Mindfulness as a word, a concept, and a practice permeates our awareness these days. We learn of ways to be mindful through meditation and intentional attention so that we can cope with the myriad challenges that arise, often unexpectedly, in our life. Sometimes we can greet the depression, anxiety, eating disorder, or physical pain with composure; sometimes we find ourselves swamped with the physical and emotional sensations of the experience. We deeply wish to be able to live well through the good and bad times and we may often feel we lack the skills to achieve that apparently simple goal. In this book, we will work together to cultivate our capacity to live skillfully with careful attention so that living well is the outcome in each moment.
As a word, mindfulness has been around for centuries. In our own lives it would have shown up in the very simple advice given by our grandparents and parents. “Be careful.” “Stop and think.” “What were you trying to do?” “Wait a second.” All of these statements were little bells calling us back in to the present moment when we had gone off on some track or were operating on an automatic mode when doing something. They bring us into a state of remembering what we are doing in each moment. In fact, the translation of the original word for mindfulness, sati, means to remember.
The concept of mindfulness is a little more complex. It folds in ideas of being “in the flow” of things, experiences of fullness, peace and “being one” with an activity or a scene. There is fluidity in the concept which lends itself to our ideas of “Zen-like states” although we may not really know what a “Zen-like state” is. It is a construct that points to our state of mind as we interact with our internal and external environment. Large volumes have been written about this idea and it would be easy to get lost in the intellectual process of trying to understand it.
The practice of mindfulness is perhaps the most important in our understanding of “Mindfulness.” Like learning to ride a bicycle, we can understand it as a word and a concept but until we actually get on that little seat and find the pedals, we haven’t begun to truly experience the word or idea. In this book, we will unpack this part of mindfulness: the behaviours that go into creating a practice that leads us in the direction of well being. To do that we will constantly come back and remember the process of mindfulness as it is relevant to living skillfully: creating an intention to well being, paying attention to what is in this moment, and approaching what is with an attitude of curiousity and openness.
Let’s look at how this unfolds in our awareness as a stream of experience. In our multi-layered life, there are experiences in which we hold our breath in awe or surprise; where the body vibrates with joy and excitement; or when the mind rests gently like a butterfly landing on an open flower. In those moments we find ourselves fully attentive: open and available as both butterfly and flower, intertwined. In contrast, when we encounter painful times, we close our attention off from the experience and we become unavailable to the pain which threatens to overwhelm us. We develop a reluctance to re-engage in the things that remind us of or cause us to revisit those painful moments. Our attention is diverted and distracted leaving us with a sense of life that is fractured and fragmented.
Being human, our attention is drawn and attaches to sensations that are pleasant and joyful. As they fade, those momentary experiences become an ache and a yearning which drive us in many directions – not all of which lead to good health. We activate our intention to live well by trying to recapture the pleasurable moments and avoid the unpleasant ones. This is perfectly understandable. It is our idea of what it means to live well. However, it doesn’t take long before we begin to notice that, despite our best intentions, we may not be choosing the actions that are most likely to help us live well. Along with our best intentions, we also need to be skilful in the means we choose to foster well being.
Imagine having had a wonderful meal. The body is nourished; the sensations are activated. There is a feeling of being replenished, satisfied, and energized. Now imagine carrying the leftovers around for months in the hopes that they will continue to evoke the same sensations. We might even have done something like it when we order the same meal from the restaurant menu because it was once delicious or crave an activity or substance that gave us a lift away from the ordinary. Hanging onto the past or chasing after the future are unskillful means by which we hope to fulfill or protect ourselves but they are unlikely to have healthy consequences.
Our tendency to prefer the lighter, pleasant moments, to block out or run from the unpleasant ones, and to feel restless (bored) when things are neutral is normal (but not healthy). The consequence, however, is an experience of dissatisfaction when our preferences are not available to us. Living skillfully is cultivated by the way our body and mind meet the events that occur in our lives. When we are able to enter that interface with an attitude of even-handed observation of what is present, our quality of attention becomes steady, and living well is the outcome.
Attention to the nature of our experience generates our intentions to live well and the actions we choose to realize those intentions are guided by our attitude towards the experience. Joy and woe are part of our lives and there is little we can do to control their appearance. However, in the practice of mindfulness, we learn to focus our attention on how our experience is unfolding, work with what is truly possible in the experience, and cultivate an attitude that nourishes our well being independent of the valence (positive, negative or neutral) of the experience.