Mindfulness is the ability to recognize what is happening in your mind right now—anger, jealousy, sadness, the pain of a stubbed toe, whatever—without getting carried away by it. According to the Buddha, we have three habitual responses to everything we experience. We want it, reject it, or we zone out.
Mindfulness is a fourth option, a way to view the contents of our mind with nonjudgmental remove.
Mindfulness is an inborn trait, a birthright. It is, one could argue, what makes us human. Taxonomically, we are classified as Homo sapiens sapiens, “the man who thinks and knows he thinks.” Our minds have this other capability—a bonus level, to put it in gamerspeak—that no one ever tells us about in school. We can do more than just think; we also have the power simply to be aware of things—without judgment, without the ego.
There’s a difference between the raw sensations we experience and the mental spinning we do in reaction to said stimuli.
Another Buddhist analogy: Picture the mind like a waterfall, the said: the water is the torrent of thoughts and emotions; mindfulness is the space behind the waterfall.
Mindfulness gives us a way to examine our self-hatred without trying to make it go away, without trying to love it particularly.
“The only way out is through.” Another analogy: When a big wave is coming at you, the best way not to get pummeled is to dive right in.
“Allow” is where you lean into it. The Buddhists were always talking about how you have to “let go,” but what they really mean is “let it be.”
The third step—“investigate”—is where things got truly practical. Sticking with the Westin example—after I’ve acknowledged by feelings and let them be, the next move would be to check out how they’re affecting my body. Is it making my face hot, my chest buzzy, my head throb?
The final step—“non-identification”—meant seeing that just because I feel angry or jealous or fearful, that did not render me a permanently angry or jealous person. These were just passing states of mind.
Seeing a problem clearly does not prevent you from taking action. Acceptance is not passivity. Sometimes we are justifiably displeased. What mindfulness does is create some space in your head so you can, as the Buddhists say, “respond” rather than simply “react.” In the Buddhist view, you can’t control what comes up in your head; it all arises out of a mysterious void. We spend a lot of time judging ourselves harshly for feelings that we had no role in summoning. The only thing you can control is how you handle it.
A verse where the Buddha calls everything we experience—sights, sounds, smells, etc.—the “terrible bait of the world.” “Moment after moment, experiences are arising, and it’s as if each one has a hook… and we’re the fish. Do we bite? Or do we not bite, and just swim freely in the ocean?”
May you be happy.
May you be safe and protected from harm.
May you be healthy and strong.
May you live with ease.
How can you be in the present moment when it’s always sitting away. It’s so obvious to me now: the slipping away is the whole point. Once you’ve achieved choiceless awareness, you see so clearly how fleeting everything is. Impermanence is no longer theoretical.
The pronouncement—“Life is suffering”—is the source of a major misunderstanding, and by extension, a major PR problem. It makes Buddhism seem supremely dour. Turns out, though, it’s all the result of a translation error. The Pali word dukkha doesn’t actually mean “suffering.” There’s no perfect word in English, but it’s closer to “unsatisfying” or “stressful.” When the Buddha coined his famous phrase, he wasn’t saying that all of life is like being chained to a rock and having crows peck out your innards. What he really meant was something like, “Everything in the world is ultimately unsatisfying and unreliable because it won’t last.”
We don’t live our lives as if we recognize the basic facts. “How often are we waiting for the next pleasant hit of… whatever? The next meal of the next relationship or the next latte or the next vacation, I don’t know. We just live in anticipation of the next enjoyable thing that we’ll experience. I mean, we’ve been, most of us, incredibly blessed with the number of pleasant experiences we’ve had in our lives. Yet when we look back, where are they now?”
How many times have we heard from people who got rich or famous and it wasn’t enough? Rock stars with drug problems. Lottery winners who kill themselves. There’s actually a term for this—“hedonic adaptation.” When good things happen, we bake them very quickly into our baseline expectations, and yet the primordial void goes unfilled.
We’ve been put under a spell—believing that this or that is going to be the source of our ultimate freedom or happiness. And to wake up from that, to wake up from that enchantment, to be more aligned with what is true, it brings us much greater happiness.
So much of what we do in life—every shift in our seat, every bite of food, every pleasant daydream—is designed to avoid pain or seek pleasure.
“Is it useful?” It’s a simple, elegant corrective to my “price of security” motto. It’s okay to worry, plot, and plan, he’s saying—but only until it’s not useful anymore.
Until we look directly at our minds we don’t really know what our lives are about.
The lie we tell ourselves our whole lives: as soon as we get the next meal, party, vacation, sexual encounter, as soon as we get married, get a promotion, get to the airport check-in, get through security and consume a bouquet of Auntie Anne’s Cinnamon Sugar Stix, we’ll feel really good. But as soon as we find ourselves in the airport gate area, having ingested 470 calories’ worth of sugar and fat before dinner, we don’t bother to examine the lie that fuels our lives. We tell ourselves we’ll sleep it off, take a run, eat a healthy breakfast, and then, finally, everything will be complete. We live so much of our lives pushed forward by these “if only” thoughts, and yet the itch remains. The pursuit of happiness becomes the source of our unhappiness.
Neuroplasticity: The brain, it turns out, is constantly changing in response to experience. It’s possible to sculpt your brain through meditation just as you build and tone your body through exercise—to grow your gray matter the way doing curls grows your bicep.
What the science was showing was that our levels of well-being, resilience, and impulse control were not simply God-given traits, our portion of which we had to accept as a fait accompli. The brain, the organ of experience, through which our entire lives are led, can be trained. Happiness is a skill.
When you’re moving from this project to this project, your mind flits back to the original project, and it can’t pick it up where it left off. So it has to take a few steps back and then ramp up again, and that’s where the productivity loss is. This problem was, of course, exacerbated in the age of what had been dubbed the “info-blitzkrieg,” where it took superhuman strength to ignore the siren call of the latest tweet, or the blinking red light on the Blackberry. Scientists had even come up with a term for this condition: “continuous partial attention.”
Take short mindfulness breaks throughout the day. She called them “purposeful pauses.” So, for example, instead of fidgeting or tapping your fingers while your computer boots up, try to watch your breath for a few minutes. When driving, turn off the radio and feel your hands on the wheel. Or when walking between meetings, leave your phone in your pocket and just notice the sensation of your legs moving.
Those pauses are the ways to make you a more clear thinker and for you to be more focused on what’s important.