My 10-year-old daughter said that to me in the car the other day.
“I like mindfulness. I just don’t do it.”
“What do you mean?” I asked her.
“Well, it sounds great — being calm and breathing and everything — but I just don’t actually, you know, DO it,” she explained.
I smiled. “And how’s that working for ya?” (Sadly, she’s too young to get my Dr. Phil reference). After she looked at me quizzically, I asked, “How does mindfulness work for you when you don’t, you know, DO it?”
“It doesn’t,” was her reply.
It reminded me of Brene Brown’s description of her “yoga attitude” (in her book The Gifts of Imperfection): “I value mindfulness, breathing, and the mind-body-spirit connection. I even have yoga outfits.”
The problem? She doesn’t DO yoga.
It’s like saying, “I like exercise. I just don’t, you know, DO it.”
But mindfulness, like exercise, doesn’t work if we don’t, you know… actually DO something.
Jon Kabat-Zinn writes,
“Mindfulness is not merely a good idea: ‘Oh yes, I will just be more present in my life, and less judgmental, and everything will be better. Why didn’t that occur to me before?’ Such ideas are at best fleeting and hardly ever gain sustained traction. While it might very well be a good idea to be more present and less judgmental, you won’t get very far with the idea alone…. To be effective, mindfulness requires an embodied engagement on the part of anyone hoping to derive some benefit from it.”
Perhaps the trouble is that exercise is something so obviously active and physical, while mindfulness seems like a “mindset” or an “attitude.” And when we see people “doing mindfulness,” it often looks like this:
They’re just sitting there with their eyes closed! They’re not DOING anything! What a waste of time!
Let me assure you, it’s not a waste of time.
When we sit and close our eyes and attend to the present moment, there’s A LOT happening.
We become aware of the many forms of sensory input that are continually present, but often go undetected: bodily sensations, smells, sounds, thoughts, emotions, tastes, and more.
We observe the fleeting nature of our thoughts… “I need to call grandma….” breathe …. “Why are bluejays blue?”…. breathe … breathe … “I want some chips…” breathe….
We pay attention to the gentle rhythm of our breath … inhale… exhale…. This gentle wave that is with us all day often escapes our awareness, and we may find that when we bring our attention to it, the breath begins to slow and allow us a deeper state of relaxation.
We become familiar with the patterns of our mind and the sensations of the body … “Every time I think about Jacob, I get a pit in my stomach….” breathe …. “That’s the fourth time my thoughts drifted to that conversation with mom….” The mindfulness meditation practice that is so popular now in medicine, education, and other settings is traditionally called vipassana meditation, which means insight. We gain valuable insight into the workings of the mind.
We discover the postures, thoughts, and breathing patterns that lead to greater calm and clarity. And we practice these postures, mantras, and breath patterns when it’s easy — when our eyes are closed and we’re seated on a comfy cushion and the house is quiet — so that when things get hard — when our eyes are open and we’re moving around in the house and the world is noisy — we know what to do.
We practice mindfulness not to get better at it, but because it helps us navigate our days with greater ease when we do it. We don’t flip out at the small annoyances, and we don’t let our thoughts run the show. Just like we exercise not so much to get better at push-ups, but because it helps us navigate our days with greater ease when we do it. We don’t get winded after a flight of stairs, and we can lift heavier things with greater ease.
When we “do” mindfulness, we can deal with all sorts of heavy things with ease.
Because we get good at what we practice, and we’re always practicing something.
If what we practice is anxiety, anger, and flipping out all day, that’s what we’ll get really good at! And if you say, “I AM really good at that!”, Dr. Phil would want to know, “How’s that working for ya?”
If you practice observing your thoughts and judgments, investigating your worries, and pausing before reacting to something, that’s what you’ll get good at! Awareness, responsiveness, and presence will become more and more prominent components of your default mode.
Bruce Lee once said,
“Under duress, we do not rise to our expectations. We fall to our level of training.”
Our training is important. Practice is important. When things get tough, we don’t automatically transform into the parent or teacher or boss we always envisioned we would be; we simply default to our automatic reactions. (How often do we say we’re “running on autopilot”? What that really means is there is NO HUMAN OPERATOR!)
When we practice mindfulness, we stop living on autopilot and start living with intention and awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it as living with “a willingness or ability to show up fully in our lives and live them as if they really mattered, in the only moment we ever get, which is this one.”
Practice doesn’t have to mean hours-long sessions on a cushion. You can start slowly with just a few minutes a day of paying attention to your breath. As with exercise, we begin gently, we gradually increase our practice over time, and we notice the subtle transformations that begin to take place in our lives.
So, as I told my daughter, if “being calm and breathing and everything” sounds good, then let’s, you know, do it!
Looking to get started? Check out these resources from the blog:
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