Students of Western positive psychology are increasingly drawn these days to the concept of mindfulness. It's an intriguing proposition, with the promise of making us more peaceful, more enlightened, and more mentally healthy. However, the prospect of actually applying it in a practical way to life situations still seems rather elusive to many.
What does one actually do when one is being "mindful?" What's going on in the mind of a mindful person? Definitions of mindfulness abound. My favorite is:
Some people, especially illustrators and graphic artists, it seems, tend to confuse mindfulness with meditation, but it's a separate and unique experience in its own way. The obligatory articles on web pages and in popular magazines usually show the stereotypical young, female, hard-body fitness fanatic with trailing ponytail and form-fitting yoga outfit, sitting serenely in the "standard" lotus position, with eyes closed, upturned hands resting on her knees, and thumbs elegantly touching forefingers. It's a charming image, perhaps, but it's by no means any kind of standard portrayal.
Certainly, the practice of meditation tends to improve one's capacity for waking mindfulness, but in fact meditation involves a unique mental state that Eastern devotees like to call mindlessness. The purpose of most meditative practices is to suspend the normal process of paying attention, and achieve a state of deep reverie in which one is not thinking about anything in particular.
Mindfulness, by contrast, is the direct and intense experience of the here and now. It's not tuning out but exactly the opposite. It's tuning in. It's present, attentive, focused, and ready for action.
When you're in a mindful state, you're aware — simultaneously — of the situation you're in and your inner experience of it. Whether the situation involves intense activity, or interaction with other people, or just some quiet activity on your own, your psychological "radar antenna" is picking up the signals of the situation and enabling you to deal with it consciously and effectively.
The aim of mindfulness practice is to be present to the experience of the immediate moment, more and more often, as part of your participation in the adventure of life.
Imagine walking into a room — say a business office or a conference room — and finding a dozen or so people involved in a heated argument. They're hurling criticisms and accusations at one another. As you walk in the door, they become aware of your presence, and they signal their expectation that you'll join the fracas and take a side.
But, now that you're acting from a mindful state, you scan the situation, consult your inner advisor, and reflect quickly on your purposes for being there and your options for engagement. You decide not to take the bait. You estimate that you can make a more constructive contribution by not joining any of the factions, but by a process of polite inquiry that gives you a better understanding of the issue they're struggling with.
That's Zen presence. Another name I sometimes give to it is "dynamic serenity," or "serenity in action."
Zen presence enables you to engage the situation mindfully, without getting mired in it. Before you speak, you scan the room. You notice who the actors are; where they're sitting; how they're behaving; what the conversational pattern seems to be; who's talking the most; who's talking the loudest; who's dropped out. You do a quick "biological scan," or "body scan": How am I feeling? Am I building tension, anxiety, or anger within myself? Is my jaw tense, or loose and relaxed? Are my abdominal muscles tense, or relaxed? Do I sense tension in my neck muscles? Am I tempted to jump in and take a side, or can I stay poised and interact with them rationally?
Ultimately, you'll have to decide for yourself how best to engage the situation. You can leave, or get involved, or listen quietly. The important thing is that you're making a conscious choice based on mindful awareness of the situation.
Practitioners of Eastern wisdom traditions sometimes speak of the "observing self" — a part of you, so to speak, that hovers quietly in the background of your consciousness. Some of them refer to this entity as the Witness. Your Observer, or your Witness — whichever you prefer to call it — monitors your thoughts, your reactions, your impulses, and your behavior in "real time."
If you haven't already done so, maybe it's time to promote your Observer to the top rank amongst your various selves. You can make your Observer your chief advisor. You might find the process easier than you expected.
Try to visualize what your Observer might look like. How would this entity speak to you? How would he or she — or "it" — get your attention when it's time to comment on some aspect of what you're thinking and doing?
This is a process you can work with, practice, and develop over time. The more you listen for the voice of your Observer, the more clearly you'll hear it, and the more useful it might be.
I'll share a personal example, just as a small starting point. I've often noticed, over the years, that when I become angry or stressed, I tend to use profanity more often than when I'm calm. I like to think of the occasional profane remark as sort of a conversational spice, but not as a main ingredient.
Very often when I'm in such a situation, my Observer will report something like "Increased use of profanity. Are we becoming stressed?" It's as if a trusted advisor is reporting something I haven't noticed. There's no value judgment offered, no condemnation, no scolding. Just a report of the observation. Then, it's up to me. Most of the time I find the observation helpful, and I may pause for breath — and intelligent action — before going ahead with what I'm dealing with.
The term Zen presence doesn't have to conjure up images of a mystical guru figure, cruising around, dispensing wisdom, and magically enlightening people. For the most part, it's not something other people will notice. It's just a place you come from in your own consciousness, that enables you to act more rationally, intelligently, and creatively. They'll experience the benefits of your Zen presence, although to them it will seem like normal, natural, mature — and successful — behavior.
The time to get started on building your Zen presence is right now. Let me know how you're progressing.