Every time I’ve spoken to a mental health professional, a counselor, and therapist, or a yoga teacher, the word “mindfulness” has come up. In the past decade I formed a nebulous idea that this is a state I ought to aspire to, but why was a drawn to it? Everything I’d heard said that this was a path to peace and stillness, and away from worry and anxiety. Sobriety had edged my taste away from orally-administered calm, so I was predisposed to the aurally-administered alternative.
At first found the concept hard to grasp. It’s easier to summarise what it isn’t. It means not frantically doing lots of things at once, on autopilot, not being taken over by thoughts that steal your attention away from the here and now, and not becoming harmfully attached to things you judge as good and averse to those you judge as bad.
That’s me on a bad day, when my mind and my body are a long way apart. I forget I need to eat and get tired and ratty, or don’t notice that I’m already full and carry on eating. I worry about things that are a long way or a long time away. I find myself replaying bad scenarios, some of them worst-case imaginary ones. In the shower in the morning, I might find myself arguing out aloud with my late father or an old boss. I am allowing my mind to take me away from the here and now and punish me.
Mindfulness is an acquired discipline. You can gradually teach yourself to deliberately attend to what your senses are telling you in the current moment, to be present and aware. You can form the habits of kindness, to others and yourself, and of accepting things as they are, without judgement. It confers an ease of being.
It emerged as an independent discipline when research indicated that Buddhists who meditated were less anxious and stressed than others. Having read about it, early in 2014, I took an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, based on a programme devised by several academics. At the time, I told the group “I’m here because I want to spend less time reading about mindfulness and more time practicing it. I want to develop some good habits.”
The course more or less followed the content of Mindfulness: Finding Peace In A Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. I could have just read the book, but the chance to interact with other learners and with our teachers, Avinash Bansode and Anne Williams made a world of difference. There was homework, so this wasn’t something to do for a couple of hours once a week, but rather something that took a sustained commitment.
To an observer, much of the homework would have looked very undemanding. You’d have seen me sitting in a chair or lying on a mat with my MP3 player, eyes closed, silently doing nothing for up to an hour at a time, six days a week. I was practicing meditation. Meditation is another word beginning with M that is easier to describe in terms of what it isn’t.
Mindfulness meditation isn’t concentrating on one thing, or entering a trance, or escaping from the present, or trying to actually do anything. Instead, it involves being deliberately, yet non-judgementally attentive to what you are feeling here and now. In a body scan meditation, for example, I slowly and deliberately pay attention to each part of my body in sequence, without trying to change anything. I observe what sensations I feel, and am sometimes astonished that parts of me are crying out in ways that I had not noticed, and conversely that I feel nothing whatsoever from parts of me I know to be present. I’m not trying or striving to do anything. There is no objective to be achieved now. This is simply a practice. I am getting into the habit of noticing things. My mind will wander, away from the guidance prompts I am listening to, or even away from my body entirely. I don’t berate myself for this, but just gently guide it back, because another habit I am getting into is noticing without judging. (I observe that I keep slipping into the present continuous tense in describing this. That seems utterly apt.)
The eight-week course brought me into the habit of meditating every day, and I’ve kept this up whenever possible, and I go to drop-in group sessions and day retreats. But, you ask, if you’re not even trying to do anything, what’s the point?
I think there are two benefits worth describing. The first is apparent as soon as I open my eyes and stand up. Before I start meditating I can be like an underpowered computer with too many programs open, thrashing away, and competing for resources. After I meditate, I am like a computer that has been defragmented and rebooted. New programs launch effortlessly, and run without contention, seemingly having the full computer at their disposal. There’s even a specific quick-reboot meditation I use several times a day, called the Three Minute Breathing Space.
The other benefit is more cumulative. The habits form and stick. You become persistently more mindful. You notice things. It becomes unmistakable. You are living in a continuous present, acknowledging what is around you. I now find myself emptying the dishwasher without having to find a radio programme to listen to at the same time, going for a run with just the sound of birdsong to accompany me, and sometimes not merely single-tasking, but zero-tasking. Simply being rather than doing.
Without exaggeration, I now live in a different world. The summer of 2014 saw me dramatically noticing what was around me and I drank in nature, sunsets, birdsong and architecture in a way that made me feel as though I must have had a bag over my head beforehand.
Equally, I am now a changed person. I’m not free of anxiety and I still experience stress, but I’ve learned to notice what’s going on inside as much as outside. It’s a continuous process of exploration rather than a step change.
The discipline of mindfulness seems to draw together all the changes I’ve experienced since I stopped drinking. Drinking to excess was both an attachment, to booze, and an aversion, to everything else. The very language of it, “Out of it”, “Getting out of your head”, speaks of its disconnection.
I don’t want to be out of it. I want to be in it. In my head. Here. Now. Present.