minds in ways they wouldn’t open if we avoided them. If we scratched that itch or ate some chocolate instead of allowing ourselves to feel lonely, we would lose the opportunity to train ourselves to face our suffering. One thing about suffering: we can’t cure it by avoiding it. If we avoid it, it usually gets worse. Or else it goes underground, which then causes stress. Mindfulness teaches us that we can transform our suffering not by avoiding it but by moving toward it and meeting it with presence, honesty, and openheartedness. If we can find our ground in the midst of our anguish, something eventually happens to the anguish: it expends its negative charge and transforms into a teaching about our life.
When soldiers first enter the Army they go to basic training. With mindfulness, basic training is also advanced training. You never outgrow the need for learning the basics. To be present for things just as they are, to open our hearts to what is difficult, is actually quite courageous. For this reason you could say that just like a soldier in training, you need to have a warrior spirit to really be mindful. And you also need the discipline to stay at it day after day.
You’re sitting at your desk at work when you realize that you feel disconnected from yourself, you feel anxious and tense, and your mind is full of half-formed thoughts. You seem to have lost your presence of mind, your inner equilibrium thrown off.
At such times, a simple exercise in awareness can totally shift the energy and change your perspective. The Mindful Reset can take as long as 10 seconds or one minute to do.
Firstly, when you notice that you’re feeling out of sorts, simply stop what you’re doing, close your eyes if you can, and notice your breathing. Follow the breath as it comes in, and follow it as it goes out. Notice what the breath feels like. Is it relaxed and easy from the beginning to the end? Is your breathing tight or squeezed? Noticing how the breath is also helps you notice if there are any sensations of tension or tightness in the body. Follow the breath as it travels through your body to become aware of any sensations of discomfort or contraction that are making themselves known. Notice wherever the body feels tight or tense; acknowledge those sensations without needing to get rid of them. You can invite those parts of the body to relax, but do it softly, not as a command but as a kind request. Simply bringing awareness to how your breathing and body are can begin to relax them.
Secondly, notice what your state of mind is like. What thoughts are present? Are they thoughts of the future or the past? Are they thoughts of worry, planning, remembering, judging, figuring out? Is your mind clear, collected, unified? Or is it dull, muddy, scattered? Just notice what’s going on in your mind without any judgment or self criticism. Again, simply bringing awareness to how your mind is and what thoughts might be present gives you important information about what is driving your behavior right now. When you are aware of what patterns are present in the mind, you are less likely to be controlled by them.
Thirdly, notice what the emotional tone is like in your experience. Underneath those physical sensations and thoughts, what emotions might be present? Is there worry, fear, sadness, anger, anxiety, doubt, frustration? Again, don’t feel like you need to get rid of the emotions. Just noticing the emotional tone of any experience gives you greater freedom in responding wisely.
When you give yourself the space to notice how you are, your mind starts making adjustments that will bring you back to equilibrium. This is called a closed feedback loop. The system of mind-body is working to bring you back into balance.
You can do the Mindful Reset at any time. While at your work space, before entering a meeting, while walking to lunch, or while driving your car (with your eyes opened, of course!).
The Mindful Reset doesn’t magically solve all your problems or remove all your pain. What it does do is put you in touch with yourself from the non-judgmental perspective of awareness. Without this perspective, we contract and tense up when faced with a challenge. We are under the control of the reactive mind. With the non-judgmental perspective of awareness, we release, let go, and see the big picture. We are being guided by the responsive mind. Mindfulness returns us to the clear-headed perspective from which it is easier to see how to meet our challenges and live our lives with more wisdom and balance.