When I began teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in 2006, I put a Google alert on my computer for the word “mindfulness.” Every week or so I’d receive a digest of the two to three articles and references that appeared on the Internet with the word mindfulness in them. Today, I get an e-mail digest every single day at 3:02pm, with hundreds of references and articles about mindfulness. So why the huge bump, and what exactly is mindfulness, anyway? According to the Buddha, mindfulness is the first practice we must cultivate on the road to enlightenment. Without it, there’s no point in pursuing lofty spiritual goals or even performing good deeds. In a nutshell, he says “Mindfulness is essential in all things everywhere. It is as salt is to the curry.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn is widely known as the guy who brought the word mindfulness into the mainstream in the late seventies, mainly through the creation of the MBSR class and his bestselling book Full Catastrophe Living, on which the class is based. He defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, to whatever is happening right now, without judging it.” So, what appears to be one relatively simple concept actually has four distinct components, none of which come naturally to human beings in the 21st century. The good news is that we can learn to be mindful, and the benefits can be truly life-changing. Let’s take the four components one at a time, and then I’ll give you a real-life example of how mindfulness saved the lives of my family members on the New Jersey Turnpike.
We’ve all been on the receiving end of the command to “pay attention,” and many of us say it to our own kids, but what does it mean? The way we usually use it, it might mean stop whatever else you’re doing and start doing what I want you to, or turn off all that other noise in your brain and focus solely on this one, more important, thing. While the ability to do those things might come in handy, it’s pretty difficult to maintain through sheer force of will. In other words, it’s hard to make yourself pay attention for very long.
In a Particular Way
Did you know that every thought we have has a corresponding body sensation, even the mundane ones? The thought I wonder what I should have for lunch will unconsciously trigger our digestive tract, and may even cause the sensation of hunger to arise when we didn’t notice it before. The thought I hope I didn’t sound like an idiot in that meeting will likely trigger an uneasiness in the and stomach region, and the thought I really miss her will likely trigger a tightness or achiness in the chest. If the body sensations are particularly uncomfortable or painful, we have a tendency to block them entirely. Most of the time we only notice our thoughts, as if we’re a disembodied head walking around having experiences. Through the practice of mindfulness we slowly, over time, reconnect the wires running between our thinking minds and our feeling hearts and bodies.
To What’s Happening Right Now
This sounds like an easy one, but we’re so programmed to see the world through our own biased lenses and potentially distorted programming, that it can take some real effort to see clearly what’s right in front of us. For this reason, it’s helpful to consider our “right now” experience as the facts about all aspects of this situation, like an unbiased reporter might do. Just the facts, ma’am.
Without Judging It
This last part is really the trickiest, but also the part that offers the most profound shift in how we experience our life circumstances. When we become aware of our right now experience, and we notice that it’s really unpleasant or painful, that’s where the rubber hits the road. Without mindfulness, we are very likely to go directly into the old habit patterns we’ve created to deal with that particular trigger, and those habits almost always increase our stress and suffering in the long run. When we judge our experiences by telling ourselves a story about how bad it is to be feeling this way, or that it’s wrong that this injustice even happened in the first place, we immediately contract into our small selves, fanning the flames of disconnection and suffering. When we can bring an open, curious attention to our experience, it transforms it almost immediately. My story of averting disaster on the New Jersey Turnpike is a simple example. I’ll preface it by saying that I probably have some undiagnosed sensory processing issues, such that loud, dischordant noises overlaid with someone repeating my name over and over (also known as motherhood, but that’s for another post) typically send me into a homicidal rage.
My family spent the Thanksgiving holiday with my in-laws in New York. We live in the Washington, DC area, so getting both hither and yon involves an approximately five hour car ride (and the way home always seems to take longer). We roll with three kids, a dog, two portable DVD players, two iPhones with game apps and music, and an ancient iPad, which contains both movies and music. Each child is equipped with headphones, which they are instructed to use at all times. The boys are actually pretty good about helping their 4 year old sister change movies, put her headphones back on, etc. It’s a well-oiled machine.
Long about Exit 5 on the New Jersey Turnpike, all small people are quiet and have fallen blissfully into their respective media-induced comas. It’s dark outside and I’m concentrating on driving, because I also don’t see that well at night. At this point my husband decides he’d like to listen, out loud through the front speakers, to a TED talk, which sounds great to me because who doesn’t like TED talks? So he chooses this one by Eddie Obeng, also known as the world’s most enthusiastic public speaker. About three or four minutes into this guy’s spiel (which I sense is interesting, but which I have a hard time following because of the bright lights shining in my eyes), my daughter’s headphones come unplugged and Ethiopian children’s music begins blaring through the car at a decibel that can be heard by the Mars Rover. This disrupts my seven year old son, who tries to plug her headphones back in to no avail, at which point the repeated strains of “Mommy, he _____” and Mommy, she _____” begin mixing with the Amharic rendition of Old McDonald and the TED talk. Then, through some cruel twist of fate, Child #3 also looses his headphone connection, and the 70’s version of the Superfriends cartoon joins the cacophonous mix. Now Aquaman is trying to summon a seahorse with his telepathic powers while Eddie Obeng waxes excitedly about smart failure for a fast-changing world. The dog begins to make that low whining noise that heralds the beginning of baying, as she is unfortunately part Beagle. My husband is himself one of five children, so he just turns the TED talk up louder.
It’s situations like these when being a meditation teacher and “mindfulness coach” is both a blessing and a curse. My particular brain is programmed through a lifetime of habit (and likely some neurologically crossed wires) to respond to this situation with anger and tyrannical outbursts in order to regain control. So it’s with a great deal of effort that I remember I have another choice. When I choose to pay attention in that particular way, without judging anything, the first thing I notice is that my body is in turmoil. Clenched jaw, throbbing temples, white knuckles, stomach in a knot. I know from experience that sensations like these are reactions to my thoughts, not my circumstances, so my next job is to investigate what I’ve been thinking.
In that moment I notice I’m telling myself a lot of scary stories. Among them: loud noises are bad, my children are out of control, they need me to fix it and I can’t, my dog is part Beagle, I need to get out of this car or I will die, and my husband is clueless.
Now, any one of these thoughts would be really stressful to believe. But mindfulness invites us to investigate every stressful thought by asking the simple question, “Is it true?” This exercise is really interesting, because it stimulates a conversation between two completely different parts of the brain. Our amygdala, or fight/flight control room, will certainly be shouting “HELL YES!” while our prefrontal cortex, where our rational problem solving takes place, will most likely say calmly, “Actually, no.” Now, listening to the calm, rational part of the brain takes practice, but thankfully I have that in my favor. I know instantly that none of what I’m believing about this situation is true.
Though the noise and fighting doesn’t stop and my body is still extremely uncomfortable, a small shift happens right away. In this space, I decide to do an experiment. If my beliefs aren’t true, what is true? I relax my grip on the steering wheel and feel my body in the seat. Sound waves. Different voices. The sound of Eddie Obeng is a completely different tone than my daughter, who is at this point crying. The Amharic music is cheerful, an interesting juxtaposition to the rest of the scene. My body relaxes, though I’m still unable to move. Then, surprisingly, I feel tenderness in my heart at the sound of crying. Still not able to respond. Sounds and feelings of movement as my husband leans into the back seat to adjust headphones, wipe tears and hit the reset button on all three kids. Quiet.
I marvel at the power of mindful awareness to bring an end to suffering. My body feels peaceful and I have new resolve to practice what I preach. The TED talk ends, and my husband turns to me and says “Wasn’t that fascinating?”