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On Mindfulness

Savour the Mundane

“Perfect happiness comes in tiny, incremental units only, perhaps no more than five minutes at a time,” writes Alain de Botton in The Course of Love. “This is what one has to take with both hands and cherish.”

Yet these moments need not be rare. In Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh argues that they can be found in even the most mundane of tasks, if we take the time to savour them:

“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren't doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle.”


Seneca on Treating Every Morning as a Bonus

Life is short. We know this intellectually, but we rarely act on it. We fill our lives with bullshit, and assume there'll be plenty of time tomorrow to do all the things we don't get done today.

In one of his Letters From A Stoic, Roman philosopher and statesman Lucius Annaeus Seneca urges us to be more grateful for the time that is given to us, by living as if each day was our last and treating every morning as a bonus:

"Let us go to our sleep with joy and gladness; let us say: I have lived; the course which Fortune set for me is finished. And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension.

When a man has said: "I have lived!", every morning he arises he receives a bonus."


Mindful Parenting

As a parent, I've often felt the urge to rush through the bedtime ritual - dinner, baths, PJs, teeth, books - with my kids. The few precious hours after they're asleep are sometimes my only time to do chores and pursue personal interests. It's easy to become impatient when a protracted bedtime cuts into that.

In Love 2.0: Creating Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson shares a similar experience:

"My second-born was such a good sleeper that my husband or I could place him in his crib awake and he’d happily drift off to sleep all on his own. Our firstborn was altogether different. He needed to be in our arms while he drifted off. He also needed a particular motion, one that we couldn’t achieve in the comfort of a rocking chair, but only by walking. For at least the first year of his life, then, my husband or I would slowly pace across the tiny nursery, holding him in our arms, for up to thirty minutes or more. He trained us well. We learned that we could only place him in his crib after he’d succumbed to a deep sleep. Anything less would lead to another long bout of pacing.

With so many things to juggle as new parents, not to mention our own sleep deprivation, my husband and I began to dread the time-sink of this bedtime ritual. We’d yearn to be released from the shadowy nursery so that we could tackle the mounting dishes and laundry, make headway on a few more work projects by e-mail, or collapse into our own bed."

I had the same experience with both my children when they were babies. On several occasions I had to take my son out for a drive before he would finally fall asleep.

But like any stressful situation, it's not the situation itself that's difficult, it's the interpretation we choose to place on it.

"Then, my husband discovered a radical shift that changed everything. He gave up thinking about where else he could be and immersed himself in this parenting experience. He tuned in to our son’s heartbeat and breath. He appreciated his warmth, his weight in his arms, and the sweet smell of his skin. By doing so, he transformed a parental chore into a string of loving moment. When my husband shared his secret with me, we each not only enjoyed this bedtime ritual all the more, but our son also fell more swiftly into his deep sleep. Looking back, I now recognize that even though we were physically present with our son as we had walked him to sleep, at first we were not also emotionally present."

Instead of seeing bedtime as a chore, by choosing to exercise mindfulness Fredrickson and her husband turned it into an opportunity to connect with their child.


On Hope

When life is hard, we often turn to hope. 

Hope allows us to believe that our predicament is only temporary, that things will get better again. Having hope is usually considered a good thing. According to Psychology Today, “As long as a patient, individual or victim has hope, they can recover from anything and everything”.

“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear,” agrees Thich Nhat Hanh in Peace Is Every Step. “If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”

But, he continues, there’s a catch:

“But that is the most that hope can do for us - to make some hardship lighter. When I think deeply about the nature of hope, I see something tragic…

Hope is for the future. It cannot help us discover joy, peace, or enlightenment in the present moment… I do not mean that you should not have hope, but that hope is not enough. Hope can create an obstacle for you, and if you dwell in the energy of hope, you will not bring yourself back entirely into the present moment. If you re-channel those energies into being aware of what is going on in the present moment, you will be able to make a breakthrough and discover joy and peace right in the present moment...”

Instead of hoping for things to get better in the future, we should learn to appreciate what we have right now.

His advice is echoed by Pema Chodron in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times:

“Without giving up hope – that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be – we will never relax with where we are or who we are...

Abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations…”

Give up hope? This advice may seem indefensibly defeatist.

Yet sometimes hope leads to more anxiety and stress, not less. We pay a price for hope: fear. If I am diagnosed with cancer, I hope I will be able to fight it off – but I fear that I will not. If I lose my job, I hope I will soon find another – but I fear that I will not. If my partner tells me they are unhappy in our marriage, I hope we can work together to save it – but I fear that we will fail.

Fear, not hopelessness, is the opposite of hope. In Everyday Zen, Charlotte Joko Beck writes

“…what happens with you when you begin to feel uneasy, unsettled, queasy? Notice the panic, notice when you instantly grab for something. That grabbing is based on hope. Not grabbing is called hopelessness...

A life lived with no hope is a peaceful, joyous, compassionate life.”

Hopelessness does not mean that we do not care about our situation. It does not mean that we should never strive for anything. We can have goals, and if we achieve them that is fine. However, if we fail to achieve them that is fine too. In the words of the Serenity Prayer, it's about having the serenity to accept the things that we recognise we cannot change. It does not excuse us from the need to find the courage to change the things we can.


David Whyte on Expectation, Gratitude and Unrequited Love

ConsolationsExpectation is the foundation of disappointment. Without a preconceived notion of how something should be, it is impossible for us to be unhappy.

When it comes to other people, we are often told to accept them for who they are. However, we should also be willing to accept them for what they are, for the particular kind of relationship we actually have with them rather than the relationship we wish we had. Instead of wishing that an acquaintance could be a close friend, we should appreciate them for simply being someone we can share a hobby with. Instead of wishing that a friend could be a lover, we should simply be content that they are our friend.

It's this kind of acceptance that poet David Whyte writes about, among other things, in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words:

"We can never know in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we demand a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely we find ourselves disappointed and bereaved and in that grief may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations."

Perhaps, says Whyte, "being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention". To be grateful for the particular relationship we have with another person, to appreciate its beauty, simply requires us to fully inhabit the present moment with that person, not some imaginary, wished-for future. "Beauty," says Whyte, "is the harvest of presence."

Perhaps the hardest kind of relationship to be grateful for is that of unrequited love. And yet, says Whyte, this is the most common form of love:

"What affection is ever returned over time in the same measure or quality with which it is given? Every man or woman loves differently and uniquely and each of us holds different dreams and hopes and falls in love or is the object of love at a very specific threshold in a very particular life where very, very particular qualities are needed for the next few years of our existence. What other human being could ever love us as we need to be loved? And whom could we know so well and so intimately through all the twists and turns of a given life that we could show them exactly, the continuous and appropriate form of affection they need?"

It is the expectation that love should be perfectly requited that so often leads to heartbreak:

"Requited love may happen, but it is a beautiful temporary, a seasonal blessing, the aligning of stars not too often in the same quarter of the heavens; an astonishing blessing, but it is a harvest coming only once every long cycle, and a burden to the mind and the imagination when we set that dynamic as the state to which we must always return to in order to feel ourselves in a true, consistent, loving relationship."

The key, again, is to let go of our expectations and simply be grateful for what is:

"Human beings live in disappointment and a self-appointed imprisonment when they refuse to love unless they are loved the selfsame way in return. It is the burden of marriage, the difficult invitation at the heart of parenting and the central difficulty in our relationship with any imagined, living future. The great discipline seems to be to give up wanting to control the manner in which we are requited, and to forgo the natural disappointment that flows from expecting an exact and measured reciprocation."


Noting

One technique to help prevent our Thinking Mind fusing with our emotions is "noting".

Andy Puddicombe of Headspace.com describes the use of noting in the context of meditation:

"Noting is applying a note or a label to a thought or a feeling that arises in the mind. So usually, in everyday life, we're so caught up in our thoughts and our feelings that we don't have any clarity, we don't have any awareness, so we tend to feel very overwhelmed.  But when we're able to see it clearly, to apply a note or a label to it, it gives this feeling of space. We don't identify so strongly with it, so it doesn't feel quite so heavy, quite so serious, it feels a little bit lighter.

