This article is Part Two in a series, click to read Part One: “Getting Mindfulness Right: Expert B. Alan Wallace Explains Where We Are Going Wrong.”
B. Alan Wallace made a big statement during the retreat — that he hardly ever feels exhausted. He has a demanding schedule by any standard, traveling the world teaching, speaking and collaborating on significant issues — but without exhaustion.
This immediately had my full attention: how did he explain this? In my late teens and early twenties my mother would light heartedly end my sentences for me when she asked me how I was — because I would often answer “absolutely exhausted.” What could I learn?
When I followed up with him in our interview he described a time recently where his plane had been delayed by a typhoon, which ultimately meant arriving at his destination two days late and with very little sleep the entire time. Was he tired? Sure. But was he stressed out, overwhelmed or uptight? No.
This extreme example shows what it takes for Alan to feel tired but also clearly shows that day to day exhaustion is fed by other factors, ones that Alan does not often experience. The tension, the stress, the hovering anxiety … he says there is no correlation between the amount of work he does or the demands on his time and his experience of stress or exhaustion.
What does he put that down to?
- He loves what he does. That helps a lot.
- He hopes people like him and what he does but he doesn’t worry about that. He offers his best and he is relaxed about how it will be received. So there is no stress about that.
Alan brings a concern for how he treats people — with kindness and respect – and this is something he can control — rather than how it will be received, which is outside his control. He is pleased if people find it helpful and show appreciation but his well-being is not hinged on receiving that feedback.
In a nutshell, he says, “the quality of awareness one brings to any situation is what determines if one is stressed, not the level of activity.”
Underpinning this of course, is a steadiness of attention that makes it possible for Alan to maintain this quality of awareness — to maintain his connection to the intention that guides his teaching. The kindness and respect he wishes to bring to each of his interactions.
Developing and maintaining this steadiness of both attention and intention is why many of us want to train in mindfulness — because it makes a difference. It’s the anchor, the root system or the foundation of well-being, purpose and a life well lived. It keeps us on course and takes us from chaos to clarity.
Alan offered two really neat frameworks that help us re-calibrate our mindfulness — both on the cushion and in daily living — and come back to that steadiness when our minds inevitably wander off:
First: When you are feeling RESTLESS, AGITATED or DISTRACTED
Just pause and do three things:
- Invite your body to relax.
- Release the thought steam/storyline.
- Return to your breath as an anchor for calm.
Second: When you are feeling SPACED OUT, DULL, SLEEPY:
- Refresh your attention.
- Restore your focus (on the breath for example).
- Retain your anchor (don’t just wander off again, stay).
People often refer to the type of “mindfulness practice” they have. I want to share (with a wry smile) the way I kept tripping over the commonly used term “mindfulness practice” when I was talking to Alan. Language is powerful and when I asked my next question, Alan rightly drew my attention to the implications of using this term.
If you are not sure that mindfulness is for you or not — if you have seen the hype, the research, the spread of mindfulness into therapy, education, medicine and more — if you are curious but you are not sure of it’s place in your life, this question was for you!
As I stumbled into my enquiry about what Alan would want to say to you, to inspire you to “give it a try” this was his wise reply (and if you read part one of this blog series you will not be surprised at all by what he said!)
“The very notion of practicing mindfulness sounds to me like practicing golf. Or practicing chess. Will it be golf or should it be chess? No, maybe checkers? It might be helpful, it might not be. It is something I will pick up and put down. And that’s generally how mindfulness meditation is taught. Exactly like TM [transcendental meditation]. Or Yoga — oh, maybe I should work out in the gym instead. Maybe jogging would be better.
“I just don’t take that attitude at all. It’s not something to pick up and put down. If I have never meditated at all in my life, I do already have the mental faculty of mindfulness. I have the ability to stay tuned. To bear in mind. I have the ability to be aware of my thoughts, emotions and so forth.
“The question is not whether I should practice that or not because I can’t get through the day without it. I’d be walking around like a zombie — who am I, where am I, what? It’s not a practice to pick up and put down, to choose will I or won’t I — I already have this ability.
“The question is: am I using this ability well? Can I refine it and enhance it for my own well-being and that of others. And then, are there methods for doing so? That is the real question.
“How important is this? How I attend to you right now — am I doing it wisely?”
The quality of attention we bring to life makes a difference. Using the ordinary language of attention, we can invite ourselves to ask if our attention is so hyperactive or dull that we can’t stay focused. And if we therefore want to develop greater skill around that.
“Or is our attention manipulative of others? Are we seeking to exploit people for our own purposes? Is it all about me, me? That’s a way of dysfunctionally attending to people, places land and so forth.
“So can we bring greater wisdom, greater kindness to the way we attend to reality?
“Can we hone our attention skills, that we already have, that we are already using? Can we do it better so there is less wear and tear, a greater sense of well-being, greater presence with each other and greater benevolent, non-violent presence with the world around us?
“So that’s the way I like to couch it. And then we can ask — are there methods to teach THAT. Can you practice mindfulness of breathing? That’s a technique. Some people like it, some people don’t. That’s OK.
“But if we are sensible people, we should really care about how we are attending to ourselves, to others and the world at large.
“When we attend to — that is watch over, care for, really look at — our own thoughts, desires and emotions, if we find that we are really out of sorts, not ourselves, edgy, uptight, it’s been a tough day etc, then we can note that and not beat ourselves up, not judge ourselves. But maybe now is not the time to engage with others — just go and lie down for a while, or listen to some pleasant music. Do yourself and everyone else a favor because what you are offering is not your best and you won’t enjoy that and others won’t enjoy that. When you recognize that — no judgment — attend to that. That’s a choice.”
Alan has changed how I see mindfulness. It is richer, it is deeper and it is more enduring. Does it seem like a subtle difference to you or does it shift mindfulness into a different place altogether? I will probably still use the word “practice” (albeit with selective choice and awareness) and I will still teach “techniques”. I still believe that stress reduction is a legitimate and useful entry point for many people. But I love the view from where Alan is sitting and I am grateful to have embarked on this journey.
May you be well.