Well, I’ll tell you what mindfulness is not—and that is, “going to one’s happy place.” The goal of mindfulness is not to take a vacation in your mind to the tranquil beach scene pictured on your screen-saver, where dappled sunlight forever dances across softly whooshing waves. It’s not about getting away from it all, zoning out or distracting yourself from what’s happening now—right now—in this very moment.
On the contrary, mindfulness is about dropping yourself smack in the middle of what’s happening: observing the sights, sounds and interactions taking place all around you, and yet doing so with gentle impartiality, free of judgments or expectations. But even more than that, mindfulness is about paying attention to the thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations that you are yourself experiencing, even as you are taking in everything happening around you.
Easy? Not by a long shot. Becoming a mindful observer of oneself includes becoming acutely aware of the hailstorm of thoughts exploding from within, in every moment—and many of these will no doubt be tied up with very challenging emotions. Then there’s the equally vehement barrage of forces pummeling you from without: all the duties and responsibilities you’ve taken on or have had foisted upon you, not to mention other people, most of whom are just as battered, disoriented, and overwhelmed as you are.
Did I mention that mindfulness isn’t about kicking back?
By this point you’re probably thinking, “Oy! Asshole! I’m already stressed out, and you’re telling me that I should think harder about my stress? How is that not going to just make things worse?”
Fair point. Probably you’ve heard the saying “genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” Stress is not entirely dissimilar—it might be said that stress is composed of 1% actual bullshit, and 99% heavy-sweating over that 1%. Bringing careful awareness to how you are reacting to the events of your life and the world around you, however, pushes you in the direction of being able to identify the 1% of actual bullshit, so you can focus on effectively addressing the sources of your stress, instead of losing yourself in the cloud of peripheral anxiety radiating from it. This sweaty anxiety-cloud tends to make itself known on three levels: that of the mental loop, the unnecessary judgment, and the flesh itself.
I think most of us can identify with the experience of getting caught in a loop, the kind of maddening mind-state in which we keep reliving something that has happened (an awkward conversation, accidentally getting someone’s baby drunk), or in which we keep rehearsing something that might happen (getting laid off, forgetting how to blink), to the point where it’s the constant reliving and rehearsing that begins to really drag us down, more than the original sources of worry themselves. It seems odd, but wallowing in any well-worn pattern of thought—like a needle that’s drifted into the run-off groove of a vinyl record, from which there is no exit—can actually become soothing in its way, because it’s at least predictable—we already understand how it feels. There’s something to be said for being numb, for chewing the moist edge of our security blankets until all we can taste is the inside of our own mouths.
Now, another way in which humans tend to estrange themselves from the present moment is by regarding their surroundings through thick lenses of judgment. And it makes sense—setting our expectations in stone and pre-judging what’s going on around us is naturally less taxing than taking the time to regard our environment with fresh, inquisitive eyes.
One more way in which we keep the present moment at arm’s length is by losing touch with or turning away from our own bodies. We often decide how we think our bodies should look or feel without consulting them directly, without bothering to get to know them. Often it may seem as though we are wearing our bodies like heavy coats that we’re positive must make us look like dorks but which we’ve got to wear to keep our organs from falling out onto the dirty ground.
Those of us who practice mindfulness do so because, at a certain point, we decided it might be fun to think of our bodies as more than just unwieldy, inexplicable man- or woman-shaped organ purses.
Those of us who practice mindfulness do so because there came a time when we wanted to try approaching experiences on their own terms, instead of coming to every experience having already decided what it was going to be like.
Those of us who practice mindfulness do so because we wanted to try our hands at living in this moment, instead of reliving some other moment, or fixating on a moment yet to come.
And yet, those of us who practice mindfulness do not do so because we want to stop ourselves from thinking, judging, or reacting. As if that were possible! One might as easily stop a clock by trying to reason with it. Instead, mindfulness is about cutting down the amount of time that passes between the moment when the mind starts generating unhelpful reactions to stimuli, and the moment when we realize that’s what the rascal is up to.
Practicing meditation is not very different from embarking on an exercise program. When we work out, we wear special clothes and maybe we run five miles or maybe we lift a lot of heavy things. We do this so that later, when we’re wearing our regular clothes and we unexpectedly find we have to carry a box of wigs up three flights of stairs, our arms don’t snap off at the elbows. Similarly, when we meditate, we set aside a certain amount of time—10 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes—during which we commit to sitting on a cushion or a bench or a chair. For that set period of time, we decide that our only job is going to be to focus our attention on a central object, and to bring our attention back to that central object whenever it wanders away. The “central object” in question can be practically anything—a chant, a spot on the wall, a candle flame, our own breathing.
Science is proving that the brain is no stiff lump. That coiled sock of meat between your ears turns out to be a very versatile fellow. Mindful exercises can gradually impact the way you and your brain work together. You won’t develop the ability to cook an egg at a hundred yards with your thoughts, but you will almost certainly sharpen your faculty of self-awareness, which can also come in handy. For example, let’s say the bus sprays street-juice all over your brand new jumpsuit and then doesn’t even stop to pick you up. You may have the desire to bean a nearby squirrel on the noggin with a paperweight in anger. Instead, you deploy your practiced sense of self-awareness: comprehend the scope of the emotions swirling inside of you and choose to acknowledge those emotions instead of allowing them to materialize in disagreeable ways. One more squirrel makes it out alive.
Mindfulness may make you super-cuddly. Then again, it may not. Be wary of anyone who promises results. The person who claims he or she knows what the ending is—that person is probably trying to sell you a bill of goods. “In six easy lessons, I can teach you to be happy forever!” Beware. Here’s the promise of mindfulness: If you keep meditating and commit to incorporating mindful practices into your life, you may just achieve the ability to recognize and appreciate everything as an opportunity; that in every moment something is being given to you, even as something else is being taken away.
Research is demonstrating that even small amounts of meditation can begin to change the brain in ways that make it capable of expressing greater present-moment focus. Precisely because of the brain’s remarkable changeability, however, no change (short of having the knife taken to it) is permanent. Despite tales of “enlightenment” and “nirvana,” mindfulness is not something you arrive at, but rather a state of constantly arriving, of realizing you have been tuned out and then making the choice to tune in again. Do not prepare yourself to become lost in a revelry related to the wonderfulness of the world, but rather get ready to watch the good and the bad march past, hand in hand, grimly satisfied to know that both are as fleeting as the day that turns to night and the night that turns to day.
Our minds are stuffy rooms, and mindfulness is one way to throw open the window and let in handfuls of fresh air. Sure, it may not just be the breeze that floats in, but bees, too; and yes, the window will probably keep banging shut every time we turn our backs on it. Nevertheless, we have to believe it’s better to keep opening the window of awareness than to asphyxiate in a sea of our own farts.