Mindfulness, Mindfulness, Mindfulness

Over the last few years, I’ve written a bunch of words (around 400k), made a bunch of podcast episodes, led a bunch of groups, had a few speaking engagements, and made a small number of videos, and almost all of this was about mindfulness in one way or another.

Most of what I read, watch, and listen to is about mindfulness. Right now, I’m listening to The Science of Mindfulness by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation by Professor Mark W. Muesse on Audible. I’m re-reading Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy. I spoke about mindfulness in schools in June, and I still have a mindfulness meditation group that meets every Monday evening.

Even now, as I switch the focus of what I blog and podcast and make videos about from mindfulness to living intentionally and as a full human being, I start with mindfulness.

The question seems obvious: why do I care about mindfulness so much that I’m willing to dedicate so much time to it?

Mindfulness for a Mindless Person

The answer seems obvious (to me at least): I’ve lived mindlessly, and it brings nothing but pain.

Mindless is actually a pretty good way to describe me for the majority of my life.

When I was 11, I cleaned out the fireplace and put the ashes in a plastic bucket. It burst into flames and ruined my mom’s antique rug.

When I was 16, I ripped the water pump out of my car, driving too fast over a low water crossing.

When I was 22, I drove 2 ½ hours in the wrong direction because I didn’t pay attention to where I was going on what had already been a long trip.

Things like that.

But also not like that, because these are all pretty minor in the long run.

A lot of my mindlessness had more dire consequences, for myself and others.

It’s important for me to say that I am resolved to everything I write about here. I’ve made apologies and amends where I could, I’ve sorted out compassion and forgiveness for myself and the mindless being that I was. I’m aware of how unreliable our memories are, how much they rewrite and re-interpret past experiences so I cannot say everything is the Truth, but I can say it is the truth as I remember it.

So, I’m resolved to younger James, I’ve forgiven him and tried to understand where he was coming from, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t still annoy me. His mindlessness made a lot of things very difficult, for myself and others. 

I treated people poorly because I didn’t know how to deal with myself. I talked too much and only about myself, I bailed on people for the smallest things, and when I sensed that people just didn’t understand how cool I was, I made things up. This created an odd cycle where the more I tried, the fewer people liked me, so I tried harder and harder. It was messy.

Not knowing how to deal with emotions and thoughts and (once again), myself, ended up in drug addiction and a pretty decent drinking issue. This led to other problems, as you can imagine.

I was rarely mindful of my time, so I wasted a lot of it. I was rarely intentional, so a lot of my choices were made by default or by path-of-least-resistance. This inevitably led to outcomes that were not planned well in the long-term.

More than anything, I lived a lot like a toddler – I reacted to things and responded from a place of emotional distress a majority of the time. Pain was channeled into anger, so I spent a lot of time lashing out without even meaning to. I was on fire a lot of the time, and I burned everyone around me.

An odd series of coincidences led me to learn about mindfulness as a way of being. Once I realized that there was a better way of living life, I was obsessed with learning and evolving. I got super fascinated with things like samurais and cryptozoology, but one day the book I was looking for was missing and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was in its place. I got absorbed into quantum mechanics and physics but did not have the foundations to understand it. I happened across a book called The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, which opened me up to the world of Eastern thought, and I found myself drawn to the stripped-down, non-magical clarity of Zen Buddhism, and began trying to meditate.

This is where things got complicated for me. I had been running from my emotions, and the noise in my head for so long that sitting with all of it was unbearable. I had distracted myself from being on fire for so long that is was difficult to come to terms with what a mess I was.

Very difficult.

I couldn’t sit for more than 30 or 40 seconds when I first started. I tried to make it more comfortable, I tried classical music (because that’s what it seemed like fancy, enlightened people would like), I even ordered this binaural beats CD off of the internet because it promised me a better experience. It didn’t work.

I finally made my way to the local Buddhist center – not so much because I was looking to become a Buddhist, but because I knew they meditated and that I would be too embarrassed to walk out in front of everyone. I leveraged that ego that had driven me crazy for so long against my lack of discipline, and it worked.

