A practice that takes us out of our heads and back to our hearts
A Year of Living Mindfully: 5I haven’t been very clear to date about what mindfulness is, so it might be helpful at this point to be a little more explicit.
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever you go, there you are was one of the first books I read on mindfulness meditation and I recommend it as a fine introduction to the practice. It’s easy to read and yet it’s deeply insightful and at times quite humorous.
When it comes right down to it, Jon says, this moment is all we have to work with. Our life has brought us to wherever we are now; our feelings are what we are feeling, our thoughts are what we are thinking. We may feel we should be somewhere else, feeling something else, thinking about our lives in a different way. Indeed we might not like any of this.
If we take time to notice, we may discover that we are doing all we can to forget about what is happening right now. We are trying to lose ourselves in some fantasy about what should be happening, what might have been, if only we had taken a different turn in the road. We run from the present because it feels too hard, or too boring.
We pay a price for running away. In Jon’s words: “We momentarily lose touch with ourselves and with the full extent of our possibilities . . . we break contact with what is deepest in ourselves and with what affords us perhaps our greatest opportunities for creativity, learning and growth. If we are not careful, these clouded moments can stretch out and become most of our lives.”
Mindfulness means noticing when we become lost in our fantasies and our worries. Being mindful means choosing to be present to what is actually happening right now. This is a lot harder than it sounds. Waking up and being present requires a conscious effort. So we may set aside some time each day to practice this skill. This practice time is what we call meditation.
There are different ways of meditating. Think of meditation as that period of time we set aside each day – be it a few minutes or longer – where we allow the present moment to sink in. We need to give ourselves enough time to connect with what’s happening in our lives so that we can get to know and understand ourselves more.
This may not be easy, especially when we are in a difficult place. Sitting with the pain in our lives doesn’t make it all go away, but it can help us find the inner strength we need to bear what seems unbearable.
I met a friend this week who said she had been feeling sad for the past few months. What frightened her most about her experience was that she couldn’t see any reason why she should be sad. Someone had recommended mindfulness, but when she tried it she became more upset. For her, being mindful of her feelings became possible only when she found someone with whom she felt safe. That relationship allowed her to stop running and to listen to what her distress was saying to her about her life.
Finally, mindfulness is not all about the mind. While it may rely on cognitive functions such as attention and concentration, its goal is to open up our awareness. It is a practice that takes us out of our head and back to our heart, to remembering what we care most deeply about, to recognising what we have lost and need to let go of, to reconnecting with what inspires and nourishes us. In the words of poet David Whyte: “Enough.These few words are enough. If not these words, this breath. If not this breath, this sitting here. This opening to the life We have refused Again and again Until now. Until now.”
Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health