If you can tell me what the mind is, I’ll tell you what mindfulness is. The point is: it’s not a thing, it’s something you do and like anything you do you can get better at it with practice.
Ellen Langer, “the mother of mindfulness” says it’s all about noticing new things that pop up in experience and when you notice new things you keep on adapting and developing your ideas. Having fixed ideas ends up being a trap. In fact it’s fixed ideas that cause all sorts of problems.
Do you like Mondays? It’s just a thought. It’s an expectation. What is this Monday really like? If you try writing a diary of what happens on Monday it’ll change. This is because you’ll be actually being curios about what’s happening and that changes your experience.
Look for the what’s new and the experience of life itself will get richer. This is because when we’re curious about what’s going on all the senses are switched on to notice what’s happening. We’re open to be surprised and we get the richness out of every drop of juice of what happens through the day. This isn’t just the flavour and texture of those pomegranate seeds in the Otolenghi salad, its about the richness of feelings we have in ourselves and about others around us. Noticing things and being curios actually improves our relationships with people around us! If you don’t know this one guys, you need to get your head round this one fast!
Say you tried the Monday diary experiment. The alarm clock goes off. It’s a grey day. It’s raining. Getting up is bad enough but then there’s getting to work… Things aren’t looking good and you haven’t even got to work. You get to work. You turn on the computer and open your email account. How many?!!! The trouble is, it can be quite hard to remember to be curious. This is where you need mindfulness meditation.
Just think about it for a moment! Sitting up straight, focusing attention on sensations of breathing in and breathing out. Doesn’t sound like much fun does it? There’s an old story of a young Zen monk who complains to his Zen master that zazen (sitting meditation) is boring. So the Zen master tells the young monk to get a bucket of water and when the young monk comes back with the bucket of water the master grabs the young monk by the scruff of his neck and sticks his head in the bucket of water. The young monk struggles but the master doesn’t let the young monk come up for air, at least not until he thinks he’s learned this particular lesson. Before the young monk drowns the Zen master lets the young monk breathe, then he says: “Breathing isn’t so boring now is it?”
So what’s really going on here? The young monk is finding zazen boring. Why is he finding it boring? It doesn’t have enough sensory stimulations to keep his mind interested in what’s happening.
Think of that Monday morning. The sensory information isn’t interesting. The mind switches into “Monday morning mode”. So to get out of the “zazen is boring mode” takes practice. We need to practice being curious about what’s going on.
Normally, when we’re absorbed by something, it’s exciting. There’s lots going on. One experiment using an app asked people what they were doing during the day and they were distracted 47% of the time. On average people were less happy if they were distracted because a lot of the time people are bored or worried, trapped in thoughts running around their heads when they’re not focused on doing what they’re doing. Less often are they just being curious about what’s going on around them. However, there was one exception to this general level of distraction and guess what? It’s when people are having sex. There’s lots going on. There are sensations and there are emotions… not much thinking!
So here’s what mindfulness meditation is all about. It’s about learning to be more absorbed in what’s going on even when it’s not quite as exciting as having sex. The strange thing is that the more absorbed you learn to become in what’s going on in your heart, in your body, in your mind and what’s going on around you the more interesting it becomes and the more your thoughts become clear and creative. All the struggle of sitting breathing noticing feelings and thoughts itself becomes a pleasure and that pleasure becomes more and more part of life.