Ten Zen Questions

Exploring the Mind from Within

Being mindful

Mindfulness is tough practice but can transform your life.

Mindfulness - usually described as "being in the present moment" - is a really tough discipline! When I first heard of this word, at a conference on Buddhism and psychology, I thought it very strange because surely I was already in the present moment wasn't I? Where else could I be? But then I started asking myself "am I in the present moment now?" and noticed something very odd: the answer was always "yes" but I got the peculiar feeling that perhaps a moment ago I had not been present at all. It was a bit like waking up. But if so, from what? Had I been asleep - half conscious? What?
I was also acutely aware of my own troubled mind. At that time we were living in Germany where my husband was working while I stayed at home with our two small children, and tried to learn German. I longed to find time on my own to write. I felt isolated, unhappy and, above all, unreal. Nothing seemed alive or vibrant. Our flat in the picturesque town of Tübingen looked out over a beautiful park and I used to stare out at the trees, pinching myself to try to make them seem real, feeling guilty for not appreciating them. I loathed this unreality. I felt I was not truly there at all. Certainly I was not "in the present moment".
So when I heard about mindfulness, I decided, right there at the conference, to try it. ‘OK' I thought to myself ‘how long shall I try it for .... an hour? a day?' But that would be to miss the point. If I were to be truly in the present moment I could only do it now, and then now, and then now. So I began.tree with moon

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.


The effect was startling - and then frightening. Being in the present moment, which had seemed so uncontroversial in prospect, was terrifying in practice. It meant giving up so much - in fact practically everything. It meant that I was not to think about the next moment, not to dwell on what I had just done, not to think about what I might have said instead, not to imagine a conversation that I might have later, not to look forward to lunch, not to look forward to weekends, holidays or .... anything. But the idea had grabbed me and I kept doing it. In fact I kept doing it for seven weeks.  

 
Most of this process seemed to be about giving up or letting go. As my mind slipped from the world in front of me to thoughts about the past or the future, a little voice inside would say "Come back to the present", or "Be here now", or "Let it go". I remembered John's saying "Let it come. Let it be. Let it go". Now I was doing this for real, not just in sitting meditation or on retreat, but in every moment of every day. Everything had to be let go of, apart from whatever was right there, arising in the present moment. I found myself saying "Let it ..." or just "Le ...." and staying fully present, right here.


There is something truly awful about having to let go of so much. Sometimes in bed at night I just wanted to give in - to indulge in some easy sexual fantasy, or pleasant speculation - but the little voice kept going, "Let...". Then odd things began to happen.

First, I had assumed that complicated thoughts about what I had just done and what I had to do next were necessary for living my life. Now I found they were not. I was amazed at just how much mental energy I had been using up when so little is required. To take a simple example, I found that I could go through a series of thoughts like "I think I'll make a butter bean casserole for supper. I've got tomatoes and carrots indoors but I must remember to go out and pick some broccoli before dark" in a flash, and then drop it, and still remember to go and get the broccoli later on. Why had I been wasting so much effort before?

Another oddity was to realise that the present moment is always all right. This bizarre, but liberating, notion crept up on me gradually. Time and again I noticed that all my troubles lay in the thoughts I was letting go of - not in the immediate situation. Even if the immediate situation was a difficult one, the difficulties almost always concerned the past or the future.

Of course, difficult situations have to be dealt with, but oddly enough even these seemed easier, rather than harder, when I was paying attention to the now. I found myself, when faced with one particularly difficult life decision, writing down a list of pros and cons and assessing them. But this was done in a completely new way: I thought through the likely consequences of each decision in turn, paying fierce attention to each one on the list. Then I decided on one of them, without agonising or trying to go back on the decision. Then I got on with the one that had been chosen.

Letting go of what you've done immediately afterwards is enormously freeing but, in conventional terms, rather worrying. A natural fear is that you will behave idiotically, make a fool of yourself, do something dangerous or, more worrying, that you will let go of all moral responsibility. Oddly enough this did not seem to happen. Indeed, the body seemed to keep on doing ethical and sensible things, apparently without all the agonising I had assumed was essential. Being able to act and then move on may seem to mean letting go of all responsibility, yet responsible actions still happened. I did not become wicked, selfish and cruel - indeed the change seemed rather the reverse.

There were dangers. I remember once trying to cross a mountain road, holding my two-year-old's hand, and realising that I simply could not judge the speed of the oncoming cars. In the present moment they were frozen, and the next moment was not in my mind. I decided I must have gone a bit too far. I have no idea what happens if you push this even further, or let go of even more of the mind. I have no idea whether continuing this kind of practice all of one's life is either feasible or desirable, although there are many who advocate it. I only know that I worked hard at it for seven weeks and then stopped. Indeed the whole process seemed naturally to come to an end.
meditation cushion

Finally, one simple fact I noticed was that instead of being a chore, sitting down to meditate was a blessed relief. It was much easier to just sit and pay attention to the present moment than it was to rush about, look after the children, drive the car, or write letters, while paying attention to the present moment. So from then on, although I gave up the intense mindfulness practice, I meditated every day. And finally, at last, things began to seem real again. The trees were right here and vivid and alive. The kids' shouts were immediate and full of energy, and I was right there with them and what they were doing. I seemed to be less of the self I thought I was before, but I (or someone) felt far more alive.

Susan Blackmore is a British psychologist, writer and broadcaster, and author of The Meme Machine and Conversations on Consciousness.

more...

Subscribe to Ten Zen Questions

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.