Mindfulness is your natural state that we all can awaken to. It is not something you need to strive for, can buy, achieve or create; it is already within you. You just need to separate and navigate through the clutter of your mind to discover what has always been within you. This is what makes it so complicated and frustrating to people, as we are taught to strive and chase for results; the paradox with Mindfulness is you can not think your way towards it but rather simply allow it to unfold, literally like peeling back an artichoke to reveal the heart. Lastly, only you can do this, nobody can bring it for you or do it on your behalf. The double paradox then becomes that Mindfulness is not something you do, but rather BE. Confused? Annoyed?! Then let’s explore it some more…
Definition: Mindfulness is present moment awareness, being in the moment, observing your life moment-by-moment as it unfolds. Our mind dwells in the past and/or fantasizes in the future but is rarely here, in the moment, fully aware and awakened. It is not a passive state, where you empty or free your mind; rather, it is with intention and full attention that we arrive to the NOW. Once we are in the moment, then it is our task to be nonjudgmental and practice loving-kindness and compassion, both to others and ourselves. Often we treat ourselves the worst, with an “inner bully” constantly degrading self. We’re always judging, comparing, regretting, criticizing, labeling, looking back, fantasizing forward. Don’t believe me? Allow yourself to be still and listen to your thoughts, telling yourself you are not worthy of love, of happiness, not smart enough, not good enough, not beautiful enough or how the world is not fitting in to your ideal mental construct. We are often our biggest critic and own worst enemy, how we look inward and project outward, and this can be a source for immense suffering.
Our mind is a machine, just doing its job pumping out thoughts nonstop similar to our heart pumping blood. The goal of Mindfulness is not to stop, detour, reroute or change our thoughts but rather to observe them without clinging and attaching to them. We are not our thoughts – we have thousands of them every day! – and many are angry, anxious, agitated with emotional triggers. When we are immersed in these thoughts, we become tied to these thoughts and literally live them out as reality. Often, our body (which is truth; the mind will lie to ourselves but the truth of how we feel manifests in the body) can not tell the difference between reality and the lies our mind tells ourselves. So pain can develop in our body as our mind suppresses harmful thoughts. We want it to go away, so the mind pushes it away as we try to forget about it, typically shoving it into our unconscious which inevitably ends up in the fiber and tissue of our bodies. We then get headaches, IBS, back aches, eczema, even arm pain!
What to do? If we can get present enough to step away and observe our thoughts, we can then allow for a little space/separation as our thoughts rise. This subtle shift offers a powerful tool to not get tangled up in, and become, our thoughts. But how do we get present in our busy lives, how can we slow our mind down when it often feels like it’s whirling at 100 miles/hour? The solution is to ground our mind, to anchor it, into something our mind can focus on. The most popular method to anchor is the breath, as breathing is something we do all day & night but rarely even notice. Focus on the breath…in…out…pause…in…out…pause. Feel it move from your nostrils down to your lungs and back. Don’t analyze or overthink it but rather just FEEL this natural movement. Another successful method is to come into your body. Focus on your fingertips and/or your toes, applying all your mental energy into these extremities. You will soon feel them tingle. Nothing has changed within your body other than you are now rerouting your mental energy into your body. With practice, you can then move to other areas of your body and even follow your heartbeat. By anchoring, whether through breath or coming into your body or focusing on an external object or chanting a mantra, your mind gradually steers toward present moment awareness. When your mind slows down enough to sense the stillness, you are in the now. Better yet, every time you can catch yourself drifting off and realizing you are not in the moment, then you are in the moment simply by this acknowledgment as you are no longer swept up, drifting in thought and therefore disidentified with your mind.
