Time spent alone with one’s thoughts in a sort of metacognitive reflection (that is, thinking about “how I think”) results, I believe almost inevitably, in the recognition that the mind has a mind of its own. Were we somehow able to read a verbatim transcript of the thoughts that enter our mind over the course of a typical day, my guess is that we would wonder "what kind of maniac thinks this way?" Fortunately, this brilliant, amazing, and mysterious thing we call the human mind also offers us thoughts worth thinking about, and gets us through our days in a way that we actually achieve some of the goals that we set for ourselves amidst the chaos swirling around (and within) us. The mind holds our accumulated wisdom, allows us to solve problems, is inhabited not just by thoughts, but also, fortunately, by the rich repertoire of human emotions that themselves serve to guide and teach us. And it is the source of both the boundless creativity of which humans are capable, and the unspeakable devastation that we perpetrate upon ourselves, each other, and our one shared home, Earth.
Many of us are of the habit (of mind) to conclude that, “if I have a thought in my mind, I therefore must believe it.” And we often do, and then act on our thoughts somewhat reflexively without much reflection, and this can be problematic. I certainly do not mean to suggest that we should not believe in any of our thoughts, or that we cannot trust our minds; much to the contrary. However, a thought process that is reflexive rather than reflective, may often yield an automatic-pilot form of behaving, and living life. We may become, in a sense, disengaged from curiosity, the process of wondering, observing, asking, pondering, correcting ourselves, and learning. And thus diminish our capacity for wisdom itself. We may become mindless.
An alternative exists, and it is called “mindfulness.” When several years ago this term, mindfulness, became somewhat en vogue in the field of psychology and mental health treatment, I was very intrigued, but its meaning (and practice) remained elusive to me until someone offered this definition: to be mindful is to pay attention to my present experience on purpose and without judgment. So, it involves an intentional turning of focus to myself and what I am experiencing right here, right now with acceptance. In a recent meditation sit, it seemed as if I was turning a gentle, honest gaze slightly inward, and it was very nice.
Mindfulness as a practice has its roots in the long and magnificent history of Buddhist meditation, and it was through a meditation retreat that I initially became aware of the profound practice of mindfulness. The form of meditation I was introduced to, Vipassana, involved sitting as still as possible in silence, eyes closed, attempting to maintain my focus on my breathing, then noticing when my mind wandered to a passing thought or physical sensation. Over time, I learned to gently return my focus, over and over again, to my breathing. And then later I was taught to train my focus on the sensations throughout my body, head to toe, toe to head. For eleven silent days. Wow.
There are, of course, many forms of meditation, but I believe they typically all share the practice of looking inward, and focusing one’s attention in a way that facilitates a present-centered awareness. And this is the point, I believe, as the human mind has the capacity for memory of the past and imagination of the future. Fortunately so, because we must recall the knowledge and wisdom that has come to us from our past experiences, we must reminisce, honor, and visit our past. Just the same, we must spend some time pondering and planning for our future.
Quite often, however, we get lost in regrets and pain, or we may over-glorify the past. Or we worry about or are impatient for the future. When we do focus on the present, too often it is to respond to the countless demands of the world and people around us. Naturally, and to a large extent, our mental wellness depends upon and is reflected by our ability to make good use of our memories and wisdom, to plan effectively for the future, and to respond to the demands placed upon us now. These, ever-present, ongoing, and overlapping tasks too often cause us to get lost from ourselves, and the potential poignancy and meaning of every single passing moment, however. Mindfulness, here, can be the key to bring us back to a balanced, centered, peaceful, present-focused way of being.
When I first began meditating I experienced the very common anxiety of “am I doing this right? I’m not, right?” Then the nagging uncertainty of “nothing’s happening, what’s supposed to be happening?” I now understand those thoughts to be the result of my mind’s own mind reacting against a very different way of functioning. My breakthrough came when I realized that the thing that very definitely was happening was in fact that nothing (or at least much less than usual) that I was accustomed to was happening. “Oh, this is what stillness feels like, this is what silence, a quiet mind, sounds like.” And this has become a replicable experience. I can bring myself back to it.
By meditating, I, we, one can create an inner stillness, and quiet our own mind, and doing so is often for me extremely refreshing, rejuvenating, and humbling. I believe that some of my thoughts arrive with more clarity, freshness, and creativity. I feel and am aware of my emotions perhaps more deeply, I like to think that I honor and take care of my body more adeptly, and though I take this time to be alone with myself, I think that I am more alert, available, and present in my relationships and in my work.
Establishing a daily meditation practice, for many, is the most direct and effective way to engage in mindfulness and mindful living. But we can be mindful in our work, how we walk, drive, eat, speak, relate, love, spend our time and money, care for our bodies, and experience loss and pain. Virtually anything can be done in a mindful manner by paying attention to our present experience on purpose, without judgment. Be, quietly. Still, be still.