Mindfulness

“As it Is,” Bob Ryder

READING
Psalm 23 (Bay Bok of Psalms)
The Lord to me a shepherd is,
Want therefore shall not I,
He in the folds of tender grass
Doth make me down to lie
To waters calm he gently leads
Restore my soul doth he
He doth in paths of righteousness
For his name’s sake lead me.
Yea though in valley of death’s shade
I walk none ill I’ll fear,
Because thou art with me, thy rod,
and staff my comfort are.
For me a table thou hast spread
In presence of my foes.
Thou dost anoint my head with oil
My cup it over-flows.
Goodness and mercy surely shall
All my days follow me;
And in the Lord’s house I shall dwell
So long as days shall be

REFLECTION
There’s an expression used a lot by food servers (or at least it used to be) to describe what it’s like when they get behind in their work.  Maybe they have a bunch of orders in the kitchen waiting to go out to their tables.  Maybe they have several groups that have just been seated in their section all at once waiting to be greeted and have their drink orders taken.  Or maybe a few tables have finished their meals and ready for the check.  Or maybe, if you’re like I was when I was a waiter, it all of the above.  The expression for that experience is being “in the weeds” and it refers to feeling anywhere from mildly overwhelmed to outright panicky at the “to do” piling up in front of you.  I always felt like I was in the weeds when I was a server.

Lately I’ve felt like I’m in the weeds a lot.  It seems like I’m always a couple of steps behind and losing ground.  It’s difficult to focus, and I’m often reciting lists both on my smart phone and in my head of what I need to get done. The more I try to organize my time and priorities, the more it feels like I’ll never get caught up, like I’ll always be “in the weeds.”  My mind seems to be developing a habit of expecting to be “in the weeds.”

What’s your version of being “in the weeds.”  What’s it like when your mind is clouded?  Can you recognize it for what it is?  Are there times or circumstances when you’re prone to spinning your wheels in mental mud; situations when your attention is swept down-stream in mental rapids; when you’re driving in mental circles around an ego cul-de-sac? One of the most liberating insights I can remember in my adult life is an observation I first learned reading “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle.  He pointed out that mental activity isn’t simply a matter of you or I thinking our thoughts, it’s just as much – or even more – that thinking happens to us.  It’s more appealing to assume we’re in control of our minds – that we think what we want or need to think – but that isn’t usually what’s happening in our moment to moment mental experience.  Our relationship to our mental activity is similar to our relationship to our breathing.  Sometimes we’re aware of it happening, sometimes we even exert control over the process, but mostly it takes place on its own – a semi-conscious activity moving along largely independent of our will.  We’re all prone to this phenomenon of having our conscious mind eclipsed by a fog of psychological static.

Our capacity for conscious thought is a product of evolution – there’s a survival advantage to being aware of your surroundings and navigating to acquire resources and avoid danger.  In humans, consciousness is something like a Swiss army knife.  We have the capacity for abstraction, for logic and rational analysis, for social networking, for art and humor, for moral reasoning and a host of other mental abilities.  One of the most basic and advantageous cognitive skills turns out to be the propensity to scan the environment for possible danger.  The mind is like a perpetual radar tower looking for threats.  But problems happen when our minds perform this function on auto-pilot – we’re prone to a lot of false positives, identifying trouble where there really is none. Sometimes we exaggerate the likelihood of a problem.  Sometimes we exaggerate the danger of a problem.  Indeed, sometimes we even manufacture imaginary problems seemingly for the entertainment of it.  We scan the room, the road, the conversations happening nearby, the internet – for possible danger, and when we find something, the brain produces a hit of dopamine, which feels good.  That dopamine hit is your brain rewarding itself for doing a good job of patrolling the area.  But because this happens sub-consciously, we get quality control issues.  We get false positives.  The mind can train itself to manufacture that same dose of the drug for imaginary threats, too, and so we learn to identify problems when there really aren’t any, or when they’re so unlikely or so minimally impactful that they could be safely ignored in favor of more important pursuits.  Of course, there’s a torment that comes of this habit, too.  There’s an episode in Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series in which the protagonist Roland has to endure spending time in a magical cave. The effect this cave has on people is to make their subconscious thoughts physically audible, so you can actually hear your own judgments and worries and guilty thoughts calling up from the depths of the cavern and echoing along the walls.  Stephen King – that dude understands horror.

We all have our own style of mental dysfunction.  For some, being in the weeds manifests in daydreaming –escaping current real circumstances into some alternate mental landscape that feels more satisfying for some reason.  Am I bored?  Am I annoyed? Do I feel guilty or inadequate?  I can evade the unpleasant emotions that come with those mental states by fantasizing – wandering in an imaginary situation for a while where I can manipulate what people say and do, what the weather is like, how I’m perceived, having the nerve and the wit to say the right thing at the right time and win an argument – it’s nice in there!  For others it takes the form of self-righteousness, paranoia, self-pity, narcissism, self-deception, etc., etc.

