I am frequently asked “What is mindfulness?”
I start by saying something poignant like “It’s being aware and in the present moment” or “It’s about allowing each experience to wash over us like a cool spring rain, without attachment or judgments.” I love these answers and they generally tend to spawn a lively conversation about experiences, judgment and simply allowing ourselves to be present.
Mindfulness, though, is also about perception and reaction. Here’s what I mean…
I love Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived a World War II concentration camp. He is a genuine hero of mine. While he never labeled it “mindfulness,” he practiced it daily while a prisoner of the Nazis. He spoke eloquently in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, about gaining control over our reactions and our perceptions of reality. What you think or perceive, you then become or behave.
Frankl talked about times when all those around him gave up the notion of ever being rescued or reunited with their families. In doing so, their spirit began to give way to the daily horrors they endured. Frankl, however, spent his days knowing that if he gave into his anger and rage for what his captors were perpetrating against him and countless others, it would eat him alive, and then they truly would have taken over his soul. Their mission certainly would have been accomplished.
He spoke about sitting silently, staring at the sunset, capturing glimpses of the past in memories and long-lost laughter, even telling jokes or stories of the old days with fellow inmates. It was a trying time, to put it mildly. Frankl knew, though that his captors could do anything they wanted to his physical body, they could never capture his perceptions or reactions.
His mind and spirit were his own. He chose to tend to this part of his character by seeing the good in his horrendous situation, seeing the hope that others had lost and feeling optimistic for the good in humanity.
This is a rather extreme example of finding the good in an otherwise awful situation, but it is meant to evoke a sense of ownership.
I believe that we all have ownership over our perceptions and our reactions. If you feel that you continually get a raw deal in life, then you are probably accurate in your assumption — not because life is out to get you, but because you “perceive” it to be. Your reaction to anything good in life, if you believe that you are truly getting the short end of the stick, will likely be one of anxiety for the bad that must be just around the corner.
I see this in action daily basis with clients and family members. Sadly, my father has spent his entire life waiting for the other shoe to drop, as they say. His accomplishments, which I view as many, he merely sees as catalysts for the next awful dose of reality.
My father came to live with my husband and me almost five years ago because of illness and financial hardship. To him, his life lost all meaning, but to me it seemed like an amazing do-over. To my father, his presence in our home is a burden and an embarrassment for a man who has been self-sufficient since his early teens, but to me it’s been a gift.
Sure, I would have loved to at least have more than 900 square feet of space for three adults and three four-legged children, but to be able to take my father from a situation of struggle and strife to one of ease and unconditional love has been a wonderful present from life.
My father’s perception and mine are vastly different — precisely my point. One man’s trash is definitely another man’s treasure. That is the essence of mindfulness: living mindfully, fully aware, fully present and actively knowing that whatever your situation is, it is merely that, a situation. It does not define you, unless you allow it to.
It may be hard. It may be a struggle. Life is hard and life can be a struggle. Suffering is completely optional. Perceiving and reacting out of love and mindful awareness can mean the difference in seeing the glass half full or half empty. What power we wield! Now what will you do with it? How will you choose to see your life and your presence on this planet?