Stopping to Start: Practicing Mindfulness
Years ago, after being struck by a tragedy, I was forced to stop the frenzy that defined every minute of my waking hours and reevaluate my life. Robbed of my sense of safety, questioning everything from the existence of God to my marriage, I turned to what was then for me the least likely place in the world: The spirituality section at our local independent bookstore.
Quiet the mind. Embody your feelings. Become one with nature. Practice self-compassion. Try less to do more. From Ram Dass to Wayne Dyer, the Tao Te Ching to The Sermon on the Mount, I immersed myself in a world that lived by the tenets of balance, forgiveness, charity—and, it seemed, infinite patience. To follow everything that was promoted in the slim volumes and weighty tomes that started piling up on my nightstand would require a life that involved little more than sitting in meditation and contemplating when to fit in these tasks.
The virtues that my reading advocated seemed impossible, even burdensome. How could I possibly strike balance when ultimately life is nothing but constant in its imbalance? Or, as the fabulous Elizabeth Gilbert once said, “Balance is another tool in the arsenal of things women use against themselves as weapons.”
The more I read, the more frustrated I became. Beyond the drain that some of these moral undertakings presented, very little resonated with me. I couldn’t understand how any of these teachings related to my issue in my time and space—universality and timelessness are, after all, weighty concepts to ponder, especially when still drying your tears. What did these writers know about the incident I’d just experienced? Had they, too, just lost an infant in childbirth? Why couldn’t these masters provide a quick and painless solution to fix what had just happened?
It took days, weeks—even years—for what I read to sink in. After I’d had some distance from the death of my son, I realized this: I had been trained to utilize my mind only to search for solutions rather than arriving at them on my own, just as I had been trained somewhere along the way to mourn the past, worry about the future, and spend the present striving for symbols that our society purported as the panacea for all ill feelings. To put it plainly, it wasn’t working. This approach had pushed me to a point where, had you handed me a mirror, I would have recognized only the girl I once was and the old woman I was destined to become—forehead wrinkled, eyes empty and no longer searching, surrounded by things that had nothing more than monetary value. The woman who existed in the present? Nowhere to be seen.
“To be identified with your mind,” Eckhart Tolle writes in The Power of Now, “is to be trapped in time: the compulsion to live almost exclusively through memory and anticipation.” The compulsion to live almost exclusively through memory and anticipation. Does this not ring true for, say, roughly three-quarters of who you know? Including yourself? When I read these words, something finally clicked.
Instead of trying to answer unanswerable questions and live by endless lists of to-dos rather than to-bes, I eased into mindfulness—not as a theory, but as a way of life. A Buddhist monk simplified mindfulness when he said, When I cook my rice, I eat my rice. When I eat my rice, I eat my rice. When I wash my bowl, I wash my bowl. For me to cook, eat, and clean—let alone live, love, work, and play—I had to first surrender what I thought should happen, renounce my deeply ingrained habit of overthinking problems, and start taking life one grain of rice at a time.
It seems easy. It’s not. For many of us, our entire days are filled from sunrise to sleep with endless thoughts and unquenchable desires that do us little good, from wanting to replicate the past and trying to rationalize our feelings to worrying about a decade from tomorrow. As my Italian friends like to say, “we make movies out of everything.” This tendency may make for great storytelling on film; in reality, all it does is create an awful lot of angst. How can we possibly enjoy the sound of birds chirping when our smart phones are chirping away? What does a sunset mean except another day has gone by and we’re no closer to a deadline, a promise, our ideal weight before the big day, our ideal life? How can we practice stillness and have peace of mind when the Middle East is a disaster, homelessness exists, children go hungry, our aunt has breast cancer, and the water heater is on the fritz?
In the end—and trust that this is a perpetual pursuit!—I had to give up my belief that I could control everything around me. The only thing I could control were the thoughts swirling, arguing, and smashing around in my head; thoughts that if unbounded would not only keep me from a peaceful life but also harm me and those around me. Realizing the measure of control I did have allowed me to immerse myself in the entirety of life—not as it was, not as it might be, but as it is.
There are innumerable benefits to practicing mindfulness; three, however, have kept me from returning to this practice, time and again:
1) Through practice, we develop faith that what is meant to happen will happen.To truly comprehend this concept, we need to observe our life and the lives of others through a wider lens. A friend dies unexpectedly, hurricanes ravish communities, house fires displace us, that promotion didn’t happen. Just as nature functions entirely independent of our desires, so do our lives. Our efforts can help and indeed change the course of many things, but we cannot master the world. The only thing we can master? Our thoughts and behavior.
2) Mindfulness reconnects us to what Carl Jung defined as the Fundamental Consciousness—the awareness and knowledge that, on a soulful, basic level, we are all the same. The media, society, history, even our neighbors have erected prejudices that distorts the undeniable truth—that, stripped down, we have the same wants, the same needs, the same concerns, the same inherent structures. With this clarity, answers, empathy, and forgiveness come effortlessly. Here, in such a place, we can act in alignment with our soul’s true purpose and desire, which naturally renders us kinder, more patient, and less worried.
3) Self-torment stops. When the mind is activated and given free reign, it acts like a Nazi. It has no heart—as so often it is disconnected from our genuine feelings—and tyrannizes us with the would haves, should haves, and could haves. What’s done is done; what will be, will be. Why beat ourselves up about it? What good will that do?
You may be thinking that this all sounds well and good, but how do I it? It’s a courageous task but it is accomplishable. Mindfulness begins and ends with remaining present in everything we do. Jack Kornfeld, author of Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, suggests, “… choose a simple regular activity of your life that you usually do unconsciously, on automatic pilot. Resolve to make that particular activity a reminder, a place to wake up your mindfulness. For example, you might choose making tea, shaving, bathing…Resolve to pause for a couple of seconds before each time you begin the activity…” When I first started eating my rice while eating my rice, I felt a bit crazy—after all, I didn’t have the time for such idleness. But when I slowed down my actions as well as my thoughts, sensory details left me speechless and giddy, from the plate I was eating off (had I never before noticed the exquisite pattern on its edge?) to the way the evening light left my yard ablaze in gorgeous golden light. I was choosing quantity over quality, the minute over the hour, the day over the decade. And with that came a sense of freedom that I’d never before known.
“There is nothing more important to true growth than realizing that you are not the voice of the mind—you are the one who hears it,” Michael A. Singer writes in The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself. Once we’ve accepted this, life opens up in spectacular ways. Focus not on the war between your ears but on the splendor of your surroundings—so you too can hear those birds, taste that rice, and be exactly where you’re supposed to be: