Mindfulness is, at the end of the day, a tool in the toolbox. Along with nutrition and exercise and sleep and music and art and my friends and my family, mindfulness is another tool which helps me find balance in my life. Sometimes I need to be alone, and sometimes I prefer to be around people. Sometimes I sit and meditate, and sometimes I need to go to the gym and throw some weight around! Sweep the garden, water the plants. As my practice has grown, I have come to realize that mindfulness is a particularly big hammer, and like any tool it can be used incorrectly….
I have had a tendency throughout my years to anticipate life exhaustively. Why did this happen? When did this begin? Maybe it was nature? Maybe it was nurture? Who knows. All I do know is that at some point my fucking fight or flight reflex began to identify otherwise innocuous life happenings as “problems” that should be anticipated and prepared for by running every possible negative outcome on a loop until said event arrived. It never mattered that the event in question NEVER, allow me to repeat the word NEVER, happened in any way that my over-anxious left hemisphere expected it might. I just kept getting ready for the other shoe to drop. Believe it or not, I didn’t even much realize this was happening. For years, I was so asleep at the wheel that over time the cumulative effect of this ritual was an over-anxious neural highway that had dug into my brain like a tick.
Jump ahead and I’m in my late 20’s. I had been meditating for sometime and things began to get still. The veil began to lift. I, for the first time, was able to step back and clearly see my thought patterns emerging. I was able to get a glimpse into my habituations, my self talk, the way I related to the word around me and how I viewed myself in it. I saw it was sabotage, and it was initially very painful. It was both frustrating and liberating that I knew I was on the right path….but fuck me, it wasn’t pretty. Why was I working against myself like this? Where’s the optimistic kid who had all the confidence in the world? Why do I expect the worst all the time?
Mindfulness serves us as a kind of laser beam of attention. The practice is to experience the present moment and what is actually happening with objectivity and WITHOUT JUDGEMENT. That last part is so important. We are trying to see the story unfold without adding to it. It’s a result of evolution that we focus more intensely on the thoughts that we perceive to be negative or dangerous. It’s a survival mechanism. With mindfulness we are training that same reflex to operate in a world without saber tooth tigers. I know the world is still a scary place, but if you are sitting in a café eating a scone while reading this then surely you understand what I’m getting at. What we are doing is identifying neural highways that don’t serve us and paving new ones that do. Ever been on the interstate while the city is doing construction? It’s chaos! So with this new laser beam of attention we are cultivating, we must also learn to point it in the right direction. You can’t think your way out of a thinking problem. Judgment is a sneaky fucker and it takes a lot of practice to identify it’s many faces.
I attend a weekly meditation class. Almost every week there will be new, curious souls dropping in to see what this mindfulness thing is all about. Most new attendees are hoping to ease some level of anxiety in their life and all too often you’ll hear the exact same introduction: “Hi, my name is ________. I really want to learn more about mindfulness, but I think I suck at it.” I can’t help but smile at how ridiculous a statement that is because every time someone says it, I am reminded that it was me saying it not all that long ago. It’s not a very nice thing to say about yourself, is it? And it’s not that their intentions are misguided, but attitude counts for a lot with anxiety and it’s the everything with mindfulness. The difference between being stuck in a self loathing trance and enjoying peaceful awareness is often how you are relating to your experience. Sometimes I just have to remind myself that I can be however the hell I need to be, whenever I need to be it. I hope that makes sense, because it’s really important. So your pot boiled over and your anxious all the time, huh? OK. I understand, believe me, how counterintuitive it feels to accept this reality and for it to be ok to feel this. To accept that this is how your conditioning is playing out. Realize that you’re never going to completely expel anxiety from your life no matter what you do. Realize how healthy and important it is to feel these emotions….all of them! But when we do, all of the sudden, we have gotten ourselves back on track.
It often feels that we need to be better NOW and that anxiety must to go away NOW and that life cannot begin again until this happens. That’s the little kid inside if us holding it’s breath, trying to bend and shape things that are out of it’s control. It’s your mind and it’s your life. You can change the game whenever you want to, but not like that. You could dress up as a pirate and dance the Charleston outside the airport for extra cash if you decide to. That may sound ridiculous, and most of us wouldn’t because “what would people think?” and it’s a “really weird” thing to do. I’m here to say fuck what people think! I love weird! Maybe the best thing someone with anxiety can do for themselves is perturb their own status quo.
Try this one on….
The next time you do a sitting meditation, while focusing on your breath, you will inevitably get lost in thought (Remember, that Is supposed to happen). You’ll be planning, or day dreaming, or ruminating about bla bla bla. The practice is to notice that we are thinking and return our attention to the breath. What is often missed is HOW you return your attention to the breath. It’s right there in the crux of that instant and you didn’t even see it. And that response matters. It’s easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. Right when your attention has strayed from your breath and you realize it, ask yourself “what was the tone of that response?”. If it was “fuck, I’m thinking again!” Then you might want to start working right here because you’re banging your head against the wall. This might have been my very first “AHA moment” in meditation. Be kind to yourself. Be gentle with yourself. Why so judgy? Maybe that harsh response will begin to change just by shining a light on it. Maybe you will find your attention and return it to your breath with a new, kinder and wiser response. Maybe you will respond “Welcome Home” because you found the space that was needed to find your way back (Thank you Tara Brach and Sharon Salzberg).
But of course, you can’t all of the sudden become someone who has meditated for 30 years, RIGHT NOW. That’s not what we are doing here. That attitude feels rigid, doesn’t it? Just thinking about it makes me all tight and tense. There’s no space there. Quit practicing for a big game that is never going to happen. We are practicing because that’s the practice. Any time I decide there is a big game to be played, and “oh shit I better be ready because it’s all riding on this and what if, and what if, and what if???”, I end up suffering through it with absolutely no reward because I forgot what I was really trying to accomplish. I’m trying to live my life, not beat it into submission and conquer it. I’d be a wise man to realize that it’s all just practice. And every time I forgot, I’d remember that wisdom and more and more I’d continue to become that wise man, just paving the road. I’d be more successful and I’d be happier if I would make it my goal to see clearly what’s happening in and around me. Experiences would come and come to pass and you could find me right there in the middle. If you listened closely enough, you would hear me softly proclaim “and this too”.