But we need to apply noting in the right kind of way. To begin with, it's tempting to think that you have to try and catch every single thought... But it's not like that. It's only when you realise that the mind has actually wandered off, that you got completely distracted, and then it's like, "oh OK, oh that's thinking" or "oh, that's feeling" and then gently coming back to the object of focus.

When I was taught this I was always told to imagine that I had a crystal glass in one hand and a feather in the other. It's as though you just want to gently brush the glass with the feather... it's really, really gentle: "Oh OK, that's anxiety" and back to the object of focus."

Noting isn't easy, especially when strong emotion is involved. Meditation is one way we can practice it. But it's valuable because it offers a way to help us deal with our emotions that doesn't require us to attempt to suppress or avoid them. Noting helps us to acknowledge what we feel, while refusing to engage with it.


Bhante Gunaratana on Impermanence

In Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Gunaratana provides a chilling reminder of the unseen forces that are, at this very moment, slowly, imperceptibly destroying everything around us:

"Even as you read these words, your body is aging. But you pay no attention to that. The book in your hand is decaying. The print is fading, and the pages are becoming brittle. The walls around you are aging. The molecules within those walls are vibrating at an enormous rate, and everything is shifting, going to pieces, and slowly dissolving. You pay no attention to that either. Then one day you look around you. Your skin is wrinkled and your joints ache. The book is a yellowed, faded thing; and the building is falling apart. So you pine for lost youth, cry when your possessions are gone. Where does this pain come from? It comes from your own inattention. You failed to look closely at life. You failed to observe the constantly shifting flow of the world as it passed by. You set up a collection of mental constructions—“ me,” “the book,” “the building”— and you assumed that those were solid, real entities. You assumed that they would endure forever. They never do."


On Mindfulness

In our lives, we are all trying to do two things: find happiness and avoid suffering.

Typically, we do this by trying to get and hang on to the things we think will give us pleasure and avoid the things we think will cause us pain. When we find someone we love, we marry them. When we see a new gadget, we rush out to buy it. When we find a neighbourhood we like, we buy a house there. 

Despite this, however, we often find ourselves dissatisfied. Our partner’s mannerisms, once endearing, become annoying. Our phone, once perfectly adequate, suddenly seems too small. A noisy family moves in next door. If only we had a more understanding partner, or that new iPhone, or we lived somewhere else, then we would be happy, we think.

Yet even if we get these things, our happiness is only short-lived. There are no perfect people, places to live, or phones. Before long we become dissatisfied again, and new “if only”s take the place of the old.

Escaping this cycle requires becoming comfortable with where we are right now. How can we do that?

Why we suffer

First, we need to understand why we suffer.

You might think we suffer when something bad happens to us. However that’s not exactly true. We don't suffer because of the situation. It's our opinions about that situation that cause us to suffer.

For example, being stuck in a traffic jam is not inherently bad. It just means we are moving more slowly than usual along a particular stretch of road. Only when we allow ourselves to get frustrated, and start thinking about the fact that we’re now going to be late for work, and that this means we’re going to miss an important meeting with our client, do we become unhappy.

The distinction may seem pedantic, but it’s crucial. It means we can reduce the suffering we experience by changing the way we respond to a situation. As Viktor Frankl observed in Man’s Search For Meaning, subsequently echoed by Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, there is a gap between stimulus and response into which we are able to step.

However, even if we agree that this gap exists and that we can use it to choose a response that will cause us less suffering, being able to do it is another thing entirely. Perhaps we can manage it when we’re stuck in traffic, but what about a more challenging situation – being left by our spouse, for example?

Fortunately, there is a tool that is designed to help us do this: mindfulness.

What mindfulness is

Mindfulness is simply the non-judgmental observation of whatever is going on in the present moment. That can be an experience (say, the feeling of the wind blowing in your hair), a thought (“I wonder what I’ll have for dinner tonight”) or an emotion (“That guy is an idiot!”).

By observing it, we distance ourselves from it. This can help us avoid getting sucked into a train of thought that, at best, distracts us from what’s going on, or, at worst, leads to us obsessing over something over which we have no control. This distance is the very gap between stimulus and response to which Frankl was referring. By consciously creating and enlarging this distance, it becomes easier for us to acknowledge what is happening while refusing to become entangled in what we think and feel about it. It allows us to respond to the situation instead of reacting to it.

