How and Why to Practice

Mindfulness is a skill that can be learned like any other. There is nothing mysterious about it. It’s like learning to ride a bike or cook good meals or paint with watercolors or play a musical instrument. You start with easy practice and progress to harder practice. You take classes in it from people who know more about it than you do. You make friends with other people who are interested in it so you have a built in support group to keep you going when you get discouraged. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’re making a lot of progress; other times you’ll be discouraged. But, it is certain that if you practice, practice, practice, your skill at mindfulness will improve.

So what’s the practice? The practice of mindfulness is “the repetitive act of directing attention to only one thing in this one moment”. And if you are brand new to mindfulness, you may respond with either “I can already do that” or “Why on earth would I do that?’

My reply is: a) it’s a lot harder than it sounds; b) the reason you do this kind of practice is to gain control of your attention.

I hope you’ll stop and think about the following sentence:
Whatever your attention is on, that’s what life is for you at any given moment.

EXAMPLE: Perhaps you’ve decided to take a break from working so you can make yourself some tea; as you stand at the stove, your mind wanders off and ruminates about a conversation you had yesterday. You don’t get a break because your mind isn’t on the tea; your mind is worrying and carrying you away.

EXAMPLE: Perhaps you are sitting in a session with a therapist who cares about you and has a kind expression on her face; but you’re not looking at her face…not really. Instead, you are feeling so self-conscious and ashamed that you begin to “space out”. You miss out on a moment of connection with a person who cares for you and instead have one more moment of rejecting yourself.
“The repetitive act of directing your attention to only one thing in this one moment” means training your mind to pay attention to what you choose to pay attention to instead of letting your mind hijack you. There are lots of metaphors that describe what the untrained mind is like and they provide a good contrast to the trained mind. Here are several:

  • Your mind is a TV that’s always on but you can’t find the remote. The TV set gets 300 cable channels but because you don’t control the remote, your untrained mind keeps playing the same painful or scary or enraging show over and over again.
  • This one’s from Zen. The untrained mind is like a new puppy. You tell your puppy to sit and stay, but your puppy immediately runs away, rummages in your closet, chews up your new shoes, goes through the garbage can, and has an accident on the carpet.
  • A third metaphor comes from a Christian contemplative, Thomas Merton. He said the untrained mind is like a crow flying over a wheat field in winter. The crow spies lots of things that sparkle in the field, swoops down to pick them up, only to discover that what’s glittering in the field are old pieces of scrap metal, not something delicious to eat or something to use for a nest.

If you train your mind to pay attention, then you’ve found the remote control, trained the puppy, and become a smarter crow. To teach your mind to pay attention, you practice paying attention over and over again.