Practice of the Week
Category: Supporting Practices: observances that support and expand developing spirituality.
Adapted from James Austin, "Mindfulness," in Everyday Spiritual Practice
Mindfulness, in this sense, is allowing our experience to be accepted into consciousness, letting us know what we are doing, providing the feedback to permit taking an action, performing a skill, or learning something new. Of course we always know on some level what we are experiencing, where we are, and what we are doing at any given time. It is also true that the degree to which we are really present in our experience varies a great deal throughout the day. There are many moments when the mind seems to be somewhere else completely!
Imagine carrying a full cup of hot tea from one room to another. You would pay attention to the cup, being aware of whether or not the tea was about to spill. You might slow down your walking speed or use two hands. The feedback of knowing what you are doing and the effect on the tea in the cup can all happen because you are present and focused in that moment.
There are also some moments when we are usually not very mindful. These moments are likely to occur when we think that what we are doing is not very interesting, or seems automatic because we have done this a thousand times before. So we let the mid drift off while we wash the dishes. “I could have done that in my sleep,” we say – and sometimes we did.
Mindfulness is a kind of remembering, remembering to be here, to be present to pay attention to this moment of life. When w bring awareness to this moment we know what we are doing and we know we are alive. It’s not so much that our fantasies, daydreams, and desires are not a natural part of life, rather it’s that we are so unaware of how much time we spend preoccupied with these thoughts.
Our mind has a mind of its own and easily wanders off into some fantasy of the future or some evaluation, judgement, or remembrance of the past. All this time, we sacrifice what is right in front of us: this present moment. If we do this repeatedly, our minds become a very busy place to live, running back and forth from past to future, while our experience of the present moment becomes shallow and unfulfilling.
We are often compulsive thinkers, never giving ourselves a rest from a constant inner conversation. In addition to our internal chatter, we receive a stream of language, read or heard. It becomes very easy to unconsciously assume that experience begins when we begin verbally describing it.
When the quality of mindfulness is stronger, we are more likely to see the process of thinking itself. In our more mindful moments we see the train of thought and its power for pulling us away from present experience. We begin to value drinking in sensory experience in a nonverbal way.
When there is too much thinking going on, it is hard to remain open and accepting of our experience. Both the outer world and our inner landscape is more lush when we are more aware. We have a more spacious mind, one which is less dismissive of nonverbal experience.
Some experiences are unpleasant: intense grief, for example. When we try to avoid being with an emotion, by distracting ourselves or blotting out the experience with alcohol, we only lengthen the time it takes to work through the difficult emotion. Anger and fear have the power to take us over, to consume us. Being more mindful in this situation means we are more able to know what we are doing. We are able to step back a bit and really know that we are angry. This knowing creates a bit of space that can protect us from acting unwisely. When we are able to be with anger or fear, to hold it with our awareness even though it is unpleasant, it has less power over us.
Mindfulness practice is used in stress reduction and chronic pain clinics around the world because it has been shown that people can often lessen their suffering dramatically by becoming aware of and letting go of their resistance to the unpleasant sensations in their bodies. The automatic response to discomfort is for muscles to tense up, to want to push away the painful sensations. But tension and resistance only create more suffering. If we then add to that a mental script that supports our personal sense of suffering (thoughts of self-pity, for example), we have moved even farther away from easing our situation, by adding mental tension.
By becoming aware of these automatic responses, people can learn to relax and let go of some physical and emotional resistance to their situation. Patients report that they are surprised at how much of their suffering was caused by their resistance. When all the extras that are added on to a painful situation are stripped away, so that only the actual physical sensations are left, there can be less suffering.
When we are patient enough to be even with our experience of boredom, we find it often transforms. We may find that the boredom was acting as a cover for some other more subtle unpleasant emotion that we did not want to experience. There may be something new to learn about ourselves if we choose not to immediately reach for a distraction, not to immediately run from the unpleasantness of boredom.
How do you get more mindful? See the Practices of the Week titled "Be Mindful"and "Cultivate Mindfulness."
There's also a helpful introduction to getting started with mindfulness practice: HERE.
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For list of all weekly practices: "Practices of the Week Index"