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Back to the Basics: Why Mindfulness Matters

21 Feb

mindfulness-practices-page-001Handout I created to accompany my talk

Preparation for a teaching talk I gave last night at my local sangha, Be Here Now, entitled: Back to the Basics, Why Mindfulness Matters:

To listen to the audio file of the actual talk I gave last night: http://www.openway.org/content/back-basics-why-mindfulness-matters-nicole-dunn

Rather than waiting until the end of this talk to offer my solidifying words of summary, of which I hope will be of service and value, I’d like to start off with them instead: Mindfulness matters because life matters. We have only this one life span of 20 or 30 or 50 or 70 or 90 years. If we do not cultivate mindfulness, it is easy for our lives to pass by very quickly – for our lives to be full of suffering, anger, sorrow, and envy. It is easy for us to take our lives for granted, to be unfulfilled and unsatisfied. Without mindfulness, it is easy to spend our whole lives caught in the past and/or consumed by the future. Mindfulness is the friend that shows us that another way of living is possible.

To help illustrate this, I’d like to share my first experience with mindfulness in an applied context – my first practical encounter that wasn’t based in intellectual knowledge or theory. (In order to shorthand it, the version of this story, which I’m including here, is taken from the book I’ve written and am working on getting published.)

My first real-life experience of what the heck mindfulness was came in early 2002. I was 22-years old and my husband, Mike, and I had started attending a meditation group in the tradition of Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh. At the time, we were living on the East Coast in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where I was born and raised. We were trying to save money in order to move back to Missoula, Montana, where Mike grew up and he and I met and married. I was working for a preschool and after school program and Mike was working at U-Haul. Between us, we shared one vehicle: our trusty, old Ford Econoline van, affectionately named Humphrey. (We lived in Humphrey for a year after we got married and he took us faithfully on the long and lovely road up to Alaska and back). Mike would drop me off at work; I would walk to the library down the road when I was finished; and Mike would pick me up there when he was done with his shift. On one particular day, I went to the library to wait for Mike after work, as usual. I was really looking forward to meditation that night. Although we had only been attending the weekly group for a short time, I quickly took to it and found it refreshing and grounding in ways I could not, at the time, fully understand.

After ten minutes of standing outside the library and waiting for Mike, I began to wonder what time it was, so I went back into the library to check. (It’s important to mention that my idea of arriving on time to anything means getting there about ten minutes early). Once I saw the clock, I began to get a little irritated. I didn’t want to be late to meditation. I went back outside and anxiously scanned the road for any sign of Humphrey. After ten more minutes, I went to check the time again and then proceeded to get very impatient; elevating from irritated to frustrated. I stomped back outside and paced back and forth along the sidewalk, thinking to myself: Where the hell is he? We’re going to be late! Another ten minutes went by and back in I went, to check the time, as if that would somehow help matters. After my third venture inside, my irritation, which had turned to frustration, grew to anger. I was pissed off! I stormed back outside muttered profanities to myself as I paced rapidly and kept a militant eye on the road. We were going to be late to meditation for sure!!!

In the midst of my internal fuming and cursing, I sat down on a bench. In exasperation, I exhaled heavily and slumped against the wooden slats, my head tilted back, face pointing upwards to the sky. In a seemingly cliché moment, I received a message, as though it were etched in the clouds overhead. The words thundered down: Just enjoy me. Those words resonated inside of me, loud and gentle and clear. The present moment had sent me a message. In that instant, I became aware of how embittered I had become while waiting; how tense my body and mind were. I was aware of how futile all of my pacing and checking of the time and angry mutterings really were – and, though it seems painfully clear to me now, I realized just then, that my ranting and raving wasn’t going to make him arrive any sooner. During my 20-minute escalation, I had no idea how stressed out and irrational I had become. With the words, just enjoy me, the light of mindfulness shone through my thick fog of anger.

