More On Mindfulness
In my last column, I wrote about my mother’s mindful approach to parenting. I would like to move a little deeper into the benefits of mindfulness. Some people think of mindfulness as being primarily a Buddhist practice, but it’s not. Quite simply, mindfulness is being fully present to an experience as it happens, unhampered by baggage from one’s past or anxieties about the future. One can practice mindfulness during prayer, but also during ordinary life experiences – such as having a conversation, eating a meal or performing a chore. Mindfulness can be thought of as a Christian quality in that most of the Gospel stories reflect Jesus’ mindful approach to life. He is always portrayed as being fully present to the people, places and events of His life. Often, He encourages His followers to be mindful, exhorting them to open their eyes and ears to what is in right in front of them, to forgive the past and not to worry about the future.
Mindfulness sounds simple, but the practice is much harder than the theory because our brains seem programmed to obsess over the past and the future.
Imagine yourself looking at your “desktop” computer screen. Most of us have many icons (or images) on our desktop that represent shortcuts to the files or programs we use most often. Clicking on one of these images will take us directly to the file or program we want without having to search for it among all the files and programs on our computer hard drive.
Our minds are similar to computers in that each of us has thought patterns that we regularly return to. For example, unpleasant memories of past experiences or worries about the future might hover on the edges of our awareness, much like an icon on our desktop. Because they are at the forefront of our minds, we constantly “click” on these images and get swept up in emotions and thought patterns that interfere with our current experience. We find ourselves thinking the same old thoughts, getting into the same old arguments, returning to the same old habits. Sometimes, we begin to feel jaded - sick and tired of it all.
If life seems like the same old thing, day after day, it’s probably because we are focusing on the same old thing - clicking on the same old thoughts again and again. Nothing seems new because all the shining new moments in our lives are eclipsed by the shadows of old moments or worries about moments to come.
We could be outside grilling steak on a beautiful summer evening and still be tense and miserable. We can’t enjoy the cool breeze with its hint of honeysuckle, the twitter of birds settling down for the night, the laughter of the children next door or the touch of the person sitting next to us because we are not really here. Instead, we are fuming over the memory of an argument with this person that we had this morning, or anticipating the worst possible outcome of tomorrow’s medical appointment.
Often, we wish we could stop these thought patterns, but we don’t know how. One way to begin the practice of mindfulness is to focus on physical sensations in the present moment – the sight, sound, smell, taste and touch of life as it is in this particular time and place. Focus on the voice and the sight of the person speaking with you, for example, as if you are meeting them for the first time. If a distracting thought intrudes on your experience, simply acknowledge that it’s there, but don’t click on it!
If you are not familiar with computers, you can try thinking of memories, distractions and worries as boats that are floating past you. You can wave to the boat, but don’t get in it!
Once we stop allowing ourselves to be carried away by old thought patterns, we may find ourselves living more fully in the kingdom of God, which Jesus reminds us is always “at hand.” There is an old saying that perfectly sums up the value of mindfulness: “Each moment we live is a gift from God. That’s why they call it the present.”