With all of the talk of mindfulness it can be hard to disentangle what is most important. Here are 3 mindfulness-based principles that will change your life.
Everywhere I go people are talking about mindfulness. It’s been touted as a cure for aches, pains and mental illness, and the secret sauce that gives entrepreneurs and Super Bowl athletes their edge.
I often get asked what mindfulness is and how to practice it. Sure, we’ve all heard that it means living in the present moment, and being aware of the swirling array of thoughts that make up our mental broadcast, but what is it really, and what does it take to be mindful?
Here are 3 succinct principles for living mindfully.
1. Your life happens in THIS MOMENT, so it’s important to live in it.
If you think about it, our most mindless actions happen when we’re mentally somewhere else. For example, you’re in the middle of a disagreement with your partner about who left a sticky mess on the kitchen counter. Instead of dealing with the mess, you supercharge it with memories stacks of dishes, socks on the floor, toilet seats up, and mud tracks through the house. One sticky mess just became a major event.
Or when dealing with a disappointment at work, rather than brushing yourself off and getting back into the fray, you rehash all of your professional failings, mean bosses and rejections and freak yourself out by imagining getting fired and being jobless for the rest of your life. Yikes!
“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate
the mind on the present moment.” Buddha
Let’s face it. The past is done. You can learn from it, but you can’t do it over. The future is pretty much out of your control. What you can influence is how you show up in the present moment, the decisions you make, and the ways in which you respond to what is happening in the here and now. That’s it.
A fundamental part of being mindful involves noticing whether your mind is in the past, present or future, and if you find yourself somewhere other than the present moment, giving it a gentle nudge back to the here and now. You’ll probably discover that your mind is like a runaway puppy, darting to and fro. But with some curiosity and love, you can train your puppy mind to sit and stay in the present more and more each day.
2. Mindfulness happens in relationships and not in a vacuum.
We’ve all seen pictures of people sitting peacefully alone on a beach or a mountain top in lotus pose, or the serene faces of monks in meditation. While that certainly looks appealing, that isn’t mindfulness. It’s an illusion.
Mindfulness happens in relationships – to yourself, and to everything and everyone else. The true practice of mindfulness occurs when you get to know the stories that run through your mind about who you are, and how others respond to you, then use that wisdom in your daily life.
Most people that I know have an internal critic who relentlessly evaluates their thoughts, actions, looks, and anything else it can get its hands on. A friend of mine used to call this part of his mind “Mr. Clipboard” – you know, the guy (or gal) with the checklist who is constantly assessing your performance. Most of us have one.
“Look at other people and ask yourself if you are really seeing them
or just your thoughts about them.” Jon Kabat-Zinn
In examining our relationship with ourselves we must first get to know that inner voice that narrates, judges, criticizes, praises, and creates our experience. Once we get to know that voice we can either take Mr. Clipboard’s observations to heart and use them as a learning opportunity, challenge them, or realize that they’re simply fluctuations of the mind that aren’t very helpful and try to change them with practice.
Mr. Clipboard also has opinions about others that affect how we behave in relationship. Chances are, if he’s a relentless perfectionistic tyrant with you, he’s probably pulling that same rap with others in your life.
A big part of being mindful, then, is getting to know your internal voice very well, and using that awareness to be more attuned to yourself and others. It’s a lifelong practice, but being aware of your internal experience will go a long way toward developing compassion and kindness.
3. Mindfulness is not something to perfect
Life is messy. So is mindfulness. When I first began meditating nearly 20 years ago I thought that the end game was to master it. I spent endless hours sitting as still as I could, staring at a blank wall, with knees and hips screaming and my mind not far behind. I was convinced that if I toughed it out long enough I would get “better” at meditation. I took that same attitude into my yoga practice, pushing my body beyond its limits, and getting increasingly more frustrated when it didn’t “cooperate”.
Eventually I realized that I’d adopted the same attitude about mindfulness as I had the rest of my life’s goals – that I had to perfect it. Contrary to expectation, my mindfulness practice got messier and messier as years went by.
Those moments on my cushion shone a glaring, Hollywood-sized spotlight on the circus going on in my mind, and how living in the past and freaking out about the future were fueling a lot of anxiety and depression. Not only that, but I was making bad decisions based on past and future thinking, rather than responding to people and circumstances in the present moment.
Now, two decades into my practice I can reliably identify when I’m going down the reactivity rabbit hole, and can even intervene before I drive myself and everyone around me crazy, but I still have a hardwired tendency toward past and future thinking that I practice recognizing and keeping in check.
“Each place is the right place--the place where I now am
can be a sacred space.” Ravi Ravindra
One of the biggest gifts we can give ourselves, our lives, and the people around us is to get the perfection monkey off our backs and accept that life and mindfulness are a messy business. We will have good days and bad days – blissed out practices and sessions that leave us with a puddle the size of Lake Michigan on our cushions. It’s OK!
Those moments of imbalance, grief, rage, or whatever happens are the alchemical catalysts that transform us. Lovingly send your perfection monkey packing with an armful of bananas, and learn to be OK with who you are, in the present moment.
From that place of nonjudgment you are better equipped to be mindful, exercise self-compassion, and practice kindness. That is the heart of mindfulness.