Mindfulness is the process of paying attention to what we’re doing, thinking, saying and feeling. This is not ordinary attention however, but rather a highly focused, yet gentle non-judgmental, look at the very nature of our own conscious processes.
Mindfulness practices are part of a centuries old wisdom tradition and, as such, include a whole host of specific instructions and methods to cultivate awareness. We can actually become mindful of just about anything: walking, eating, cooking, speaking, listening, cleaning, repetitive tasks and of course, thinking and feeling.
What we’re doing, in essence, is developing the observing part of our mind… the part that is always there behind the scenes watching it all unfold, day in and day out, minute by minute. Slowly, through practice, we learn to rest in this state longer and longer, letting go of habitual patterns, struggles and internal knots.
In order to cultivate this neutral observer’s perspective, mindfulness practices include ways to slow down our usual pace and tease apart our experience from the thoughts we have about our experience. Engaging in mindful meditation is a sure-fire way to see how quickly the mind takes off in endless chatter, when in fact the only thing we are doing is sitting in meditation.
As an experiment, try sitting for 10 minutes with the intention to just follow your breath. Most of us find we’re suddenly gone… we’re reliving past experiences, ruminating over injustices, planning future actions, imaging worst case scenarios, worrying about what’s for dinner and the like.
We are basically all caught up in thought. And this is not just isolated thought, it also includes feelings, physical sensations and emotions that serve to intensify the original thoughts and take us further away from the present moment and our intention to follow the breath. The simple instruction to return to the breath when we find we have gone off, slowly trains the mind to be present and to know what not being present feels like.
Being mindful, in effect, disentangles us the web we generally weave with our discursive thoughts about good/bad, right/wrong, should /shouldn’t and for/against. This training encourages us to watch thoughts and feelings arise, unfold and melt back into emptiness without getting all caught up.
Slowly, we begin to see how thoughts, feelings, speech and actions are interconnected, as well as how they create patterns and strategies that spring into action when triggered. Learning to separate things that once seemed inseparable, we are able to observe thoughts as thoughts, feelings as feelings and physical sensations as physical sensations… nothing more.
As we develop more insight into the workings of our minds, we then see how we have added extra, unnecessary meaning to raw experience. And more importantly we begin to clearly see where we are stuck, how we got stuck, and how we keep ourselves stuck. Here, it’s vitally important to apply warmth, intelligence and compassion so that we don’t make ourselves wrong or bad for having the patterns we have.
Mindfulness works by shining the light on patterns and igniting the process of change by making what was once hidden, conscious… not by making us bad or wrong. In fact, clearly seeing how we do what we do, without judging ourselves, enhances our unbiased curiosity and allows us to look deeper.
Cultivating the observing mind
Cultivating this observing part of our mind allows us to observe how, when and with whom we fall into patterns of judgment, criticism, comparison, distortion, generalization and deletion. More importantly, we begin to get closer to the unrecognized feelings and unmet needs driving these patterns and strategies.
We begin to see how we’ve been protecting ourselves thorough distraction, repression, acting out or other strategies that avoid feeling what is painful or unwanted. We come into contact with a more fragile quality of yearning to have our basic needs met, as well as our deepest fears that they won’t be met.
Using mindfulness, we can attend to these tender feelings and learn take care of ourselves through the cultivation of self-compassion, love and nurturance. This work also puts us in contact with the human condition at large and engenders a sense of compassion for all human beings who are up against the same things we are.
Mindfulness practices, in fact, bring us back into contact with the exquisite beauty inherent in being alive and present. As we touch the miracle of mindfulness, we also touch the miracle of our precious human life and the creative force that flows through all of life and creation. We see how all things are connected and interdependent and how our thoughts, speech and actions affect the whole. Engaging in this work awakens the compassionate heart, the clear mind and the ability to stay present, which, in turn benefits everyone, across the board.