If you stop to think about it, you’ll realize that very few of us devote ourselves to living mindfully, meeting each moment of life as it presents itself, with full awareness, letting our judgments fall away. Instead, we do things automatically, without noticing what we’re doing. We churn out judgments about ourselves and others. We regularly do two or three or five things at once. We frequently get so caught up in our thoughts and feelings about the past or future that we’re lost in them, disconnecting from what is happening right now in front of us.
There are lots of rewards for living this way – we can get a lot done quickly, think of ourselves as efficient, and be seen by the world as productive and smart. In highly industrial or technological societies, a high value is placed on doing a lot at once. In fact, people sometimes make fun of each other by saying, “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you do two things at once?”
We also live without awareness because sometimes living with full awareness is very painful. We avoid painful thoughts, feelings, and situations when we are afraid or angry or ashamed or sad because we’re convinced that we can’t do anything to change them AND because we’re convinced we can’t stand to live with them.
For instance, have you ever avoided bringing up a problem in a relationship with someone because you’re afraid the person will get mad at you, attack you, or leave you? You keep avoiding bringing up the problem because you feel so scared. So, you get yourself off the fear “hook” temporarily by not talking it over. In the meantime, you’re ashamed of yourself for not speakingup. You get more and more annoyed with the other person. You try to ignore what he or she does that bothers you, but the problem gets worse and worse. Finally you just give up, letting the relationship end. Maybe the problem could have been solved; maybe not.
But there’s an important distinction to make between the unavoidable pain of having a problem with a person you love versus the suffering you cause yourself by letting fear control you, judging yourself for feeling afraid, assuming nothing you’d try would work instead of trying out solutions, feeling guilty about feeling anger towards someone you love, or judging the person for causing the problem.
There’s so many ways mindfulness could help with the above example, it’s hard to know where to start. Because of limited time and space, I’ll only discuss a few.
- You could use mindfulness skills and bring your full attention to the feelings of annoyance, instead of pushing them away or trying to talk yourself out of them. Maybe you’re afraid you can’t stand to feel annoyed, but actually, watching how you feel inside, you realize, “hey, it’s just annoyance for 10 minutes and I CAN stand it.”
- You could use mindfulness to become a great detective and notice exactly how and when you feel annoyed. Maybe it’s when he or she has had three cups of coffee before seeing you; maybe it’s when both of you are tired; and, maybe it’s when he or she’s had a bad day at work. In this way, you use awareness to get specific and clear about what contributes to the problem. The more specific you get about what goes into the problem, the better chance you have to solve it. Ask her to drink less coffee or switch to decaffeinated coffee; make plans to get together when you’re both rested; don’t meet on bad work days.
- You could use your mindfulness skills to watch how your mind generates thoughts like “It shouldn’t be this way; why can’t we just get along! Real friends don’t have problems’. Listening in on your thoughts, you realize that your expectations don’t fit with reality, so you work on changing your expectations.
- You could use mindfulness skills, as you talk through the problem with your friend, to bring your full and open awareness to whether or not you experience your friend listening to and understanding you or defending herself and criticizing you. If she’s really listening and caring, you might notice relief inside and decide to keep working with her on the problems in the friendship. On the other had, if you notice that she is dismissive or non-responsive each time you talk about a problem, you might notice that you are sad and disappointed but not willing to put more energy into a friendship that makes you unhappy.
To summarize, mindfulness is awareness, without judgment, of life as it is, yourself as you are, other people as they are, in the here and now, via direct and immediate experience. When you are mindful, you are awake to life on its terms, fully alive to each moment as it arrives, as it is, and as it ends. Of course, in order to build and maintain mindfulness requires specific skills that are practiced over and over. That’s what comes next.