If you are looking for scientific analysis or a deeply profound and spiritual explanation as to mindfulness and meditation, forget it. Sorry. Wrong blog. The good news for you is there are literally thousands of blogs and books that will provide you with an understanding of mindfulness as dry as a mouthful of Jacob’s crackers and more up their own ass than an enema.
If you stay with me though I am going to come at this subject in the most simple and ordinary way, the only way I know how. Spoken or written in ordinary language (read in a Mancunian accent for total accuracy), using ordinary words but with the ultimate aim of helping to make a difference as we go about our ordinary lives in the ordinary world.
This is where we live isn’t it? In the ordinary world. I’m going to make a sweeping assumption that most of us don’t live in a monastery. We don’t live in some fantastical, unobtainable dream fed to us through a barrage of lifestyle bloggers delivered via Instagram or Twitter. We live where we are right here, right now. (If you do happen to be reading this from a paradise island, sipping Cosmopolitans in the sun, then good on you dude – but I will bet my last dollar that you’ve still got a head full of mush – otherwise what are you doing searching for stuff to read on mindfulness??)
So. Right here, right now.
We work. We pay bills. We get promoted. We lose our jobs. We eat. We go to the toilet. We get poorly. We get healthy. We get married. We get divorced. We have children. We sleep. We lose sleep. We go on holiday. We return from holiday. We get happy. We get sad. We get scared. We get excited. We get angry. Eventually, and hopefully in this order, we die.
And do you want to know the biggest problem with all of this?
Well that’s just it, there is no problem with this. This is life, this is the stuff that makes up our lives and no amount of money, religion, qualifications, reading, writing or meditation is going to change the fact that this stuff is the biggest part of our life experience, for as long as we are here on this planet. Not all of this stuff is going on all the time but some of it will be going on at least some of the time.
But, if that is ‘alright’ – easy as that statement is to write, then why is it that we are feeling more stressed out than ever? Why do we hear that depression is on the increase? Why do we feel unhappy so much of the time? Why are our good moments more fleeting than the bad moments? Why is mindfulness becoming so popular again?
In the modern world and indeed the modern digital world we are constantly bombarded with imagery, blogs, tv programmes, films, papers, magazines and emails. We now carry the access to this ‘stuff’ wherever we go in the form of our mobile phones. We are always plugged in. We struggle to switch off. We are addicted to checking our sources – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Whatsapp, WordPress and Flipboard to name but a few and of course there are those not yet even invented. We habitually and manically sift through this overwhelming amount of incoming content – sometimes inspired, most often exhausted and nonetheless commenting, responding, judging and condemning, if not physically then mentally and emotionally. We feel like we are missing out if we are out of touch for even a short period of time. Even when we do switch the technology off, we know that those emails are still coming in and will need to be dealt with eventually, we know our Facebook timeline is filling with more and more tripe, tweets are flying in from every angle on Twitter – even when we are switched off we are still plugged in.
What is more than all of that is the quality and reliability of the information we are absorbing. We are constantly being sold a dream, something to aspire to, something that appears to be better than our existing lot, something to keep us needing and wanting more, something to make us feel that our lives could be better. This is how marketing works. Create a need, sell the solution.
We are bombarded by images of people seemingly leading more exciting lives than us, more attractive than us, with better bodies, in nicer locations, wearing cooler clothes, hanging out in funkier places with super cool mates having the best time ever. Add to the mix our society’s growing celebrity obsession and suddenly it seems everybody wants their fifteen minutes of fame and we are hoodwinked into believing fame and notoriety is the answer to our emptiness and unhappiness.
So where are we going with all this and how does it tie in to mindfulness? Stick with me, we are getting there I promise but in order to do so we do need to start to get a good sense of where we are all at before we can get to any ‘place’ else.
Okay, so we have established that the modern world means we can suffer from information overload. We still also need to deal with all the usual things that make up a life from childhood to picking up our pension – weeing and pooing in nappies, nursery, school, college, job, career, social life, family life, pension and finally weeing and pooing in nappies. (Not all of us do this in the order listed here!) Is it any wonder we are feeling the burn?
