With all the attention given to mindfulness lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking it might be the answer to all your problems. I guess that happens when something (even a 2500-years-old something) becomes a THING. We hear about it everywhere, some claims about it get exaggerated, we discover that even our obnoxious colleague is doing it, and so we think, “GREAT! Here is everything I have been searching for!”
Well, I want to tell you two things:
1. Mindfulness is not a silver bullet. It’s not a magic trick that all of a sudden eliminates stress and gives you the life of your dreams.
2. But, whenever I speak with people who have integrated a mindfulness practice into their lives, the phrase they almost always use to describe it is this:
It’s kind of like a Zen riddle — mindfulness changes everything and yet it doesn’t change anything.
Even when you practice mindfulness, you’ll still get stuck in traffic, your children will still argue, and you’ll still have to file your taxes.
Nothing changes, and yet everything changes. The profound transformation that occurs takes place within you. You choose to relate to the stressors in life more skillfully.
How does this transformation occur? Well, when you are practice mindfulness, you experience some pretty powerful insights that lead to some pretty amazing shifts:
1. You realize you are not your thoughts.
This has probably been one of the most powerful insights from my personal mindfulness practice. I came to mindfulness many years ago, when I was in the nasty trenches of postpartum depression. In those days, I would spend my 30-minute morning commute lost in a downward spiral of negative thoughts — “I’m a terrible mother, I never should have had children, my children deserve so much better, my life is never going to get better, I’m going to be sad and cry every day for the rest of my life…”
As you can imagine, this was not a very productive way to begin my day.
Mindfulness taught me that my thoughts are not reality. They’re just thoughts. They’re passing mental phenomena. They are story and interpretation.
Mindfulness taught me that instead of getting caught up in the thought vortex, I can recognize, “I’m just thinking I’m a terrible mother right now.” I can watch that thought arise and dissipate. It doesn’t mean I’m actually a bad mother!
This simple change in perspective is TRULY LIBERATING.
2. You don’t sweat the small stuff.
We spend so much of our day caught up in habitual reactions. Our child throws a fit and our heart starts racing and we react unskillfully.
A tantrum, in the grand scheme of things, is small stuff. In fact, most of the things we waste our energy reacting to are small things. But in the moment, everything seems like a REALLY BIG THING.
In the time it takes us to breathe in and breathe out, we gain perspective. We remind ourselves that the tantrum will end. We realize the person who just cut us off in traffic didn’t do it as a personal attack.
Mindfulness helps us cultivate equanimity. We become aware of our triggers and learn to pause so that we may respond, not react.
We’re not constantly cycling from one activating crisis to another. Our nervous systems become more regulated. We literally stop sweating the small stuff.
3. You appreciate things more.
Mindfulness is all about the beginner’s mind. You’ve played Candyland a million times, but not on this day at this time with this child who is a little bit different than he was yesterday.
When we pay attention, we see beauty where we didn’t notice it before. We see growth and transformation and change where before we may have only seen stagnation.
4. You develop greater compassion.
Some mindfulness teachers say that that awareness and compassion are THE
The more aware we are of the present moment, the more in tune we are with the experiences of others, their joy and their pain. This generates compassion — a true desire that all creatures be free of suffering. We act to help others not because we know we should or because it’s what we’ve been told to do. We help others because we are aware that their pain is our pain.
Our awareness becomes compassionate engagement with life.
5. You learn the art of acceptance.
We spend a lot of our day fighting the present moment, rather than accepting it. Our thoughts are full of I like this and I don’t like that and I want more of this and I want that to go away. We miss out on experiencing the present moment when we spend our energy constantly judging it.
With mindfulness, we accept whatever is present. Because that’s WHAT IS. It’s not resignation — it’s simply recognizing this is what it’s like right now. And then we have a choice — if it’s something we can change, we can work in the next moment to change it. If it’s not something we can change, we can soften into it.
When we step out into a cold winter’s day, we can’t change the windchill. If we tighten our bodies to resist the cold, we constrict our blood flow and actually feel colder. If we release that holding, the temperature remains the same, but we begin to warm up.
Mindfulness doesn’t eliminate the stressors from your life. Your children will still throw tantrums, people will still cut you off in traffic, and winters will still be cold. That part doesn’t change.
But a lot of things DO change.
With mindfulness, you discover, as Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “that there is a way of being, a way of looking at problems, a way of coming to terms with the full catastrophe that can make life more joyful and rich than it otherwise might be.”
And that’s life-changing!