So, there’s this New Agey thing called “mindfulness” that is all the rage, these days. Mindfulness is a non-religious, kinda “woo woo” version of Buddhist meditation; in fact in Buddhist practice, there’s a type of meditation called “mindfulness meditation” which as been adopted whole cloth by … well, pretty much everyone.
It’s such a commonly-used word, mindfulness, that it’s in danger of losing its meaning. What’s it mean? According to Wikipedia:
Mindfulness is “the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment”, which can be trained by meditational practices derived from Buddhist anapanasati.
Whoah. That’s a lot. Let’s parse it.
First, “emotions, thoughts, and sensations occurring in the present moment.” That just means “everything you’re experiencing right now.” Got a cramp in your leg? That’s a sensation. Worrying about how to pay next month’s mortgage? That’s a thought, and a feeling. It’s that simple.
So, what about this “intentional, accepting” bit? Well, intentional is important — we all experience all these sensations at all times. It’s what it means to be human. But we don’t do it intentionally. We don’t sit down and say “I’m going to pay attention to what I’m feeling right now.” It just happens. It’s like the wind rippling the waters of a pond — it happens regardless of whether or not you pay attention, but if you don’t pay attention you’ll miss it, and then wonder “where did all these waves come from?”
The “accepting” part is the hard part. So, here’s the thing. A lot of the sensations we feel are “neutral” — neither inherently pleasant or unpleasant. I am wearing a cotton t-shirt as I type this. It is neither particularly comfortable nor uncomfortable. It’s just… a shirt. I’m aware of it, slightly — the touch of cloth on my skin, where it keeps me warmer than the surrounding air. But it’s not something that I think “wow, that feels good!” or “oh my god, this is torture!” It just is. These thoughts and sensations are easy to accept.
But what about other, more “charged” thoughts? Perhaps I’m frightened of the future — the “paying the mortgage” example is one. It may be something I can do nothing about right now. I have no control over it. So worrying does no good; perhaps it would be better to just… not worry, right? So then I’m meditating, and the “how am I gonna pay the mortgage?” thought pops up. Dammit. I’m supposed to be empty, clear-minded. Push that thought away! Darned worries. Uh oh, now it just popped back up. Plus my nose itches. I’m supposed to be in lotus position, but I can’t scratch my nose! Okay, use willpower, make it stop itching! Now, I’m fighting two thoughts and sensations — the nose itching and the worry.
Similarly, if there’s a pleasant thought, it can be tempting to cling to it. Suppose I’m enjoying relaxing with a cup of coffee before starting my work day. And I don’t want it to end, because it’s enjoyable, and then I have to go out in the cold and rain to commute to work. So now a pleasant experience — enjoying my morning — is transformed into an unpleasant one (dreading when it’s over). Why? Because I clung to it. It’s sort of the opposite of “pushing away” the unpleasant thoughts/feeling/sensations, but it’s also sorta the same. I wasn’t “accepting” of the worry, and I was clinging to the enjoyment — not “accepting” its dark side, when the morning ends. In both cases, the thoughts will disturb my equanimity (mental peace).
So, “intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus” means just being aware. It means just paying attention. Not saying “aha, I’m wearing silk, this feels GREAT, I hope I ALWAYS wear silk!” Not saying “ugh, my leg hurts, I wish it didn’t hurt. Stop hurting!” It just means… feeling the silk. Feeling the leg cramp. Seeing the thoughts play through your mind. Feeling the feelings — worry, loss, happiness, fear — in your mind. Not grabbing them, or pushing them away. Just paying attention to what’s going on in your head, right here, right now.
I know, when you put it this way, it sounds simplistic, right? It’s just paying attention? Pfft. So easy. But trust me, it’s not. You don’t have to assume the lotus position. You don’t have to chant. You don’t have to give up sex or alcohol or give away all your possessions. But you do have to learn to accept the present moment, and to accept it, you have to learn to be aware of it.
And that’s not so easy. I recently posted about Generalized Anxiety Disorder, musing upon whether or not I have it. I have no idea if I do; it’s tempting to over-medicalize things, and assume that with a diagnosis comes a cure. But the fact is that I know that under my addictive behaviors, I have some kind of unpleasant emotional sensation. I have some feeling that I don’t want to feel, and so I push it away with distractions and denial. What it is is less relevant than the fact that it’s there, and it’s been there all along. In other words, I was not aware what I was feeling. And lest you think I’m some kind of freak (I am, but that’s not relevant to this piece), this is very, very common. Especially among addicts, but even in the general population, it’s quite common to not even know what we’re thinking or feeling much or most of our time. We go through life in a fog of unawareness, only really knowing ourselves when some thought or sensation becomes so obtrusive that it pops into consciousness.
So, mindfulness is just countering this. It’s a practice — it’s like exercise, it takes repetition, and you get better at it. And at first, like exercise, it’s very awkward and uncomfortable. It feels unnatural — forced. You think you’re supposed to “not think anything,” so you try to push all thoughts and intrusive feelings out of your head. But that’s the exact opposite of mindfulness. You should just sit quietly (or walk, or drive, or anything — you can “be mindful” during almost any activity) and be aware what’s going on in your head. Your mind will clear, gradually. Your “monkey mind” — the part of your brain that’s always planning, scheming, wanting, clinging, and pushing things away — will eventually… I dunno… get tired and go to sleep? I dunno. But I can say from experience that it does happen, but you can’t make it happen. You can only practice and keep practicing.
It pays dividends. Repeated studies show that mindfulness practice can improve everything from addiction and depression to diet, sex life, and longevity. Just being aware is such a radical change that most of us — especially people like me who are inherently skeptical of “New Age,” “woo woo” buzzwords — doubt its power. But it’s really, really simple, and really, really powerful.
Try it. It only takes a few minutes. Just be aware. You’ll be amazed what you find out.