Melinda Gates meditates in the morning and at night. (Meditation is an activity.) Arianna Huffington, the founder of The Huffington Post, tweets almost exclusively on Mindfulness Meditation. (Mindfulness is a state of mind: paying attention, noticing, not judging, not thinking.) So what? They have time to hire people to do the laundry and wash the bathroom floors. What do they know that those of us who wash our bathroom floors, and spray Shout stain remover on spaghetti stains before laundering have not learned? Women who have limitless external sources, health, time, and money to do whatever they wish—choose to meditate.
Why might Mindfulness Meditation be a good idea? Why bother sitting with ourselves or sometimes — as I do — sit with a group of women who no doubt have more fun things they could be doing. And we can rule out the possibility they’ve come to gaze at me. For forty-five minutes, I sit with my aching bones as thoughts bounce in and out of awareness like fireworks on the Fourth of July. People who make this practice a part of their life, like eating and sleeping, believe they don’t have to live life like a thermometer reacting to externals until the day they die. Meditation offers us a way to tap and strengthen our internal positive sources (awareness, compassion, kindness, etc.) that lift the soul.
Buddha, born 500 years before Christ, identified the cause of suffering—incessant thought activities we chisel into arrows we shoot at ourselves. He told us the answer to calm and focus was to distance ourselves from the mind chatter. Christ said the answer was found in kindness and serving others.
Explaining why Mindfulness Meditation isn’t for them, friends say, “I’m terrible at it. I can’t still my mind.” In reality, recognizing you have fruitless thoughts is a perfect place to start. This restlessness is shared suffering humans have in common. Eastern thought
The meditation path to a better relationship with ourselves begins with taming the mind, but with kindness. You can beat your dog into submission. Bella will obey but lives in a state of fear. That’s not the relationship we want with ourselves. We approach meditation with gentleness and humor. The first lesson is steadfastness, to stay put. When this sitting business makes us want to scream or run out of the room, we tell ourselves, STAY. My back hurts. STAY. I’ll meditate later. STAY. I’m hungry. STAY. Wonder what’s happening in the news? STAY. I should check my phone messages. STAY. We sit every day with back straight focused on the breath even when we are hurt, not feeling well, afraid, or euphoric. It’s this steadfastness that takes us to clear seeing, a better understanding of our reactions to people and situations.
Before my niece Magga came for a visit, Tim suggested we meet her at the hotel and take her to dinner. He’d make reservations. It was a nice suggestion, and I half-heartedly said, “sure.” Pretty soon, I had an explanation for my unenthusiastic thumbs up to dinner. Rejecting his offer seemed unkind. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. But, I’d not been with Magga for years and just wanted to spend that first day with her alone. This may seem trivial, but a lifetime of little acquiesces is a death (hidden resentment) by a thousand paper-cuts. We must honor ourselves as we are even when it’s wanting to be alone with a niece. Meditation takes us as we are — somewhere between craziness and wisdom. In this soul-mirror space rests golden opportunities to face ourselves and understand our behavior and emotions. It’s hard. With our degrees and external accomplishments set aside, we feel like kindergartners who just want to go home to mom for milk and crackers.
Yesterday morning, I ran into a friend— let’s call her Jo— who told me she’s been working on her golf game all summer. “I can’t wait for us to play,” she said. Her sincerity and eagerness was no mirror image to my internal response. What gives? We hugged and parted, and I walked across a footbridge with blue herons poking their beaks into the water. An idyllic early morning, yet my mind was fast filling with gray clouds. I could have made this into a story to make me feel better about my unworthy reaction, or I could walk with the discomfort waiting for the truth rise to the surface. Hearing of Jo’s upgraded golf game created anxiety. Your game is inferior to Jo’s, and her handicap is probably in the single digits. These were large clouds with lots of space and no spelling errors. Without attaching to my thoughts, I saw them for what they were, trouble makers Phantom and Delusion. The reality was that when we golf together, we laugh, high five every successful shot, and concentrate on staying out of the way of our husbands’ errant shots. My anxiety rested in childhood insecurities that began when I couldn’t climb up the rope in gym. And when learning to swim took long enough to be entered in Iceland’s Guinness book of records if they’d had one. It was time to stop wishing for a better past. Climbing up the rope will not happen in this life.
We are the only ones that know the full truth about ourselves. Mindfulness Meditation offers clear seeing. I could shrug off negative thoughts, push them aside with a drink, a snack, or television. Or I can face them and ask myself, do these thoughts enhance my life? Our habits and reactions are like favorite clothing that offers comfort. Awareness is the key. Is the story I am creating in my head valid? As we face our restlessness and unease, we begin a new habit that, in time, becomes more porous. We are not so hard and tight in our views. We won’t always catch ourselves, but the more we cultivate openness to everything. When we relate with ourselves— me to me— without deception, we let go of old patterns.
As my practice deepens, stress gives way to a calmer and less reactive state of mind. I am paying attention to what is happening within me and doing a better job controlling the predictable knee jerks. During and just after something enrages me, I have a small space before I respond, Will I react in my usual old way or do I manage to control my anger and plant a healthier seed. (link) Ethan Nichtern writes, “The gap is not a bliss space, but a courageous space where we stay with what is happening within our mind and nervous system. Resting in the gap is a brave willingness to be vulnerable.” This little space makes a huge impact on our everyday life. Do I go low sliding into the well-worn grooves, #HabitualReaction, or reach up high and make it the beginning of something fresh and airy?
Sustained behavioral changes create neural changes in the brain that morph into new traits. Instead of reacting when situations turn out differently than we wanted and expected, we respond like a thermostat setting the temperature instead of a thermometer reacting to external circumstances.
Steadfastness, clear seeing, and awareness lead to the only moment we have, today. Quieting our mind intensifies our attention. An improved relationship with ourselves means less smoke and mirrors. Training in Mindfulness Meditation, we attend to one thing at a time. Instead of sitting on a park bench texting, we notice the birds, the geckos, and the colors of the trees changing. It doesn’t get any better than that.