In particular, when we experience a painful situation, mindfulness means being unafraid to look directly at it and experience it as it is, instead of trying to avoid it. As Pema Chodron memorably puts it in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times we should:

"...acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look... We could smell that piece of shit. We could feel it; what is its texture, color, and shape?"

Mindfulness also means not becoming caught up in positive experiences, thoughts or emotions. We should enjoy them when they arise, certainly, but take care to not crave their continuation. When a positive experience ends, as they all inevitably must, we will feel sadness and loss in direct proportion to the strength of our attachment to that experience.

What mindfulness is not

Mindfulness is not about analysing our experiences, thoughts and emotions. It’s not about suppressing them, or denying them, or even reappraising them to see them in a different, more constructive way. It is purely about observing them, then seeing what happens.

Mindfulness is not indifference. If we are indifferent to something, we don't care about it. It implies a degree of apathy. When we are mindful, however, we do care. Mindfulness does not remove our responsibility to act if a situation can be changed, but it encourages us to accept those situations that cannot. After all, if a situation cannot be changed, what is achieved by obsessing over it?

Mindfulness is not about being emotionless. Joy and sadness are entirely appropriate in certain situations. If a loved one died, it would be dysfunctional for us to not feel sad. Mindfulness is simply about not letting those feelings of sadness overwhelm us. As a result, writes Charlotte Beck in Everyday Zen:

"If we can accept things just the way they are, we’re not going to be greatly upset by anything. And if we do become upset it’s over more quickly."

Developing mindfulness

Like playing an instrument, mindfulness is a learned skill. And like playing an instrument, where we must practice our scales before we can play in a concert, mindfulness requires practice too.

Meditation is the formal practice of mindfulness. It allows us to improve our skill so it becomes easier to apply mindfulness in the heat of everyday life. As exercise strengthens our muscles, meditation strengthens our ability to be mindful.

There is nothing complex about meditation. The most common way of meditating is to sit still and focus on a single thing. Often this focus is our breath, flowing in and out of our body. As we sit, our mind invariably becomes distracted and we start thinking about something else. When we realise that our attention has drifted, we gently label the thought (like brushing a crystal glass with a feather), then patiently return our attention to the breath. This is not a problem. We don't beat ourselves up when it happens. Indeed, being distracted, then returning our attention to the breath, over and over and over again, is the entire point.

Meditation does not have to be a big time commitment. Just ten minutes per day can make a difference. Even though meditating is a simple procedure, having an instructor talk you through what to do during the session can be helpful. For this, I’ve found the guided meditations offered by Headspace to be excellent.

Conclusion

While meditation is important for helping to develop mindfulness, it's important to remember that this is just practice. The goal remains to be mindful in everyday life.

Mindfulness is not a panacea. It is a process of gradually retraining the mind to respond to the change inherent in life in a more constructive way. As Dan Harris says, it might make you 10% happier. That's good enough for me.


The River

Once upon a time, there was a river. In the river, stood a man.

Sometimes flowers would float past. These the man would grab, to savour their beauty. Sometimes driftwood would bob by. This the man would avoid, pushing away the pieces that came too close lest they strike and injure him.

Day and night the man stood there, grasping his flowers and dodging the driftwood.

One day there was a fearsome storm. The river rose and became choked with debris. Buffeted by the flotsam, the man struggled to keep his footing. The flowers were swept from his grasp.

Nearing exhaustion, the man caught sight of a young boy sitting cross-legged on the bank.

“Help me!” cried the man. “The river will sweep me away!”

The boy stared back, puzzled. “Then climb onto the bank,” he said.

“I don’t know how,” replied the man.

So the boy showed him the way. The man climbed out of the river and sat beside him.

“But now how will I collect the flowers?” the man asked.

“You don’t need to hold them to appreciate their beauty,” said the boy. “In your grasp they will wither and die anyway.”

So the man sat on the bank, watching the flowers and the driftwood float by. And for the first time, he smiled.