I got up from the bench and suddenly realized what a beautiful spring day it was. The sky was magnificently blue and the afternoon sun was warm and welcoming. I did some slow walking meditation and admired the budding trees and green grass. I shifted my gaze, from anxiously watching the road, to my immediate surroundings and I practiced getting in touch with my breathing. When I calmed down, I was then able to look more deeply into why my husband might be late. I mean, it was unlikely that he chose not to pick me up on time. I saw clearly that he was probably helping a customer and was unable to leave on time. I stopped waiting for my husband to arrive and instead practiced enjoying the day. That made all the difference. The time I had spent waiting felt like an agonizing eternity (not to mention exhausting), even though it was only about 20-30 minutes, while the same amount of time I spent enjoying was refreshing, energizing, and liberating.

When he did finally arrive, much too late to go to meditation, I greeted him with a smile and said, “Thank you for being late.” And I truly meant it. I was very aware, in that moment, that had I not had the transformation I did, my first words to him would’ve been very, very different and the evening would’ve been ruined because of my anger-fueled words and actions. It was my first practical encounter with the power of mindfulness and I was so very grateful for the real-world translation.

_______________

Mindfulness matters because the alternative often involves living in a state of cloudiness, where our perceptions often become very skewed. Without mindfulness, it is easy to get caught in thinking that our views truly and accurately reflect things as they really are. Mindfulness affords us the necessary space in order to allow us to see things more clearly.

Without mindfulness, it is easy to take the actions of others as a personal affront. It is easy to become stuck in our own tiny box of self, thinking everything is about us. Without mindfulness, we are ruled by our emotions and allow them to dictate our speech and actions. Without mindfulness, we will do and say things that will cause harm – this doesn’t mean it’s not possible to cause harm while being mindful, but we’ll cause far greater harm without the use and practice of mindfulness. With the spaciousness that mindfulness offers, our understanding has the opportunity to ripen and become less obstructed by our mis-perceptions. And from this less cloudy state, our words and actions have the ability to create ease, compassion, and connection, vs. separation, anger, sorrow, etc.

Mindfulness is our ability and capacity to Be Here Now, awake, alive, and engaged in the present moment. There is no “right” way to practice. There are dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of ways to cultivate mindfulness. When we are breathing in and we are aware that we are breathing in, that is mindfulness. When we’re experiencing sorrow and we’re aware that we’re experiencing sorrow, that is mindfulness. When we are walking and we feel our footsteps touch down on the ground, that is mindfulness. When we are with a good friend and we are actively listening to what they have to say with all of our attention, that is mindfulness. When we can appreciate the sun shining on our face or the moon rising over the mountains or the beauty of a flower, that is mindfulness. Each and every time we are fully present and aware with what we are doing, while we are doing it, we are watering and strengthening our seeds of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a muscle, we use it or lose it. Mindfulness will only benefit us as much as we exercise it in our daily lives. Just as if we don’t exercise our leg muscles they will grow weak, the same is true with mindfulness. This is why we must be steadfast in our practice. Too often, practicing mindfulness, doing sitting meditation, and attending sangha regularly are like taking antibiotics when we’re sick. Even though the doctor tells us to take the whole prescription, and not to stop mid-way when we start feeling better, many of us still choose to stop taking the medicine as directed, as soon as our symptoms show improvement. But if we stop taking the antibiotics, we risk a re-occurrence or worsening of our illness. Mindfulness is not something we do for a little while to become “cured” of our woes and struggles. Mindfulness is a regiment we must keep up indefinitely. If we give up and stop practicing, deciding it’s not working or that it’s not useful anymore or takes too much effort, or whatever the reason is, we risk becoming infected by the plague of living on autopilot, returning back to our cloudy, discontented state of being. We risk a re-occurrence and deepening of our malaise.

We all need something to help us buoy ourselves afloat with on the choppy waters of being human. Mindfulness in one such buoy. It can keep us from drifting out to the sea of difficulties, surrounded by shark infested waters. And when continually developed, mindfulness has the capacity to transform itself from a buoy, into the loveliest island imaginable.