With practice, we will quickly notice the extraordinary volume of thoughts we produce as well as the pure absurdity of our thoughts, many of which loop repeatedly. It’s a nonstop mental commentary, a running dialogue you have with yourself. The redundancy of some thoughts, how we keep returning to them over and over again, will shock you if you are present enough to observe them. I categorize my familiar ones as my Top 10 reoccurring thought patterns as I can then identify what they are and how they continuously return in my head. By watching and finally acknowledging these patterns, it takes some of the emotional charge out of the thoughts which offer some emotional freedom. And with some space/separation, Mindfulness allows us not to cling or attach to each passing thought, most of which evaporate just as mysteriously as they appear (only to have them, like your Top 10 hits, keep boomeranging back). We can simply let them go by not getting immersed in them. Think of a waterfall, with your thoughts being the constant stream of water flowing down. If we can remove ourselves from this waterfall, perched nearby under shelter observing the waterfall, we are no longer immersed in thought. Stated another way, we can train our mind to be like a deep vast ocean with the waves (thoughts) rising and ending at the shore – the mind stays still even with this constant activity. This stillness provides purity as we let the toxic waves pass on by, ultimately disappearing without us getting wrapped up in them.
Of course, you will get caught up in these waves and ride them, sometimes for seconds, minutes, hours, even days! – but every time you come to consciousness, you break this chain of thought and have the power to release this from your mindset. This is enormously powerful as it is these very waves of thoughts that often carry anger, anxiety, fear, agitation. To view them with a tiny bit of space/separation allows us to see them more clearly, more objectively, for what they really are and with practice we can consciously choose to let go of them. We can also depersonalize them with this new POV; rather than saying “I am angry” the new perspective says “I am having angry thoughts”. This radical shift makes it less emotionally potent by not taking ownership of your thought, lessening your identity with that angry thought. Studies have shown it is even more effective to refer to yourself in the third person, such as “Mark is having angry thoughts”. Now you have fully depersonalized your emotion and created even more incremental space for the whirlwind of thought. After experiencing a few scenarios like this and successfully creating separation, you observe the temporary impermanence of all thought and get better clarity yet still on how your thoughts do not define you.
With time, you start to understand the inner working mechanisms of your mind. You see how thoughts just randomly appear but can equally rapidly disappear. You start to observe patterns, how the mind repeatedly returns to troublesome areas that can emotionally charge you: The triggers of anger (“I cannot believe she said that”), of agitation (“why does he keep emailing me about this”), of fear (“I’ll never get a better job”), of hopelessness (“my life is ruined”). With dedicated practice, you’ll notice how you return to these big themes, your Top 10 hits, over and over again like a broken record. But now, with Mindfulness, with this present moment awareness, you are not sucked into these emotional feelings and they ultimately lose their power and emotional charge. You can start to view them with a more open perspective, looking at it more objectively rather than actually living in these thoughts. I literally laugh to myself as I observe this phenomenon, saying there I go again returning to the same sticky thought that refuses to go away. Emboldened by this new insight, you can then ask, Is my life really so bad or is this my ‘inner bully’ always hammering me about this even though it may not be true?
Occasionally, you’ll get a thought (often in your Top 10) that you just cannot simply shake. It continues to come back, over and over again. A powerful discipline to manage this is called Analytical Meditation, a magnificent tool I use on a ‘sticky’ thought that simply just won’t go away. Be present and allow yourself to recognize this thought without judgment as you hold this thought in awareness. Then extract it, literally isolating it in your minds eye, as you can see if front of you but out of your mind now. Seeing it from this vantage takes some of the emotional charge out of it. Then try putting bubble wrap around it and purge it out of your mind, visually seeing that thought (whether it’s a person, event) in front of you. You essentially are taking it out of your stream of consciousness. You now wrapped it up and discarded it out of your mind. Of course, it may return in a few minutes or hours, but now you can visualize it, harmlessly oscillating in bubble wrap in front of you (versus within you) with the repeatable power of purging it from your mind.
Your mind is designed to flow like a river, but your natural state is free of toxins and poisons. Think of a polluted river that you cannot see the bottom of due to pollution, oil, dye, mucky water. Now visualize a clear water, sparkling river flowing beautifully downstream. That is what Mindfulness can offer but you, and only you, can clean your own muddy waters