Someone called me the other day to enquire about my upcoming Quiet Mind workshop. He had some experience, and asked, “So how is your meditation different from everyone else’s? What sets it apart?”
“Well,” I said, “it’s stressful.”
“Stressful?” His voice petered out.
As the word hung in the air, I flashed back to the nineteen-sixties and the celebrities who’d learned ‘being in the moment’ from grinning Indian gurus. It wasn’t just that I wanted to fit into the Now generation. The idea really hit a nerve.
I’d been trying to live according to how things
should be, and had ignored how they actually were
I wasn’t giving the present moment its due, and I knew it. I was on auto-pilot, in flight from bad feelings. Instead of facing my sense of isolation I churned out rationalizations about why I didn’t care about other people, how I could manage without love, why no one would understand anyway. I convinced myself I was okay alone, that I preferred it that way, that I wasn’t in pain. I glossed over the past and spun the future before it even had a chance to impact me.
I’d been trying to live according to how things should be, and had ignored how they actually were. If I could learn this ‘being in the moment,’ I realized, things might change. I just had to train my mind.
So I hitchhiked to India, shaved my head and joined the ranks of the faithful. I was going to wake up and smell the roses.
Or is it the coffee? Whatever. I just knew I wanted more, much more. I was primed to believe the hype about the present moment being miraculous. The story went like this: unlike rehashed memories and future worries, the present moment isn’t inside your head — it’s real. Tied up with your thoughts, you’re oblivious to the roses. Or, without that shot of coffee, you’re asleep to the joys of life, right? It’s all about paying attention to what’s actually going on instead of to the chatter in your head. With this nifty formula I meant to leave behind all prevarication, justification, rationalization and agonizing.
I wasn’t the only one who craved peace of mind. Thousands of us then have turned into millions today practicing mindfulness, many at the prescription of their physicians. A ten day course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teaches you all you need to know — or so they say.
The trouble is, there’s more to changing your stress response than technique. It also requires context. That’s why many give up. Peace of mind may be the long-term goal, but getting down to it and creating a life-changing practice takes time, effort — and gumption.
The present moment presents us not only with roses and coffee but also excrement, the worst of it from within. Fight your demons and they fight right back, increasing stress instead of quieting it. Yet turn away and they grow into habitual thoughts that magnify the subconscious chatter. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Mindfulness requires a light touch, neither fighting nor turning away but gently lying down with your demons, understanding how they shape your outlook on life and learning what triggers them.
There’s no magic. It’s quite scientific. It’s a gathering of data in real time: being attentive to the ‘here and now’ while reading this article; while getting mad at your neighbor, while doing something you hate that has to be done anyway. And, most difficult of all, while indulging in that familiar inner dialog we call the story of ‘me.’
Are you searching for tranquility, or for a tranquillizer?
‘Spiritual’ people often think that negative states of mind are a problem, that hate must be turned into love, frustration into joy. This is valiant but misguided. Reality is sometimes so simple that we just miss it. Anger, frustration and regret are appropriate responses to many situations. Indulging in them doesn’t help and neither does flight, but taking a step back and seeing them in context does. Resist the urge to escape and you see what you’re really dealing with.
Are you searching for tranquility, or for a tranquillizer? Sharp, effective mindfulness begins with acceptance of your emotions, not judgement of them. Only then is change possible.
Those who want to feel good now miss this subtle difference. Their desire to change their feelings is the same old urge to flee, just another subconscious craving for things to be other than they are. Actually, it’s worse: believing they’re on a special path to freedom, they’re even more blinkered than the rest of us.
We can’t control our feelings but we can mold our thoughts. We do that most easily in patterns of past and future, and that’s why our heads fill up so easily with distraction.
So, mindfulness is not an isolated activity in a quiet room. It’s a fully-engaged approach to life. It deals with what we know, not what we wish; with what is presented to us in each and any moment. It’s not easy, but it is profoundly rewarding.
If you take up mindfulness in order to find peace, that’s probably what it’ll seem like — at first. However, that’s just a trick of the expectant mind. Getting past that illusion is stressful: you have to face stuff you don’t want to face. The fact that it feels bad doesn’t mean you’ve got it wrong. It means you’re stepping out of your comfort zone, bypassing your default responses and adding space for creative experience.