There is quite a bit of talk these days about mindfulness, especially as mindfulness as a practise is receiving clinical recognition and I've seen references of 'it' being brought into schools. Some of the way mindfulness is talked about causes me some unease. This is that it is discussed as if it's one thing - and we all know what that is, don't we?! Another word that is banded about similarly without much consideration is 'meditation', often linked with a picture of an attractive young woman sitting in the lotus position somewhere exotic, looking blissfully peaceful. Is this woman meditating? How on earth can we know? She could be spending the whole time wondering if she's left the gas on or, perhaps, when the photo shoot will end. What about the small meditations, the ones which take us by surprise? Sunsets which steal our breath, the embrace of a loved one, the fleeting moment when holding a warm cup and savouring that first taste. Meditation is everywhere, the only thing that really matters is the quality, the nature, of attention in that moment.
Mindfulness is an inherently difficult thing to communicate. This is simply(!) because it is being aware of the experience of being alive. The thinking mind, I believe, is a relatively small part of an entire human being. Rather than the five senses we are familiar with, we have somewhere between nine and twenty-one senses (depending how they're counted and who's arguing), all of these ample fodder for our focused attention. All of these a deeply personal, inseparable part of our own experience of which words seldom do justice. Thank goodness then we have poetry, art of all kinds, and music to help us.
In a group I regularly attended, and now lead, often people who are new to the group sit back a little cautious and ask something like 'what am I trying to do', 'if I could just understand, *then*...'. Perfectly understandable questions although thinking rather gets in the way of experiencing. Another question or sometimes spoken as a deeply felt plea: 'can I stop thinking?' or 'I just want to clear my mind'. Again we smile kindly and say as helpfully as possible 'that's really not what we're practising.'
So what are we trying to do with mindfulness, or rather what is mindfulness like as an experience? Naturally I can only speak relative to my own experience so all of this is my own interpretation and may differ to any other source on the subject (this is a good thing!).
Mindfulness at its heart for me contains two extremely powerful ideas:
One is acceptance. In a mindfulness practise we are not trying to change or control anything, simply to observe. If the mind is racing it races, if breathing is awkward so be it. We are seldom in any state for a very long time. With patient gentle attention we can notice these changes. The thinking mind makes lots of shortcuts, like 'I'm always...' or 'usually I...' These mental shortcuts help us to act effectively in many situations, the trouble is when we start to believe that these mental shortcuts are who we are. Mindfulness moves past this limitation by suggesting something like 'yes my back usually hurts but how does it feel right now', 'where is there discomfort?', 'where is there relative comfort?', 'where is there little or no sensation?'. It goes to one's experience in the present moment direct from the source, which often can be a surprise. As such it is possible in times of extreme discomfort to move one's attention to a place of peace for a rest or to support the sensation of discomfort, either way we gently move attention away from the thinking mind without ever needing to stop any of those pesky thoughts.
Many descriptions of mindfulness stop with my point one. They'll talk about observing and being a distance away from the experience. I am uncomfortable with this and find it unsatisfying. It can be very helpful to create space around one's difficulties and indeed this is often a motivational factor in beginning a meditation practise. Yet some descriptions of mindfulness seem to me cold and clinical (again this is my opinion, and also this might be helpful at different stages of practise). The thing which was missing for me which I consider to be essential in supporting any kind of activity is self-compassion. Meditation can be hugely challenging; just observing the breath can lead some people to feelings panic - it's very personal. Being fully aware of one's feelings and bodily sensations can be distressing. There's a reason we so often ignore our inner-world and seek distraction from external sources, not only in the extreme cases like substance abuse, but in everyday life too. Kindness and compassion support mindfulness practise by asking questions like 'what is the kind thing to do right now?', 'is this helpful?', 'what do I need?'. This makes it possible to be in the body and to face discomfort without needing to turn away. To be there for yourself as a friend; to speak to oneself with kind supportive language; to be with an experience without being drawn in to it. It is so difficult in our culture to practise self-kindness without it seeming, well, self-indulgent. Yet people who give to others can so easily burn out. I believe that self-care, rather than being selfish, encourages the capacity for greater generosity.