Thursday, January 27, 2011

What is mindfulness?

What is mindfulness? Such a basic question, right? Your comments made me think about exactly what mindfulness means. I'm an absolute novice at this (I'm even terrible at yoga) so I thought I should start at the beginning.

The first thing I did was Google "mindfulness" which brought up lots and lots of results. Mindfulness is apparently big business. I even tripped upon a local resource, the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Quite a mouthful. According to their website, mindfulness is
a way of learning to relate directly to whatever is happening in your life, a way of taking charge of your life, a way of doing something for yourself that no one else can do for you — consciously and systematically working with your own stress, pain, illness, and the challenges and demands of everyday life.
A particularly Western approach to mindfulness, I think. Very results-oriented. For that Center, mindfulness can help you better control your life. Interesting.

Wiki states that "Mindfulness...plays a central role in Buddhist meditation." It is one component of the Noble Eightfold Path, the Buddhist method for achieving the end of suffering. Psychology Today calls mindfulness "a state of active, open attention on the present . . . . mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience."

(This was part of my experience this afternoon. A gorgeous sculpture of twig and ice. Right outside my breakfast room window. A New England winter, even one buried in snow, glimmers with unexpected details.)

Seeing what I was doing, my husband rummaged in his bookshelves and dropped a book, The Dharma of Star Wars by Matthew Bortolin, in my lap. "I like to get my spirituality through popular culture," he quipped as he headed to round up two very riled-up girls for bedtime.

Now I was raised Roman Catholic, attending parochial schools through high school. As an adult, I edged into the Episcopal Church. The only Dharma I recognized was the female lead in the sitcom on air about a decade ago. This was relatively new territory for me.

Bortolin defines mindfulness as focusing "awareness on what is going on within us and around us at this instant." One of his suggestions to developing mindfulness is mindful breathing which Bortolin calls "a means of staying anchored to the present."

Reading this, my mind immediately darted back to various yoga classes taken through the years. (I can't stay mindful even while reading about mindfulness!) I felt the thin rubbery give of the yoga mat under my bare feet. I heard the teacher's voice intone in that soothing patter usually reserved for calming fractious horses, "Breathe in deeply through your nose. Feel the breath course through your body. Exhale through your mouth. Feel the breath cleanse." Instead, of course, I'd think, "I'm breathing so loudly. My sinuses must be congested. Should I take Allegra again? I don't think the Claritin is working anymore. And I have to remember to pick up some broccoli. . . ." So my track record at yoga and mindful breathing is not so good.

Bortolin's mindful breathing also brings me to lurahloo's question about breathing and whether it is just escaping to a non-distinct thought. Perhaps instead of "meditative" breathing, framing it as "mindful" breathing is helpful. For me, meditation suggests some alternate state of relaxation, not necessarily attention to the present. Bortolin states that noticing one's breath is a way to ground ourselves in the moment. I'll have to vacuum soon and try this. One benefit to my new mindful practice, my house will be so clean!

Monday, January 24, 2011

No Standing Anytime

I've learned something about myself. I stink at living mindfully. Trying to keep my head and heart in the same time/space as my feet is proving...difficult. Exasperating. Frustrating. Like trying to wrestle water.

Who knew that it was so difficult to keep one's brain engaged at the task at hand? But while unloading dishes, I found myself pondering future blog articles. Vacuuming led to this internal monologue:
Focus. Fooocuuuussss...I'm vacuuming now. Short sweeps. Moving my arm. Back and forth. Don't vacuum up that...Too late. What's all this junk doing on the floor? Wait. Wait. Don't get too annoyed. Why not? I'm living mindfully, not Pollyanna-ishly. I'll just be mindful of how annoyed I am.
And so it went. At one point, desperate, I tried to behave like a woman who was vacuuming for the first time in her life. What is this thing? How do I do this? But that soon devolved into a bizarre, Eddie Izzard-esque narrative about this woman and why she'd never vacuumed before. You see? Hopeless.

