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."
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.
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.