One of my favorite written meditations on mindfulness comes from beloved poet Rumi, in the form of his poem, The Guesthouse.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Practicing mindfulness can be life-changing, but not in the way you might be imagining.
In simple terms, mindfulness is the act of observing the present moment without judgment; of noticing our feelings as they arise; and of being aware of our inner and outer surroundings, while accepting everything as it is.
Being present, accepting, without judgment. Sounds good, right?
So how do we do it?
Truth in comedy
Comedian Louis C.K. has a brilliant bit that relates to this on Conan O’Brien the other day. I don’t even own a television, but I spotted it because numerous people had shared the video on my Facebook feed. Late-night television might not be our usual go-to for enlightenment, but Louis reminds us that comedy has the potential for being ripe with wisdom and truth. In this clip, he manages to neatly sum up the challenges we all face—kids, teenagers, and adults alike—living in our information-overloaded society, replete with too many smart phones, ‘Likes’, and texting in a virtual reality. I really encourage you to watch the clip below, and afterwards check in with yourself about your own habits. There’s no right or wrong in this; only room for growth.
To me, Louis makes as good an argument as any here for practicing mindfulness in our daily lives. Mindfulness is one of the best antidotes to our info-saturated, technologically superficial society. Change can only begin when we accept where we’re truly at with regards to our own ability to be present with ourselves. As we move forward, we can consciously make small choices to notice and accept the reality of our feelings, actions, and experiences without judgment.
Mindfulness in all aspects of life
The practice of being mindful can extend to all aspects of our lives: breathing, eating, exercising, falling asleep, playing, listening to others, work, intimacy, meditation, and literally anything else that we find ourselves doing during our daily lives. Everything in life can be practiced mindfully if we make an effort to accept things as they are, to notice our feelings, and to greet the present with compassion, as opposed to judgment.
Let’s take breathing, for example. A common beginner practice in mindfulness is sitting in a quiet space, focusing our attention on our breath as we inhale and exhale. That’s it! But it’s actually more challenging than it may seem. The practice–and the power–comes from noticing when our thoughts begin to veer away from our breath and into the seemingly non-stop whirl of our minds, like when we start thinking about what’s for dinner, cleaning the dishes, or getting ready for a date.
And rest assured, our minds will inevitably turn to these day-to-day thoughts. When practicing mindfulness, it becomes our job to simply notice whenever it happens, and then to gently steer our thoughts back to the inhalation and exhalation of our breath. When we sit and practice this for even 5-10 minutes, it can be quite challenging, especially in the beginning. Sometimes when my mind is especially busy, I’ll spend the whole time during my practice just re-directing my thoughts, over and over. Other times, I’m able to stay focused longer on my breath. The point is that both results are fine, and welcomed. Continued practice to gain awareness of our mind’s thoughts and our body’s breath is the intention; staying present with both, the reward.
There is no judgment in this practice, and similarly, there are also no goals. We are not striving towards anything; we are simply existing as humans and observing this experience. As we bear witness to our breath, thoughts, and feelings, we increase our ability to accept each with compassion. It is not difficult to imagine the myriad positive effects that making this effort on a daily basis might release into our lives and our relationships.
Goodbye, judgment… hello, reality
For anyone who may remain skeptical, it’s important to note that meditation and mindfulness are not exactly what the media makes them out to be.
People who practice mindfulness rarely do it while sitting out in a field replete with sunflowers, a halo of sunlight glowing around their head. Occasionally, of course, we might have the odd fantastical experience, but our everyday practice of mindfulness is generally much more down to earth and even mundane. Most of the changes that occur are not exactly earth-shattering, either; rather, they are mostly subtle and simple. Breathing a bit slower, or noticing small things more frequently are likelier side effects from practicing mindfulness than, say, intense, mind-altering epiphanies. Though, those do happen every now and again!
Some of my days are still very hectic and stressful, no matter how much meditation I engage in, while other days are calmer and more collected. My experience during my sitting practice will always reflect what’s happening in the rest of my life. But it is my continued effort to sit, notice, and accept that makes small shifts in my perspective, my thoughts, and, subsequently, my actions too.
Managing stress vs. erasing it
Mindfulness is not meant to rid us from stress; it is simply intended to enhance our experience of living. Stress is a part of living, and impossible to eradicate from our lives. Stress can even bring positive results, like motivation, action, change, and growth. Managing stress effectively means using it to encourage us to make life-enhancing choices, rather than harmful ones. Practicing mindfulness is one way to start achieving this.
If we make the effort to set aside some time in the morning and evening for a short, mindful breathing session, we are choosing to devote time to strengthen our relationship with ourselves. Even 10 minutes can make a difference, especially if practiced regularly. The process is so simple: notice our breath, gently redirect any thoughts that veer away from our breath, and accept whatever thoughts and feelings that may arise with love and compassion.
The more we commit to a regular practice of mindful breathing sessions, the more we will become familiar with spending time with our breath and our thoughts in empathetic and nurturing ways.
Extending compassion outward
On the whole, making the effort to practice mindfulness increases my sense of connection with myself in a way like nothing else can. This will naturally extend to our relationships with other people, and with our environment. When we are more accepting of our own feelings, we instinctively become more empathetic with those around us, offering compassion and acceptance freely. In future posts, I’ll be talking about more exciting ways in which we can incorporate mindfulness into our lives, including active listening, and mindful walks. Today is the day to begin our practice of noticing and accepting our feelings with open arms, and inviting into our lives a regular mindfulness practice. An enhanced experience of living is just around the corner.
“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.”