Mindfulness is something I thought I’d had a handle on for years. It’s become a common buzzword in the West, and was a supplementary concept that frequently arose in literature and practices I engaged with during my eating disorder recovery and while diving deeper into my yoga practice. Mindfulness, I gathered, was, like, paying more attention to stuff, right? Got it, easy enough.
Except that’s not a complete definition. Like a lot of Eastern practices that gain popularity in the West, the concept has gotten muddled down and commodified in a way that makes it more accessible for mass audiences. Paying attention might seem easy enough, but what about this more thorough definition from Buddhist-influenced scientist (and son-in-law of the late, great Howard Zinn), Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose,in the present moment, and non judgmentally.” For me, the addition of presence and nonjudgement are game changers. Paying attention is one thing, but to focus solely on the present and to do it without judging any thoughts that take you out of that presence? It’s a big ask! It’s literally saying, “you’re not going to do this perfectly probably ever, but your goal is to do it anyway and never judge yourself for not doing it perfectly, (even though you’re never going to do it perfectly).” Like Michelle Tea says in her chapter on Buddhism in her memoir: “Buddhism embraces failure because it embraces humanity, and to fail is human.” Mindfulness means inevitable failure but striving to do better anyway, even in the midst of it.
That kind of commitment to a practice of almost-inevitable failure requires a huge amount of self-love. And, spoiler alert to my readers who haven’t already figured it out: self-love is probably the hardest (and most important) thing we’ll ever have to learn in life.
Understanding the more complete version of mindfulness has made my attempts at the practice both more challenging and more rewarding. For years, I’ve been attempting to think before I speak and act, but I would still do things that weren’t mindful. Sometimes in big, ugly ways. Why was it that I could spend two hours at my yoga studio feeling centered, grounded, calm, and loving, only to drive home and feel irritable in traffic or snap at my mom on the phone? How, I longed to discover, could I practice mindfulness outside of the optimal conditions presented in the yoga room, and apply it in all the other parts of life when I need it even more?
Non-judgement is crucial here. When I’d drive home and get irritable in traffic, instead of observing that irritability and letting it go, I would criticize myself for not being a better all-loving yogi. This creates a terrible cycle. In Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach describes this stuck place of judgment as “the trance of unworthiness,” and explains that judging ourselves in these moments will not make us do better. On the contrary, “Feeling guilty and bad about ourselves for something we’ve done might temporary restrain us from doing harm, but intimately blaming and hating ourselves only leads to further harmful actions. We can’t punish ourselves into being a good person. Only by holding ourselves with the compassion of forgiveness do we experience our goodness and respond to our circumstances with wisdom and care.”
Practicing this in the middle of life-stuff is really hard. It’s asking a lot of you all at once, in seemingly contradictory ways. Be aware of your emotions, but also let them go, don’t judge yourself, but still observe that feeling. All at the same time, in one moment (and then the next moment, and the next, and so on)! As Brach notes, “Often the moment when we most need to pause is exactly when it feels most intolerable to do so.”
Because it is so challenging to do that in real life, intentional mindfulness practices become invaluable. Meditation is key here. If you can practice sitting in a safe-to-you-space, with as few external distractions as possible, you can start to lay the groundwork and literally rewire your brain to do better when you are back in the “real world.” I have been working through a lot of resources to enhance my meditation practice, and these are some I’ve found especially helpful: Andy Puddicombe’s Do Talk (I appreciate that, in addition to the common analogy of clouds in the sky, Puddicombe also uses a traffic analogy that feels much more conducive to my city-girl sensibilities), this Mindfulness App on my phone, and a place I’m now visiting in Cambridge called Inner Space.
Another practice, outside of traditional meditation, that I’ve come to turn to is working through a book called How to Train a Wild Elephant & Other Adventures in Mindfulness by Jan Chozen Bays. The book provides a mindfulness exercise “task” to focus on each week. Examples include using your non-dominant hand, noticing filler words, committing to taking three breaths, etc. The idea is that you focus on this exercise throughout the whole week to help draw attention to the present. This book was gifted to me over a year ago, and I’ve attempted to use it on a weekly basis, but it’s admittedly been rather hit or miss. I will start really strong on Monday morning, and by Monday night it dawns on me that I’ve sometimes already forgotten the task.
And so, I thought I’d use the blog as a way to be more accountable to these kinds of exercises. Out of respect to the author, I don’t plan to reveal the entire contents of the book, but I will post some of the exercises from there, and also other places, on the blog each Monday to engage with it more fully for myself, and hopefully inspire you to do the same.
One task from the book that felt very relevant to the RGL community is to “Look Deeply Into Food.” Now, this is not a mindfulness practice about eating and fullness (although those are excellent tools for those of us who struggle with not eating enough or eating too much, and can be more thoroughly explored in Tich Nhat Hanh’s Savor), but rather this is about thinking about where our food comes from. This is about committing, for the rest of the week, to take a moment to imagine the process it took to get the food you are about to eat into your hands. It’s about honoring the work of not only farmers, and food industry labor, but also of soil and bugs and sunlight. And then, take a moment to thank them.
A mindfulness exercise that is also a lesson in Marx’s commodity fetishism! Win! : )
Two final notes here on this inaugural Mindfulness Monday post. First, I feel it’s important to give credit to people and things who have influenced me on this path to deepening what feels like a very life-changing spiritual practice: AC, LC, AP, DC, BAB, GH, and yoga. You know who you are; thank you. Second, the reason I have been immersing myself in this so rigorously is because life has been really, really difficult since I moved to Boston almost two years ago. I have never had a more challenging 18 months in my adult life than I have since living here (big moves, heartbreak, death, job insecurity, ptsd, etc.). We have a two options when life gets big and overwhelming and scary: we can numb it out and distract ourselves or we can confront it and allow the suffering to make us more compassionate. I’ve done both, and turns out the second option is a lot more liberating.
There is a Buddhist proverb that states, “No mud, no lotus.” That is, you need the crappy stuff to get something good; lotus flowers need mud to grow. I’m starting to realize that my lotus may not mean getting what I want externally, but rather finding peace internally, regardless of circumstance. These mindfulness practices help remind me of that, and for that, I am so very grateful.
Do you engage in mindfulness practices? Will you join me in Looking Deeply Into Food this week?