I wondered just why my thoughts kept slipping away, quick as a wink. Yes, the vacuuming (and dishwasher unloading, clothes folding or the commute, the product meeting) is tedious. Mind-numbing. Dull. But why does my mind absolutely refuse to look boredom square in the face?

Is it easier to just wander off mentally than to acknowledge one's frustration and boredom? How would it feel to actually engage in laundry (or a commute)? To be fully present, instead of continually hauling back one's attention by its ear like a recalcitrant child? How does one stop looking ahead, above, beyond, behind and start looking here and now?

This dilemma reminds me of this sign, a photo of which I took in the spring last year. It's one of my favorite nonsensical signs...and is apparently my mind's motto as well.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Living life while paying attention

Recently, I've started reading a new book, The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball. Her story is Eat, Pray, Love meets The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's what happens when a Harvard-educated New York City urbanite falls in love with a draft horse driving, electricity-eschewing farmer. He woos her by cooking meals of such authenticity that dirt is literally clinging to the vegetables and the meat is practically warm from slaughter. She moves from the city to a farm that they create together, trading in her 4 a.m. lattes for 4 a.m. farm chores.

The book is engaging, and Ms. Kimball writes well. Her evocations of fragrant, fresh, succulent meals mingle with the narration of their romance.

I skidded through her words. A few chapters in, I noticed that I was tickled by a niggling feeling.

Was that annoyance?

Which made me pause for thought. (Note: this pause for thought is rare for me, but as it was Sunday, I had the luxury of a little time.)

What was bothering me about her narrative? Was it envy? After more than twenty years of marriage, did I begrudge her rhapsody over her farmer's "long, chiseled torso, the size of his callused hand over [her] breast"?

Then it struck me. Can authenticity not be found in the suburbs? Memoirs such as this one or Eat, Pray, Love seem to be founded on a fundamental premise that one must leave in order to find one's authentic self. A person must go to Italy (or India or somewhere equally far-flung) or drastically change lifestyles (from urbanite to farmer's wife).

Why can't I find myself amongst the laundry and afterschool activities?

My response came from an unlikely source: Facebook. I'd posed this question as my status, and it had generated an interesting discussion among my friends. One had surmised that it was easier to change one's pattern of thought after making a drastic change, and that it was far more difficult to find time for self-reflection in between one's daily activities.

What if you didn't pause for thought between your activities? What would happen if instead, you just paid attention to your activities? After all, isn't that what a huge change does? It forces you to pay attention. To focus on gaining mastery of a new skill. To focus on how to navigate an unfamiliar landscape. To notice little details because you haven't grown used to them.

We call it "multitasking" or "using our time more efficiently." I'm a habitual offender, routinely browsing the web while catching up on a Tivo'd show. I'm constantly juggling. When I'm folding laundry, I'm thinking about dinner. When I'm cooking dinner, I'm thinking about this blog and checking my email and making sure my son practices guitar. Etc. etc. What's coming up in the next few minutes, the next hour, the next day, this week?

I remembered an article I'd read in the New York Times last fall. "When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays" focuses on research that showed that people "tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else." In fact, As Dr. Daniel Gilbert, one of the Harvard psychologists conducting the study, stated, "The heart goes where the head takes it, and neither cares much about the whereabouts of the feet."

So my feet don't need to be in an ashram or on a well-tended wheat field. They can be firmly planted in suburbia, as long as my head and heart are there as well.

So, how do I go about paying attention? My first impulse was to do something big. I'd take a photo of some detail of my life every day and publish it on my blog. But that would become another dreaded "must do" on my ever-expanding "to do" list. Not exactly the road to self-awareness, joy, and my most authentic self.

My delayed new year's resolution. I'm not going to dash to Indonesia (or even Maine), and I'm not going to forge a vastly different life from the one I already live. What I am going to do is to live my life while paying attention. Which sounds simple. But I'll bet it's not. And I'll write about it. Or maybe not. We'll see how it plays out. Maybe in the process, I'll discover that you can indeed find your most authentic self in the suburbs, amidst the laundry and the extracurriculars.

This will be the year. The year of living mindfully.