Going Out of My Mind (written 2014)
What does it mean to be mindful? I'm taking a walk and I am determined to pay attention and to be present. So, this begins with opening the sense doors. Noting the smells in the air. The sparkle of the sunshine or the glitter of the rain. The way drops of rain may pop and splash in puddles, or plop and spread in dust. The sounds that are around me. It means to be where I am, and not in my head working on a problem to be solved, replaying a conversation or daydreaming about the weekend. And this includes awareness of what I might not like so much. The dust and grit thrown up by passing vehicles. The wind blowing rain into my face. The constant hum of traffic. The open-windows of a passing car sharing music.
When I work at this, it isn't so difficult. What is harder is to notice the inner stuff. To be mindful of my reactions and judgments themselves. The voices that move in so quickly with labels and commentary. It's eye-opening to notice these judgments that leap into being about pretty much everything: the weather, the drivers, people passing by, the music overheard, my choices of clothing and footwear, the insects, the mufflers or lack of them, the condition of the road or sidewalk. This mind never experiences the world in a pure form. Each stimulus received is given a label, a category and often an instantaneous story.
I like this. I don't like that.
People do this because....
I'm sure you have no trouble filling in the blanks and adding to the list.
Being mindful, then, means noticing this too. And noticing how this feels in the body and the mind. The wishing, the longing that comes with positive things. The anger and criticism that goes with the negative. The jitters, the tension, the frowns, the clenching, the squinting and hunching. It means asking “how am I with this?” Our attitudes and judgments show themselves in the body.
So being mindful means being willing and able to go out of my mind, moving into my body and seeing what experience is like there. Dropping the stories, dropping the concepts and labels. Stopping with the sense doors as much as I can. Noting and letting go of the jitters, the tension, the frown, the clenching, the squint and the hunch. Relaxing into this moment so far as I can.
Being mindful means paying the same kind of attention to internal triggers. See if this scenario sounds familiar: You're spending some time on your own. You're reading a magazine or watching TV, or opening mail. And suddenly an idea arises - “I need a snack.” Most often mind treats this idea the way it treats outside sensory input. It quickly creates an action scenario. So as fast as you'd raise your hand to shield your face from a spray of dust, you find yourself moving toward the cupboard or the refrigerator, looking for something to fill this need. Being mindful means stopping this causal chain at a point where you can assess the reactivity. I need a snack because I'm hungry? Was that really the belly talking? Or I need a snack because I'm bored...the mind's story, looking for pleasant stimulation in the face of too much neutral. These two signals feel different in the body. And when I go out of my mind into my body, I see this. Not a belly rumble then, but that flutter of agitation which is the mind seeking stimulation.
Popular presentation of mindfulness emphasizes that it allows us a fuller life, not missing this moment, or the next. And this is a real and appealing benefit. But its greater value, I think, is in making the space that allows us to choose more skilful actions. Not cursing the driver whose car stirred up the dust. Not eating the chocolate I'll regret later. To the degree that I am present in any given moment I take back freedom: not the simple freedom children crave, to do whatever I want, but freedom from being pulled by blind reactivity into the moment that follows.