It is difficult to fully understand and accept the idea that there are no intended outcomes from practising mindfulness. It isn’t going to fit on a performance management sheet. It won’t sit easily as part of a self improvement plan. Instead, the invitation is to let go of the idea of not being good enough, untangle ourselves from our habit of self-judgement and just come back to how things are for us right now.
The frequently mentioned guidance to do this is ‘letting go of wanting things to be a particular way’ – such a simple instruction, but yet so difficult to do. This is because our habit is to judge some mind states as good, and so we move out to grab and clinch them. We see others as harmful or negative and we try to stiff arm them away. The aim of mindfulness is not to purge ourselves of emotions or thoughts, but rather to know they are present. Joseph Goldstein explains the advantage of this when he says “I would rather see them and explore them, than not see them and act them out”
After receiving some wise advice about my practice last year, I began to realise how quickly I try to drop distractions when I notice them. My internal dialogue normally runs “Damn I’m distracted again – back to the breath NOW!” It’s like a child in the middle of taking an extra biscuit out the jar in the kitchen, who hears a parent’s footsteps and immediately drops the swag and scarpers for the door.
Since receiving this guidance, I am slowly beginning to see that a wiser, kinder way to work with emotions and thoughts is firstly to stand back slightly from the disconnection, as though stepping to the calmer waters of the river’s edge. Then from that safer vantage point, to investigate what they are like; bringing a kind and curious attitude to the distraction while doing this. And only after that, to gently place the attention back to where I had intended it to be.
I have found mindfulness often swims against the way I have been trained to think by the society I have been brought up in. Mindfulness is a counter-cultural practice to follow. Going slower, without a target in mind is a central part to that. But it sure can be liberating.
“I had a great mindfulness practice this morning, I felt really calm afterwards…….”
(2 days later….)
“My mindfulness practice was awful today. I had no calm or peace at all and was just away with the fairies. I wish I had a quieter room to sit in”
Expectation is a sneaky feeling: the expectation that you will become relaxed, the expectation that when you sort out the stresses in your life, then you will have enough time to sit mindfully for an hour a day and then be calmer and kinder to everyone. Expectation leads to hope for the future and how much better everything will be and fear that life won’t work out that way. And its more difficult to let go of hope and fear once they have started a run.
So to practice mindfulness with expectation leads to problems of grasping on to something or pushing it away. This in turn leads the mind away from the present moment; we become disconnected from attention. Joseph Goldstein refers to a mantra he uses
“It doesn’t matter to what we don’t cling”
from Audible version of Joseph Goldstein ‘Mindfulness’
In other words in today’s practice, as we sit, stand or walk we are already able to not cling to what arises; whether it is raking over the past or running future plans. We do not need better conditions or more years of experience. We merely ‘not cling’ to what is arising in this practice right now. I find this idea really encouraging and empowering. Nothing else is needed. The content of practice is not so important, its how we relate to it that is key. Noticing and letting go of this sensation now. That is all.
Mindfulness can help us live better lives both for ourselves and for others. So a definition of what it is is not nearly as useful as what it does how it functions. Mindfulness
“helps us develop a capacity for flexibility rather than rigidity, responsiveness rather than reactivity”
Feldman and Kuyken in “Mindfulness: ancient wisdom, modern psychology”
We practice mindfulness and a gap can grow between stimulus and response. And in this response
“lies our freedom and our power to choose our response.”
Therefore mindfulness gives us a chance to live more wisely. We start by noticing the present moment just as it is; without associations to past events or future planning. When attention is paid in this way awareness arises. This in turn creates in our minds an investigative wisdom that brings an understanding of what is nourishing and what is depleting. So a continued practice of mindfulness can create compassion for both ourselves and the people and environment around us. We can ‘open the clenched fist in our mind, let go and fall into the midst of everything’. Which is as close to a definition of mindfulness as I’d like to get today.
“Full Catastrophic Living” by Jon Kabat Zinn is so frequently described as landmark or classic or masterpiece that there is almost an obligation to have it on your shelf if you are at all interested in secular mindfulness. But then it’s size at 600+ pages means it can be left untouched. So maybe, like a brief history of time, it becomes a book that more often than not we feel is mocking us it gathers dust on the shelf.
However, it is worth it and although I never read it in the order the chapters I laid out, I keep coming back to it again and again. Out of all the sections, the part on “The attitudinal foundations of mindfulness” is my favourite, even if their name is somewhat of a mouthful. As a taster, to tempt you to buy it (or take it down from the shelf) hear they are summed up in three ways:
Firstly a simple list of the 7 attitudes Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends to adopt:
Secondly, (and the best option even if they are called the 9 attitudes for some reason ) is this excellent video of the man himself outlining and describing them.
Finally the 3rd option is some brief notes and ideas I have written for each one. All the good ideas themselves come from the book or from an excellent discussion at the Salisbury Jamyang Buddhist group. I have just jotted them down here.
Oh! the constant stream of judgment, labeling and categorising that goes on in our heads; everyone of our thoughts and emotions that arise come with a blind reaction which then leads to an automatic stream of thoughts, which often end up having very little basis at all in actual fact. So we should step back and, as best we can, suspend judgment and simply observe whatever comes up.
“Patience is a kind of wisdom” is a lovely phrase from Jon Kabat-Zinn. We try to give ourselves the room to be with whatever comes up – after all, whatever is happening right now is all that there can possibly be in this present moment. And impatience for something else cannot change it one iota . There’s no point wishing away this moment for a better one in the future, which is why patience is a good counter balance for an over active or easily bored mind.
Try to see things as if for the first time. Mark Williams talks about ‘habit releasers’. Having a freshness to what happens can help us avoid old negative habits that maybe we weren’t fully aware of. This of course is easier said than done, but making simple changes in our daily life like sitting in a different seat on the bus or walking a different road to work can help us have a brief insight into the power of beginner’s mind. Try it.
All this teaching, the books we read, the videos we click on, only show us the way. We need to have faith in how things feel for us. Try it out and if it doesn’t work then fair do’s. Once we can trust ourselves more and own basic goodness more we will not only “enhance the loveliness within ourselves” (Christina Feldman), but we will also find we are able to the same with other people.
Striving means a rejection of the present. And so there is no aim in meditation or mindfulness except to be who we already are and where we already are, which of course we are doing anyway. If we are angry we pay attention to being angry, if we are judging we pay attention to our judgements, if we are happy we pay attention to that. This non striving allied with patience will work. Trust it.
There is a lot of debate over this word. I know a mindfulness teacher who works with cancer patients who avoids using it at all and I can understand why. However, I think acceptance is more of a willingness to see things as they really are rather than a passive resignation to the bad and unfair stuff in our lives. On the cushion we do this by not trying to be something else, somewhere else or someone else in each moment.
If we can go to sleep we already know how to let go. Each night we let go of our body and mind before falling asleep. See that angry thought? Let it go. See that desire? What happens when we let it go?
If we find it difficult to let something go then we can instead focus on its opposite; what does it feel like to grasp onto something?