Paranoia comes pretty close to describing what often happens in my mind when I go on auto-pilot.  When I let myself get swept along in that subconscious current, I start to interpret situations as being harder than they really are, worse than they are.  I take things personally when, in my right mind I would know that they are absolutely not personal.  How do I know?  Have you ever bumped your head, or maybe stubbed your toe and then cursed the cabinet you bumped into, as if it was alive and got in your way on purpose just to mess with you?  Have you ever been driving in traffic and just known that someone else on the road nearby is getting in your way on purpose?  This is my style of mindless dysfunction.  When my consciousness is scattered, disengaged, I attribute malicious motives to others and even to inanimate objects.  It doesn’t sink to the level of clinical insanity – some part of my mind is aware that “no, Bob, it’s a kitchen cabinet, it did not participate in making you bump your head.”  But it indulges in useless and stressful delusions that detract from rather than contributing to more functional and healthy patterns of thought and behavior.  Mindfulness is the practice of recognizing that phenomenon for what it is – a self-indulgent habit of distracted blindness misinterpreting reality.

What is it like when your mind is clear?  How do you experience your surroundings?

Your relationships?  Your own inner space?  Those who practice and teach meditation talk about seven “pillars of mindfulness” – a collection of interrelated perspectives that guide one’s approach to living and being, participating in the moment at hand rather than borrowing trouble from the past and future.

  • Acceptance – This is the simple practice of acknowledging what is so. It doesn’t mean giving approval to something, it just acknowledges reality rather than fighting against it.
  • Beginner’s mind – a way of approaching things creatively and experiencing them on their own terms without bias or the constraints of thinking that there’s a particular correct way of understanding or engaging something.
  • Letting go – This is the opposite of clinging to an expectation of how something has to be in order for me to be okay.
  • Non-judging – This is another challenge – resisting the inclination to criticize and condemn. That situation is that situation, that person’s behavior is that person’s behavior. Condemning it for not being what you would prefer does not usually serve anyone well.
  • Non-striving- There are situations in which we need to “make it happen,” and other situations where it’s best to “let it happen.” The poet Lao Tzu writes,

“Do you have the patience to wait

Till your mud settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving

Till the right action arises by itself?”

  • Patience – This is the choice to set aside frustration and remain engaged in a worthy task without indulging a sense of entitlement to progress or completion.As my music teacher reminds me, “The journey is the destination.”  (Tom Teasley)
  • Trust – This one is tricky, but the gist is that we can cultivate a sense that the underlying foundation of reality is as it ought to be, even though things might not seem right at the moment. It’s the idea that we will make progress, learning to cooperate more and more with peace and justice as we free our minds from the illusions of the ego.

As you develop these perspectives in meditation practice over time you begin to notice that they’re interrelated.  You begin to feel how trust and patience work together; how letting go and acceptance are partners.  The benefit of meditation is that it cultivates the mental poise necessary to practice these perspectives – it strengthens your capacity to keep your attention on reality and avoid getting swept off into the weeds.  Meditation isn’t some mystical state of detached bliss that transcends mundane reality, it’s simply the practice of maintaining one’s attention on the present moment as it is.  It’s a way of stepping up to an observation platform sheltered from the gusting wind of our subconscious.

Do you know what I mean when I say breathing is a semi-voluntary activity?  We can control our breathing but when we don’t pay attention to it, it just happens on its own.  So too, mindfulness is semi-voluntary.  We can keep our attention focused on specific ideas or activities, concentrating on the moment at hand, but attention is challenging to maintain for long, and when we’re not deliberately directing our attention it just goes off on its own to whatever interesting thought occurs to us, no matter how unrealistic.  Mindfulness is like balancing a tennis ball on top of a beach ball – can be done, but it requires concentration.  It’s simple, but not easy.

For the next few minutes we’re going to practice mindfulness together, using our breath as an anchor for bringing our attention in the present moment.  You needn’t worry whether you’re doing it correctly.  As we practice keeping attention on our breathing, you’ll notice thoughts occurring to you, things to worry about or look forward to, criticisms you might make toward others or that they might make about you.  Understand the idea of mindfulness isn’t to avoid having those thoughts occur to you – that’s not possible.  The idea is to maintain your attention where you choose for it to be, in this case simply observing the cycle of your breathing.  If you are aware of the air moving in and out of your lungs, the expansion and contraction of your torso, the pause between on repetition and the  next, the effect of gravity on your rib cage and diaphragm – if you’re able to keep your attention there rather than being drawn off into the weeds by whatever alluring thoughts floats by, you are meditating correctly.  And if or when you notice that your attention has been drawn off after some passing thought, then simply bring your attention calmly back onto your breathing without judgement or criticism and continue practicing mindful attention.  We’ll do this for just a few minutes, and I’ll conclude with a reading.

Desiderata – Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
 Strive to be happy.