It wasn’t easy or amazing, but little by little I began to know how to sit with myself, how to watch the thoughts and emotions come and go, how not to invest in every little thing that floated through my awareness. It was slow, but it was also life-changing.

It’s odd as I write this because I don’t enjoy thinking about earlier times in my life. I still remember what it was like to be so overwhelmingly angry and sad all the time. I haven’t lost sight of what it’s like to be driven by these things inside of me that always push for more and more to escape from the fire. I know that suffering is real, and this is what drives me to help others – this and the fact that I know there is a way out of suffering if we are willing to lay down our egos and move forward with existence.

That’s what this next year is all about: the person I was, the mistakes I made, the consequences that ensued, and how mindfulness and meditation helped me deal with and step away from all of it.

What is Mindfulness?

The shortest answer is surprisingly accurate: mindfulness is a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. This, not-so-surprisingly, gets more and more complicated as we break it down and dig deeper though.

Think about your awareness at this moment, how many things are involved in it. We all have the things immediately in front of us, the things we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. These things are all neutral in and of themselves – if there were no humans around to have an opinion on them, they wouldn’t be a problem.

But there are two more things we experience concerning all of this. We have thoughts and emotions about these things, as well.

The dog smells bad, I need to bathe her.

This room is a wreck, why are toddlers such a mess?

It’s freezing outside, I wish I lived in Florida.

Ugh, that thumping sound! Who needs speakers that loud in their car?

I know broccoli is healthy for me, but it tastes like body odor.

You’ll notice all of these things are neutral:

A dog smells a certain way, things are in one place instead of another in a room, the weather is consistent with the season, sound waves hit an eardrum, broccoli tastes like broccoli. There is no objective measure of them being okay or not okay, they just are.

A mindful perspective allows us to understand the neutrality of all this while exploring our reasons for not liking it.

I never even wanted this dog, and she’s so much work.

Why am I such a bad parent? Everyone on Instagram has such a clean house.

My body hurts more in the cold. I want to go ride my bike.

I think it’s rude to impose your noise on other people.

My mom forced me to eat broccoli when I was a kid.

We can, with practice, dig even deeper into all of this. Is there resentment or fear present? Do we feel ignored or taken advantage of? Did we fail to draw boundaries, or are we not using our time wisely?

Mindfulness can help us dig all of this up, while also providing the resources and equanimity we need to deal with it when it hits the surface. It’s a way of living beyond our basic petty thoughts and emotions and delving into the truth of life.

A hammer is a useful tool when used for its proper purpose. If you are hammering a nail in or pulling one out, cool, the hammer can do its job. If you use a hammer to turn off your television or discipline your child, then you have a problem on your hands.

The mind is the same way. It is beneficial for planning things, making decisions, logical analysis – stuff like that. It’s not omniscient, though. It doesn’t have access to the future, any real access to the past, or to other people’s minds. We know this, we all recognize the limits of the mind, but we continuously invest in these things that the mind cannot do, whether we mean to or not.

Mindfulness is a way of stepping away from these things, from letting the mind do its job, and leaving the rest where it belongs: out of our hands. This allows us to focus on what matters and what’s possible.

Why Mindfulness Matters

We have to know why we are doing anything if we are going to do it well. Everything we do can go wrong if we do it mindlessly. Driving, eating, exercising, sleeping, working – all of these things need intention behind them or they can backfire on us and bring us suffering.

When we are mindful of what we are doing, we make wise decisions – decisions born of thought and intention instead of fear or anger.

We can all try to be mindful right now:

Take a deep breath.

Sit comfortably.

Rest your attention on the breath, watch it come and watch it go.

When you get distracted (and you will), just redirect your attention to the breath.

There doesn’t need to be any discussion or judgment. By noticing distraction, you are no longer distracted.

Do this over and over again – every noticed distraction is a moment of mindfulness.

This is a basic practice. You can do it anytime, anywhere, but there is a strong reason to make this a formal practice, which we’ll touch on in posts to come.

I talk about this kind of stuff more regularly on Instagram – connect with me over there too!