We realise we are stressed, this bit we don’t deny. In fact we do the opposite – we whinge and moan and complain about how stressed we are. We talk constantly about the situations that we feel are causing our stress, whether that be money, work life, home life, friends or family. When we aren’t talking about them then we are finding ways to distract ourselves and try and forget about them even for a while – whether that be drugs, alcohol, sex, exercise, religion or embroidery. (That’s a usual Friday night for me!)
So we have to find something real amidst this sensory chaos and information overload. We have to believe that we can be the calm in the eye of the storm. But what is there that is tried and tested, timeless, constant, consistent, real and readily accessible? Lucky for us, we are born doing it, it’s always remained with us but we’ve just forgotten how to use it properly. Mindfulness.
In a nutshell, and this is something that I will expand on in many future posts, if we are mindful of ourselves, our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions then we can loosen the grip that they hold over us and ultimately our habits, behaviours, attitudes also shift and loosen. The simplest and most common form of mindfulness has us focussing on our breath, as it should always be there regardless (bad news – you’re dead if it isn’t!). Deep or shallow, felt in your chest, belly or nostrils. We watch this, returning to it without judgement when our mind wanders.
What follows is an old analogy but one that works. If our consciousness is essentially like the sun in a clear blue sky, this is our original nature, our essential essence, our true being. Our thoughts, feelings and emotions are like clouds in the sky, sometimes thin and wispy and at other times so dark and grey that they obscure the sky, often to the point where we forget the sun and blue sky even exist. (I am a Mancunian and can say this with great authority). If we can focus our attention on our breathing, then our awareness to at least notice the clouds means we can start to see there are different shapes, sizes and colours. We may even glimpse a chink of blue sky between the gaps, but essentially our awareness is still likely to judge and analyse the clouds. Mindfulness however would be a continued, relaxed, gentle nudge to ensure our awareness remained on our breath and in observing the clouds/thoughts/distractions but without any judgement, just seeing them exactly as they are without that need to call on previous history or associations. So for example with an emotion such as anger, we may be ‘aware’ that we are angry but still get very caught up in the heat of that emotion and react accordingly. With mindfulness we can gently ease the awareness away from judgement and allow the anger to be there just as it is, in it’s purest form. We may not get dragged into the usual anger responses and we may also find the anger dissipates much quicker.
Meditation has been around for thousands of years and has been subject to so many different incarnations, religions, movements, associations and prejudices historically and culturally. Essentially ‘mindfulness’ is just it’s latest re-brand. A term coined perfectly for the ‘millenials’, people who might consider themselves too cool or embarrassed to dare say they meditate but who want the benefits of what this timeless practice can bring to their lives.
I have studied meditation and indeed mindfulness for over 25 years and have read seemingly every book on the subject, pored through thousands of websites and tried most of the latest gadgets and apps. In that time I have been inspired by many great pearls of wisdom but predominantly lost heart sifting through what was essentially a pile of intellectual, spiritual poop. If we are to be part of meditations continuing journey through time, we need to help it enrich our modern lives through symbiosis. It can’t stand apart from the other parts of our lives, that doesn’t work, we’ve already established that. We don’t have the time or the resolve to always stick with a formal sitting practice, so at best it becomes something we try but never incorporate fully into our lives.
Now we have to allow the technology, the social media, our careers, our family lives, our trials and tribulations and all our joys to be all part of our mindfulness practice. Why separate them? Let’s integrate not segregate.
Forget the past. Forget the rules. Forget the snobbery. Forget the religious associations. Forget the New Age mumbo jumbo. Forget sitting cross legged. Forget everything.
Be. Here. Now.
Right now. How are you reading this? On a laptop? On your phone? How does the device or keyboard feel in your hands? Is there too much tension in your hands? Now that you’ve used mindfulness to bring yourself into this moment, how is your back feeling against the chair, your feet against the floor? Are they heavy? Cold? Tense?
You’ve just taken your first steps on a journey that will continue to reward you. Quietly reward you, not worldy, wealthy reward you (although they are most definitely not mutually exclusive).
Don’t get me wrong this all sounds so simple but it is not easy. Still now that we’ve broken the back of this, I will talk a lot more in due course about the ways we can now work to integrate the practice into our lives using every, single situation in our lives. We will also discuss all the pitfalls and obstacles that may crop up along the way, as inevitably with any new practice, our minds and our deeply ingrained habits and behaviours don’t take to change all that well.
Even then, the resistance is an opportunity. Grist for the mill.
Also published on Medium.