Being Mindful, Not Just Reading About It
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By Patrick Briody, guest contributor
I was on the checkout line at Whole Foods the other day and noticed the magazine rack had several publications that were devoted to mindfulness. Each month, the covers would be telling me the key to happiness is some virtuous quality - maybe “patience” or “gratitude.” No doubt there’s wisdom in that, but I couldn’t help wondering how effective these articles are for people. In my MBSR classes, I often find the discoveries for participants are around how to shift from believing they “should” be different in some way to discovering a part of themselves that is already the home of these powerful qualities.
Most of us would like to be more patient, for example. But if we have a strong habit to, say, react with frustration when we get caught in traffic, we may later think we just need to try harder next time to be patient. This is interesting: Who is it that wants to be patient? And who is it that isn’t being patient? Sounds like the mind is at war with itself. Crazy, right? But somehow, our minds believe that war can be won.
When we take the opportunity to learn and practice mindfulness in a dedicated way, such as through Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), bit by bit we discover that freedom from stress (or whatever) comes when we fully open and allow whatever is here to be here, without arguing with it. We’ve spent years constructing patterns of thinking and behavior that are essentially trying to change the reality of the present moment (or just hide it from us), so it takes some dedicated practice to build new patterns that release us from this struggle.
Accepting what we are experiencing now, doesn’t mean we can't plan for needed change; actually, we are much better equipped to bring our full energy and creativity to creating the conditions for well-being when we are awake and aware of what is actually happening now, not just what we think should be happening
Over the 8 weeks of an MBSR course, we are practicing, again and again, to connect with this self-reflective quality of the mind we call mindfulness. And over time, most people begin to notice, that far from being impartial observers, we are usually somewhat harsh judges that are battling with some aspect of ourselves in an attempt to fix things. So, of course, our reaction to this recognition is usually to try to stop judging! Which is just more of the same mind-at-war-with-itself dilemma.
This is where the group discussion element of MBSR can produce some magic. Hearing one of our fellow members relate how they are struggling with a situation like this can often give rise to our insight into how they are going astray. Our response to that is almost always compassion and acceptance. We see clearly – it’s not their fault, just a common habit of mind. And, then it dawns on us – we are witnessing our capacity for acceptance, and it’s not something we had to try to do – it’s built in. And this compassionate acceptance is available to meet our own internal struggles as well.
So rather than just reading about being patient, or even fervently wanting to be patient, we learn there’s actually a training to help us clearly understand our habits of mind that give rise to impatience. And in that clear and impartial observation we can discover the part of us that, amazingly, is patient with our own impatience.