Tuesday, December 12, 2006

What is mindfulness? (a re*mind*er for myself)

I knew Susan and I were destined to be good friends when we talked one day about how we both had tried "washing the dishes to wash the dishes". Both of us had read Thich Nhat Hanh's *The Miracle of Mindfulness* and were inspired to try this exercise. It is not hard to master the concept of practicing mindfulness, but it is unbelievably hard to do. Mindfulness requires living in the moment -- allowing oneself to experience the sensations of the physical body in each moment, in each movement, to observe what is around oneself, to experience what is happening "now". I feel pretty confident in speaking not just for myself when I say that most of our time is spent in our heads thinking about 1)the past or 2)the future. Because of this habitual practice of not being in the moment, we miss all sorts of opportunities for joy. [One might also say we miss the opportunity to hear God talking to us -- or whatever is there when our own thoughts are quieted.] What causes pain? If you ask me, it is mostly caused by negative, habitual thought patterns. Even physical pain is made much worse in the resisting [fear] of it. Taking care of physical comfort can be the most important tool in alleviating pain. Sometimes pain is caused by trying to make something happen faster than is possible, like in the case of thinking so much about a future event that we think is going to be difficult that we hold our bodies in a constant state of tension in anticipation of the event. We think only of how we want this pain to be over with, but in holding our muscles and holding our breath, we end up in enormous physical discomfort. In choosing to live in the moment, one can, if even for a couple of minutes, breathe deeply, relax one's muscles, and choose to abandon all worrisome thoughts. One can choose to observe one's immediate surroundings -- the blue sky and sunshine, the crispness of the air, a pleasant fragrance, the feel of soft fabric, a cute animal, a beautiful person walking by, or an exquisite building. This change in state of mind serves to change one's perspective from a state of feeling overwhelmed to a state of greater calm, which helps one to deal better with stress. Thich Nhat Hahn would say it is possible to live most (or maybe all) of one's life in a state of mindfulness. I personally find it difficult to break the habit of thinking too much about the past and future. To really live this way, it seems one would need to surround oneself with like-minded people. One great lesson I learned from *The Miracle of Mindfulness* was the idea that one doesn't need to separate oneself from others in order to have time to oneself. By thinking that all time is one's own time, one is free to experience fully every moment one spends alone or with others. Washing the dishes to wash the dishes is demanding because the point is to truly experience the sensations involved in the process of washing the dishes (how the water feels running against your hands, its temperature, the soap suds, the experience of making something clean, fresh, new...) and not concentrate solely on trying to complete the task as quickly as possible. This change in state of mind revolutionizes eating, walking, breathing, singing, being with another person, etc.


andre said...

I find this post deeply edifying. You're very good at writing and I’m so glad that I know how to read when I read your words. I know I'm not alone in saying that. You write and sing beautifully. Both of those things help people a lot. I would encourage you to keep writing out these admonitions to yourself (whether it be here or in a journal) and put it together with your singing in a healing lecture/recital. I think we all might benefit. . But don't worry about that right now. Just keep the focus on you and your needs. I think that's what I find so edifying in your words and in your singing: they are both honest.

P.S. You so are not lazy. . When you really find something about which you want to burn some slow fires, you will. Our culture is wrecking the shack we share by our lust for speed. . So you can't really gauge success well by measuring yourself against it. Still there has to be a place for those of us who do a little bit at a time all the time towards fulfillment and inside/outside peace.

Thanks again, Pam.

pamigelsrud said...

Thank you, Andre. Your words mean a lot to me.

Suze said...

that was beautiful from both of you, pam and andre. pam, i remember the conversation we had about "the miracle of mindfulness." (weren't we at happy hour or something?) don't remind myself of that philosophy nearly enough. i'm glad you wrote about this. it was something i needed to think about today.