To enter fully the day, the hour, the moment whether it appears as life or death, whether we catch it on the in-breath or out-breath, requires only a moment, this moment. –Stephen Mitchell
Having grown up in Northern California, known for its abundance of New Age and counter-culture healing modalities among other things, I was used to hearing the word “mindfulness” without ever really knowing what it meant. I understood it had to do with paying attention and being kind, but especially in my hustle-bustle twenties, that seemed like a thing I would get around to doing more of when I was “old” and with fewer ambitions.
Well, I’m not exactly old, but I’ve rounded the bend of my 39th birthday now a mother, a wife, writer and teacher, and I see that I was, actually, onto something. Mindfulness–a term I find misleading because I feel it’s actually a state of mindLESSness, of presence in the heart, spirit, and body–is something that makes so much more sense to me now at this stage in my life. In fact, I feel as though cultivating more of it will make the difference between spending the next phase of my life feeling empty and antsy or fulfilled and present.
But what is mindfulness, exactly? Depends who you ask. All I can tell you is what it means to me, and this is: being awake and aware to the moment. Not rushing. Listening to people. Staying in my body. Not anticipating the future. Not identifying with the petty grumblings of my ego (the shoulds and shouldn’ts, the “he has more” and “she achieved better”, the “does she like me?” and “what if I look stupid?”).
My writing life is one of the most accidental mindful practices I’ve kept at my whole life. It’s a process of deep stillness, quiet, focused attention and observation. It’s a gift to MYself. It’s my way of sorting through all the work of the mind and ego and cultivating something that makes meaning to me. Sometimes it only means something to me. Sometimes my writing can go beyond me, reach others. I’m not in control of that. In fact, I’m not in control. I’m tired of controlling things anyway–that’s not a mindful practice, it’s an exhausting one.
Mindfulness also means to treat my life as a practice, a path (add “spiritual” if you like, it’s all the same to me) with daily attention and time to pause and allow awareness. It means that meaning and joy can come into my consciousness at any moment if I’m moving slowly enough to notice. Recently, for example, I went to the physical therapist for a minor, minor “injury” of my shoulder that I ignored so long I couldn’t raise my left arm, weight bear or lift anything without pain. The session was so lovely–she massaged the knots out, showed me exercises, spoke to me kindly. Unlike other medical appointments, she didn’t make me wait forever only to rush me out of there. I left there feeling calm, tended to, positive.
After, I stopped to use the bathroom and overheard a conversation between two older women. One woman said, “I always looked forward to the end of the month…and then I realized, if I keep doing that, I’m rushing past the rest of the month, and missing out on my life.” When I came out to wash my hands, she told me she liked my haircut and I admired hers. “Yeah, this is the shortest it’s ever been, but it’s growing back after chemo, so I’m happy about that.” Ah, here was a woman who had felt the mortal edge of cancer, who maybe had the gift of remission now, and was not going to waste what remained.
I can’t tell you why but the whole exchange felt like a gift. A reminder of, and a testament to, the slowness of my life at that moment. I spent the rest of the day in a strangely happy mood that I couldn’t explain. I woke up the next day in no desire to rush. On my son’s first day of Kindergarten recently I wanted to savor every moment. Even the frustrating ones where he didn’t want to eat breakfast or put on clothes–both of which, I learned with some gentle prodding (which I would have missed in our usual hurry) were due to his nervousness over starting at a new school. If he didn’t do his morning obligations, maybe he wouldn’t have to go. We talked through it with lots of hugs and reassurances. I took the back way there, the scenic route. Then I held his small, sweaty palm in mine and walked him leisurely to his school where I waited with all the other nervous parents. “I’m a little bit scared,” he said into my leg, hugging me tight.
“It’s okay to be a little bit scared. Your teacher is good at this, you have friends in class, and I’ll be back to get you before you know it.”
He didn’t cry, but I did, just a little after we hugged twice and blew three kisses and he walked off to take his spot on the colored carpet.
I took in every detail. I didn’t rush. I felt my sadness mixed with gladness at how his life is unfolding.
I was present.
That’s all mindfulness is to me.
Journal Prompt: Observe where you are right now: a cubicle, your office at home, on the couch with your iPad, it doesn’t matter. Spend a couple of minutes just noticing tiny details: the intricate threads on the pattern on your clothing; the scratches and scuffs in a ceiling or floor. The way shadows and light do or do not move around you. The whorls of your own fingerprint. See if you can observe without judging. No “ugly” or “pretty.” No “shabby” or “fancy.” Just things as they are. Blue couch. Threadbare blanket. Cotton skirt. Wooden desk with scratches.
Now, write about where you’d like to have more mindfulness in your life. What would you like to be present for more of the time, slow down to experience, or find stillness to allow?