The silence was crushing. I could hear loud screaming and realized it was coming from inside my head. A friend (?) had signed me up for a mindfulness retreat to help me find some peace. Mostly what I noticed was the not-so-peaceful thought: If the person behind me takes one more diabolical slurp of water, I am going to hasten their impermanence, pronto. If I had been allowed to talk, I would have yelled that if mindfulness was the wave of the future—I could wait! That was 25 years and almost 10,000 hours of practice ago. How on earth did I stick around? And why???
You don’t have to look too hard to see mindfulness popping up in hospitals, schools, around kitchen tables, and in corporations. Burnout is taking us all down. It makes sense that we are looking for help. People like me who feel fidgety, sad, depressed, angry, shell-shocked, or heartbroken have heard the word that something about watching your breath might make you feel better. Who knows why, but it seems to be helping other people, so why not give it a go?
Breathe, and Begin Again
One of the things I discovered was that even after years of practice, emptying my mind of all thoughts was not happening. And if I imagined that I would no longer feel sad or angry, it turns out that all those dark and feisty energies are still around. Mindfulness doesn’t make any of it go away. But as I continue to practice, continue to endure the irritation and boredom of anchoring my attention in my breath or my body or somewhere equally tedious, bit by bit my thoughts have quieted down. Ahhh. I notice that even when I don’t like what’s going on, learning to live in Now-Ville gives me the opportunity to live less in the world of knee-jerk reactivity, even when angry thoughts are on board. Suddenly, the speeding train of life is going in slow motion. Days are still very full and busy, but there is so much more space between everything.
As I continue to practice, continue to endure the irritation and boredom of anchoring my attention in my breath or my body or somewhere equally tedious, bit by bit my thoughts have quieted down.
When I first started practicing, a few decades ago, there seemed to be a lot more time available and practices could go on for hours. These days, a few minutes might be what’s possible—so that’s what I do.
The practice of mindfulness is as alive as its practitioners. And just like them, the practice is always changing. Once upon a time, mindfulness practice might have meant sitting in a room full of strangers with your eyes closed, trying to find and follow your breath, which might be a perfectly OK way to practice. But if you’re coming to mindfulness with a history of trauma, for instance, closing your eyes and focusing on the vicinity of your belly might not feel safe and secure for you, and it’s OK for you to notice that and act accordingly.
You don’t have to close your eyes; you don’t have to sit still. Practice whatever guides you back to the present moment. Privilege the kindest, gentlest way that helps you understand the immensity of being present to your life.
The future of mindfulness is up to you. Once you see what it means to be awake to the adventure of your life, mindfulness is what accompanies you to your last breath.
No Wasted Moments
On busy days, you might only have the time it takes to walk to the bathroom to practice. Use those few moments to activate your connection to your senses. Come out of your head and make sure that you are operating in the here and now.
If you can feel your feet making contact with the ground, congratulations, you are present, because the present moment is the only time you can experience the sensations of touch. Everything else is just a memory.
Busy days are great days to be intentional about watching the thoughts that rile you up. As soon as your thought parade starts to heat you up, you can be mindful. In other words, pay attention to what’s cooking with you.
Guided Mindfulness Practice: A Few Options for the Present Moment
- You could be curious about how your mood affects your thoughts.
- You could choose to anchor in nowness by watching your breath go in and out, or connect to your senses—you could give any number of present-moment experiences your full attention, rather than blindly marching off to war.
- You could notice what happens to your irritation when you give yourself and the situation a little bit of curiosity and a lot more room to breathe.