It is said that you teach what you most need to learn. When I was a kid my stepfather refused to buy me a Walkman because he thought I was already off with the fairies all the time and didn’t need anything to further immerse me in my own world.
I know what unmindfulness looks like.
A few years later I was explaining to a podiatrist that I had weak ankles, which is why I kept spraining them.
“No,” he said. “Your head doesn’t know where your feet are.”
“No,” I replied. “I’ve got weak ankles.”
“Your head doesn’t know where your feet are.”
I haven’t sprained an ankle since.
So, I’m very capable of being unmindful, and I’ve also been able to learn at least enough mindfulness to avoid a little unnecessary pain.
Here’s the thing: a master of mindfulness is really only in a position to share their experience of being a master with you. I am no master. I can share the experience of attempting to master mindfulness with you.
And I’ve had plenty of that experience. I’ve been practicing mindfulness in earnest for most of the past 12 years, and I’m as passionate about it now as I’ve ever been. I love experiencing those glimpses of insight that come with constant practice; I love developing my awareness to a point where I now experience the world quite differently than I used to; I love catching myself time and again slipping back into unmindfulness, and finding newfound clarity through doing that.
Most importantly, I love sharing what I’ve learned with others, and (even more importantly) learning even more from them. Except for a fortunate few, the path to mindfulness is a lifelong journey. It’s much easier walking that path holding somebody’s hand than it is alone.
There was a person on a quest to find the secret of happiness. They heard about a man who lived in a cave near the top of a mountain who had the answer, so he set out to find him. It took him years. The mountain was very remote and difficult to climb, and the higher they got the wilder the weather became. And as they reached the top, they discovered the mountain was littered with caves. After searching through hundreds of them, they finally found the man, old and wizened with a straggly beard that went down to his knees. The person fell at his feet and said, “I’ve been on a quest to find you for the past three years. I nearly died three or four times, and I feel I could die of exhaustion now. Please, before I die, tell me the secret to happiness.”
“Awareness,” replied the old man.
“Awareness? Are you serious? I’ve given up everything to find you; sacrificed money, friends and family; suffered incredible hardships; and all you have to give me is one word? Please, give me something more. What is the secret to happiness?”
“Awareness. Awareness. Awareness,” replied the old man.
That is all mindfulness is: awareness. Call it attention if you like. Call it focus. Call it presence. It doesn’t really matter, it’s all essentially the same thing. But what is awareness? You’re aware all the time, right? When you cross the street, you look both ways; when you drive, you keep your eyes on the road; when you watch TV, you watch and listen at the same time.
Maybe. I would suggest that there is a part of us that is aware all the time, it just may not be the part you think. But I don’t know you, I only know what I’ve noticed in me, and that is that I’m rarely what I would consider to be truly aware.
I made myself oatmeal for breakfast this morning. Normally, I eat and read at the same time (therefore not dedicated complete awareness to either activity), but this morning there was nothing immediately available to read, so I just ate instead. The first mouthful was sensational: the perfect combination of oatmeal and blueberries and honey and milk. I was really impressed with it and vowed to appreciate the whole bowl. But I didn’t. Before I knew it, the bowl was finished and I hadn’t fully experienced another mouthful. My mind was elsewhere, and now that was the only place the oatmeal would exist—a memory filed under ‘Lost Opportunities.’
Awareness would be fully savoring each and every spoonful of that oatmeal: noticing the feel of the spoon in my hand; feeling my arm raise towards my mouth; experiencing the sensations of the spoon and food entering my mouth; exploring all the tastes and textures of the food in my mouth; and then following the food as it works its way down my throat and towards my stomach. And then doing it all again.
Mindfulness is awareness is presence. Notice what is going on in your mind when you’re experiencing an unpleasant emotion—say sadness or anger or resentment. Where is your mind when that is happening? It’s not here, is it? It’s off in the past thinking about some injustice committed against you, or projecting into the future, engaged in an imaginary conversation or picturing what all this injustice could lead to. Which is why the secret to happiness is awareness: when you’re truly present, it’s impossible to experience a negative emotion.
You don’t believe me, do you? What if you just found yourself face to face with a cobra, and it was poised to strike? Of course you’d be scared, right? Yes, I do believe I would be scared. But as I said earlier, I’m rarely truly present. Where is the fear? I know that cobras are poisonous, and when they’re sticking up like that, they’re likely to strike: that is all knowledge I’m digging up from the past. I know that if it strikes, it might kill me and I’ll be in a lot pain: that is all in the future. What am I looking at when I’m truly present? I’m face to face with one of God’s creatures: in front of me is a true wonder of nature and all I want is to take it all in. I have just fallen in love again; just as I do every time I come across something new.
And here’s the kicker: everything is new when I’m truly present. Look around you. There’s a lot of familiar things there, right? But just how familiar are they? Do you know each of these things intimately—every color, every texture, every smell—or are most of these things just etched in your memory somewhere, like yesterday’s oatmeal? Mindfulness, true awareness, is experiencing each of these things as new every time you see them.
Are you there? Are you able to fully experience each and every moment? Me neither. So let’s join hands in a journey into mindfulness. Let’s try to experience the present like the gift it truly is.