We hear about mindfulness a lot, but with so many things competing for our attention, we struggle to maintain it. The fact is that few of us practice it regularly.
Mindfulness is about being in the moment, and it’s one of the most basic spiritual skills to practice.
Mindfulness is a shift from being in our heads to being fully present in each moment. The more we let go of thinking/planning/controlling the more fully aware we become, our senses awaken, and our minds become quiet.
This is a simple shift from human thinking to human being. The more we drop our stories about the past, future and present the more we are available to be in present. However, our minds are conditioned to being in charge. We tend to give them full reign to try to fix, manage, control, understand, judge, blame. We engage in a relentless inner dialogue, commenting on experiences inside and outside of us.
Here’s an example of an inner dialogue: Say you get a pain in your belly. Your mind starts to chatter about it. “Oh that hurts, what did I have for lunch? No, that’s not it, I didn’t eat anything out of the ordinary. Is that where my appendix is? Yes, on left side. Oh no, I can’t afford to have appendicitis now, I have too much to do, I have that trip planned for next week. Are my tickets refundable?”
Notice how the mind gets busy.
Then moments later, the belly pain abates after burping up some air.
Now you might imagine the mind quiets down or learns from this false alarm, but no. The mind moves on to the next shiny object.
“Oh right, my trip! That trip is going to be amazing. I need to pack. Oh, that reminds me I need to buy some sunscreen. I hope the hotel is as nice as it looks in the brochure. Sheila told me about a friend who stayed in a hotel nearby that had bedbugs. I can’t cope with bedbugs. How can I tell if there are bed bugs? Maybe it’s too risky to go there! Maybe I should change my travel plans and go somewhere else.”
This is an example of the tyranny of the untrained mind.
How to Go From Chaos to Mindfulness
That’s where mindfulness exercises come into the picture. They help us quiet the mind and experience our inner and outer worlds through our senses instead of our thoughts.
Before you balk at the idea of sitting cross-legged on a meditation cushion for hours, let me reassure you: Mindfulness exercises don’t have to be complicated or difficult.
Mindfulness is just noticing.
I include a lot of mindfulness exercises in my retreats.
For example, this past fall, I sent my retreat participants outside to notice leaves.
I asked them to look at colors, textures, shapes, and focus on nothing else. They were instructed to notice when they were lapsing into storytelling i.e. “this is a big yellow leaf” or “this leaf is really beautiful” and move back to simply noticing the leaf.
They were amazed at how much more connected they felt to nature and themselves.
They felt they were seeing leaves for the first time; relishing their colors, shapes, and sizes.
Mindfulness can be that simple!
You might just look around and notice anything that’s red. Don’t tell stories about it, just notice.
The minute that you start to describe it, you are back in your head.
The very act of describing something is an attempt to capture it and control our experience of it.
Once we capture it, we file it away somewhere and go back to the inner dialogue. We are no longer really seeing/feeling/smelling/hearing/tasting whatever we are encountering.
For example, “What a beautiful red cardinal. I’ve never seen one that big. Oh, yes, I have, it reminds me of the cardinal that had a nest in the maple in my backyard growing up. I remember that time when Dad threatened to cut that tree down because it was growing too close to the house. Diane and I made protest signs that said, “Save the cardinal” and sat near the tree…”
And off we go again.
The mind is like a runaway train. Notice how the cardinal is just a jumping-off point for yet another story.
Intentionally moving away from thought cultivates our skill of being present. Mindfulness is a spiritual skill that we can employ anytime, anywhere.
All we have to do is notice.