Monday, May 5, 2014

More on mindfulness

I just finished a book, 10% Happier by Dan Harris, that helped evolve my perspective on mindfulness. I won't hold it against Harris that he attended my alma mater's arch nemesis Colby College. He had some interesting things to say on mindfulness. He started out as very skeptical and critical of Zen attitudes and meditation, and ended up on a transformative journey that led him to write this memoir. He embraced the parts of mindfulness that worked for him and left the rest. Harris's final view on meditation evolved into a very self-serving model. Yet how could he avoid this when he is hawking books on meditation for profit?

What resonated with me the most was Harris's struggle with a Zen mindset conflicting with his ambition. He finally comes to the conclusion that "Striving is fine, as long as it's tempered by the realization that, in an entropic universe, the final outcome is out of your control."

A mindfulness misconception I've encountered is that being mindful means ignoring your responsibilities, or burning your to do list. Rather, mindfulness to me means being grateful for what you have in the present moment and compartmentalizing and letting the other stuff go, while still dealing with your to do list over time. It will always be there waiting for you. But the precious moments of life won't, if you ignore them. Mindfulness is realizing the impermanence of every moment, and bearing witness. It's tempting to live elsewhere, to judge yourself on past accomplishments or tasks done. Just as seductive is falling into the expectations trap of "I'll just be happy when ... [insert accomplishment, coveted purchase, etc.]." Isn't that type of happiness always fleeting, though?

I've had a lot of important pieces of my life up in the air over the last several months: where I live, work, and send my daughter to school. Struggling through these challenges, all of which were not totally under my control, allowed me to practice my mindfulness. This was not an easy time for me, though I feel very fortunate that everything turned out better than I could have hoped. Now, on the other side of these changes, I can see that my daily worry was not fruitful, and that time could have been better spent practicing gratitude. Still, that type of judgement about my past thought process is not very Zen, either. I can only resolve to remind myself to ask, "Is this thought useful?" as worries inevitably enter my consciousness going forward.

I tend to think of my setbacks in my life like a mosquito, an annoying, buzzing sound that will go away if I swat at it or ignore it. But that's a short sighted approach, and I find the same issues keep popping up over and over. As Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says, “Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.” (recently quoted by Kate Hanley at Ms. Mind Body). In cases like this, it's important to assess what this challenge is trying to teach me? Maybe it's two steps forward, one step back for a good reason.

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