MindFULLness by Katie Joy
There’s currently a general understanding in our society that being mindful means being focused, concentrating on one thing at a time and not letting ourselves get caught up in that “monkey mind”. If this is all mindfulness is, more or less “quietening” the mind, I find this a little contradictory considering the word isn’t mindempty…
I see people approach mindfulness with the same level of ambition that we are expected to have in every other area of our lives. People are trying to be really good at it. They strive to be mindful all the time. As if there’s a perfect state of mind they can achieve at all times. But I suspect mindfulness is a concept we can hold a little more gently.
The definition of mindfulness is “a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations”. And there is one key word here that gets forgotten about. Acceptance.
Mindfulness, in the context that it’s used in our daily lives, implies some kind of ability to focus on one task at a time, or give each task/person our full attention. Our full attention might be a bit ambitious. Our minds are constantly taking in and analysing a range of stimuli, together with sensations, emotions, reactions, fore-thinking, memories, and so on. This is normal. It’s okay to be thinking and doing a few things at once, in fact, it’s inevitable and unavoidable. Mindfulness can help us not to get all caught up in the rush. The constant thinking about what comes next. The mental fog that comes with our mind being all over the place without a sense of calm.
But have you ever tried to force yourself to be calm? It’s like someone telling you to smile when you’ve had a really shit day. Smiling ain’t gonna make it better. You know what would make it better? Accepting that we’ve had a shit day, contemplating it a little, having a cry and getting it out. And it’s the same with thoughts…If we’re told not to think or try to quieten the mind, suddenly all we can do is notice the constancy and volume of our thoughts.
There is a huge misconception that mindfulness is about turning your thoughts off or quieting your mind. Personally I’ve found within the practice of being mindful that when I try to calm or quieten my thoughts, it creates anxiety. Because now I not only have the rushing thoughts or the to-do lists cascading through my mind and life, but I now have more tension than I did before. It seems that trying to quieten my thoughts makes the situation harder for me and is just downright impossible.
Buddha said in the early Pali teachings that ignorance is the form of all suffering. Ok, so if ignorance is ‘bad’, knowledge about one’s self must be the opposite, right? And how would we gain knowledge of ourselves without some kind of exploration? This is where it becomes problematic if we have the assumption that we need to quieten our mind. I’ve had a long practice of mindful meditation where I attempted to bring my mind back to a point of concentration and away from thoughts. I didn’t really learn much about myself, I often fell asleep and I was still as grumpy as ever when I wasn't asleep in meditation. So mindfulness is not actually about shutting the thoughts out like I previously believed.
I now practice meditation that allows exploration of thought. I’ve developed a lot more insight about myself, enter tranquil states more often, and I’ve become more “mindful” when I’ve not been in meditation. Interesting, right? And the main difference between these meditation practices? Acceptance.
So being mindful is less about quietening the mind and more about developing an acceptance with the busy-ness of our mind…because can we really be mindful if we don’t truly know ourselves? Our reactions to things, the way we communicate, the way we work effectively, our creativity, our pain, our habits, our relationships - everything that makes us, us. And wouldn’t meditation be a great, safe place to learn about these things? And maybe if we give the thoughts warranted time in a safe place, it will enable our minds to free up a little outside of the meditation practice…
What I’m trying to say here is that meditation and being mindful don't necessarily have to be devoid of thoughts. Or involve detaching from our thinking. It’s giving oneself the opportunity to explore thoughts and emotions. Or in other words, to calmly sit with being mindFULL. To take the time to be curious and learn from it. And when we do that, it’s natural for us to take that insight into our daily lives and live a more mindful life, without any force. In this way mindfulness becomes something that trickles off our meditation cushion and into our daily lives. Gently, and with acceptance.