Much of the content I write about on this blog, and a big part of the work I do in therapy, is grounded in centuries-old Eastern philosophies, particularly from the Zen Buddhist and Taoist traditions. I find that this ancient wisdom has significant relevance to the kinds of things many of us experience in our daily lives. Perhaps the most profoundly impactful of these concepts—and certainly the one I talk about most—is that of mindfulness.
Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword in our culture recently. It’s been referenced in numerous publications, incorporated in countless studies, and suggested as an intervention for a great number of modern-day challenges. So what is this extraordinary concept all about?
Well, to tell you the truth, it’s really quite simple. Mindfulness is essentially the practice of paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment. It involves observing our experience as it’s happening and responding to it with a spirit of acceptance and non-judgment.
When we live mindfully, we attend to our experience in the here-and-now, taking stock of whatever is happening around us and inside of us. This enables us to stay grounded in the present moment and appreciate our thoughts, sensations, emotions, and surroundings.
The practice of mindfulness is essentially a practice of bringing your mind to meet your body in real time. If you stop to think about it, you’re able to perform most of your daily activities without dedicating 100 percent of your attention to them. Your body completes the tasks without your mind needing to be fully present. Take washing your hands, for example. While your body goes through the motions, your mind is free to wander—and wander it likely does. The practice of mindfully washing your hands considerably transforms the activity, as it involves bringing your full awareness to the experience. It means feeling the contours of the faucet against your hand as you turn it on, sensing the temperature of the water as it rushes over your skin, seeing your hands move through space to reach for the soap and sponge, smelling the soap as it slips over and between your hands, watching the bubbles encase your hands and then be washed away by the stream of water that you can hear gushing out of the faucet. It’s quite a departure from the typical hand-washing experience, which basically involves going through the motions while mentally time traveling to the past (“I really didn’t like the tone he took with me in that email”) or the future (“What was that item I said I needed to get at the store later?”).
In reality, unless we’re acting mindfully, we’re not really acting at all. To act requires consciousness and intention; so when we go through our daily activities on autopilot, we end up having a passive experience of our lives. It’s no wonder we so often experience boredom, frustration, dissatisfaction, and agitation without knowing why. When we think and emote mindfully, we tune in to our internal experience, getting curious about our thoughts and learning from our feelings. We practice responding to our internal and external experiences rather than impulsively reacting to them. Approached mindfully, a rush of anger is not a command to act aggressively but an invitation to turn inward and find out what caused it to arise. A troubling thought is no longer an introduction to suffering but an opportunity to witness the natural tendency for thoughts to come and go.
When we're being mindful, we give ourselves permission to gently stay with our present-moment experience rather than resist it or try to turn it into something more pleasant. We surf the wave of our emotions, trusting ourselves to respond to them thoughtfully, calmly, and responsibly. When the wave breaks, we enjoy, with appreciation, the experience of having ridden it, and we wait patiently to see what the ocean presents to us next.
p.s. If you're interested in uncovering the origin of this post's title, check out this short video.