Mindfulness matters because in order to operate and function beautifully and skillfully, we need to have access to an abundant source of nourishment, in order to keep us charged up. Mindfulness is a large abundant source. And there are many others, too. Ideally, we’d draw from multiple sources. In my experience, mindfulness is the largest spring of energy, nourishment, support, and healing. We have so much energy going out by way of our: job, family, schooling, friends, romantic partner, pets, home upkeep, and other responsibilities. If we are not careful, all of our energy output can eventually lead to burnout, fatigue, stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, anger, discontentment, and so on. We all need ways in which to replenish ourselves. Mindfulness is a bottomless well that we can draw on in order to keep our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual tanks full, so that we can continue beautifully into the next moment, the next day, the next week, month, and year that unfolds.

Mindfulness matters because our precious time and energy matter – and when we’re not attentive we often expend it in ways that are wasteful and detrimental. Our next moment is built upon this moment. What we do with it matters. There is no such thing as an insignificant moment. Every word and action that we take, or don’t take, makes a difference. Mindfulness matters because: “the future is made of one substance: the present,” (from Thay, 2013 Q & A session.

Mindfulness matters because if we aren’t attentive to the tending of our inner landscape, it becomes very easy to throw ourselves into habits which are harmful and damaging, further watering unwholesome seeds in ourselves and others, in the attempts to find happiness, ease, and contentment. Habits, such as: over-eating, watching too much TV, spending too much time online or playing video games, being overly lazy, drinking alcohol to unwind and relax, gambling, doing drugs, engaging in pornography, obsessing over sex or love interests, over-shopping, over-working, or over-consuming junk food or caffeine.

Mindfulness matters because joy and happiness are impermanent, just like everything else, and when we water and strengthen our seed of mindfulness, we’re  watering our seeds of joy and happiness simultaneously, as they are situated very closely in the garden of our hearts.

Developing a mindfulness practice allows us to align our intentions of living a happy life, while being an agent of kindness and service in the world, with the tools and support to embody and carry them out in our thinking, speaking, and acting.

As homework, I’d like to suggest that you choose 1, 2 or maybe 3 mindfulness practices (from the list below) that you can focus on incorporating into your daily life – and if you’re already doing a number of these, I would like to suggest that you choose 1 more to add in that’s new. It’s important not to take on too much too quickly and it’s also important not to become stagnate, which is why I’m suggesting you choose only 1 or 2 practices (and maybe 3). I would also suggest that you try to set yourself up for success and see if you can find a friend or family member or house mate in which to do your homework alongside with – so maybe that means getting together with a friend or instituting an email check-in once a week about your chosen practices and how it’s been going, sharing your joys and struggles.

(Please note, this is just a sample list of things you can do, there are LOTS of other ways to practice too :)

– Daily sitting meditation (start small with 2, 3 or 5 minutes, five days a week M-F)
– Deep belly breathing
– Walking meditation
– Develop a gratitude practice (ex: offering words of thanks before eating a meal)
– Eating slower and/or without multitasking (same goes while brushing your teeth)
– Using gathas (short mindfulness verses)
– Regularly attending sangha
– Attending retreats
– Utilizing bells of mindfulness (programmed on our phone or computer)
– Volunteering on a regular basis
– Reciting and working with the Five Mindfulness Trainings
– Using our non-dominant hand (to eat or brush our teeth…)
– Spending time in nature
– Prioritizing self-care & resting
– Cultivating joy (devote time into doing the things you enjoy doing)
– Developing media awareness (what do we engage our attention in? how much time do we invest? what seeds are we watering?)
– Becoming aware of and acknowledging our emotions when they arise
– Tuning into our sense impressions (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell)
– Practice deep, active listening

– Look up! (the simple action of looking up, whether inside or outside, helps us to get unstuck from our tiny box of self)

– Follow your regular news source with goodnewsnetwork.org, in order to stay in touch with the elements of joy & inspiration

(the ones in bold are the ones I would especially recommend)

To think this is a passive approach to the woes and struggles we face, both individually and collectively, is a grave misunderstanding. Training in the art of mindfulness is one of the most potent and beneficial actions we can take in order to transform our lives and manifest peace in the world. Practice diligently, with fortitude, courage, and confidence. Practice whole-hardheartedly with joy. When we practice for ourselves, we practice for the world.

 

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