I’ve been trying to master mindfulness in the last few weeks like it’s a cute step sequence in a line dance. I have unofficially hired Dr. Elisha Goldstein, author of Psych Central’s blog, “Mindfulness and Psychotherapy” as my mindfulness personal trainer because he knows this stuff inside and out, and because I don’t have the time or money to hang out with the Buddhist monks in Tibet.
I’ve always aspired to better live in the moment–it was one of the gems I picked up in support group meetings back in college–but now I honestly feel like it could save my life–or at least keep my pituitary tumor from growing any wider and shield my heart from any more damage to the aortic valve.
How do you practice presence, or mindfulness?
The Buddha once explained it as doing one thing at a time, keeping your mind on that one thing. For example when you’re doing the dishes, your mind should be on the dishes, not on the project you were unable to complete that day and how your boss is going to fire off a nasty e-mail if you don’t get it done before morning, or how in the world you are going to get the little people to brush and floss their teeth without incurring a temper tantrum suitable for Nanny 911.
Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his book “Being Peace”:
While I sit here, I don’t think of somewhere else, of the future or the past. I sit here, and I know where I am. This is very important. We tend to be alive in the future, not now. We say, “Wait until I finish school and get my Ph.D. degree, and then I will be really alive.” When we have it, we say to ourselves, “I have to wait until I have a job in order to be REALLY alive.” And then after the job, a car. After the car, a house. … Now is not the moment to be alive. We may never be alive at all in our entire life. Therefore, the technique, if we have to speak of a technique, is to BE in the present moment, to be aware that we are here and now, and the only moment to be alive is the present moment.
He makes it sound so easy. And yet every time I try to quiet my thunderous head, I get a second of silence before it’s back talking about some other item on my to-do list. Yesterday I gave myself these instructions: “You are to walk to that flag pole (about one-third of a mile away) without thinking about anything but placing your left foot in front of your right.” I didn’t make it to the flagpole. I made it about 10 feet.
Later in the afternoon I told a friend how “mindfulness” was the next project on my agenda because I wanted to get myself some of that healing that Thich Nhat Nahn writes about in “Touching Peace”: “We need only to find ways to bring our body and mind back to the present moment so we can touch what is refreshing, healing, and wondrous.”
“Um, I think you’re setting yourself up to fail,” my friend leveled with me. “No offense, but you’re no Buddhist monk. You are a working mom. And for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve had difficulty chilling out. Why don’t you start with something that occupies your mind … and try to focus on that? Not on thinking nothing.”
She had an excellent point. Expecting a preschool class of 30 kids to be silent for longer than 60 seconds–with nothing to look at or color–wouldn’t work. However, give all those kids a job to do–like eating a bowl of chocolate ice cream with whipped cream and sprinkles–and you’ve succeeded at carving out a bigger chunk of quiet time. The first step for me, then, is to eat ice cream.
I could begin to practice mindfulness by thinking of nothing else but eating a large bowl of chocolate ice cream with whipped cream and sprinkles. Or, if I didn’t want a sugar high the rest of the afternoon, I could begin with an activity that engages my mind like ice cream does. My friend suggested that I start playing the piano again.
Brilliant! That’s exactly how I used to tame my mind in grade school and high school. I would pound away at Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor. And my mind didn’t wander because it’s very difficult, for me anyway, to ruminate and obsess about your to-do list while trying to read music and playing well.
Step one, then, for me to learn mindfulness: head to the piano, or eat a chocolate sundae.