Its 6:30pm and I’m sitting in the Gellateria Del Leone off of Grand. Just a moment ago, I began to feel much more aware of the quiet around me. People have gone home for dinner, club chairs have emptied, the evening shift has arrived, and only me and one other person sit in the warmly lit downstairs area. Aside from the gentle dish-doing and counter-cleaning motions of the barista, the space is still and soundless. I feel in touch with stillness right now, grateful for it. And as I am here, sitting with it, I begin to consider how this part of the year captures stillness.
At the inky-blue twilight hour, amidst the hush-brush oceanic sound of the treetops, stillness shrouds those who walk outside the window next to me. It exists between and behind each falling leaf, and between sound-bites of boots clicking on sidewalks. It surrounds the shoulders that rise to cover someone’s neck from a chilly gust, and between words shared over pumpkin-flavored everything. I wonder if others agree that behind all of these motions, sounds, and doings, this stillness is always here? I think it is. In fact, I sometimes think of stillness metaphorically, as though she were a kind and wise grandmother, her calm assurance is always extended, her open arms are always available. In a way, being with Grandmother Stillness is a signal that conscious presence is happening right now.
Right now is always available, Grandmother Stillness is always available. Every moment is an opportunity to take a step out of our mental-tapes of “I need to do, I need to take care of, they should have, I’m uncomfortable, I want…” and to come back to what is real and here, right now. While it may seem easy to practice in the context of sitting in a coffee shop and not feel triggered by much at all, I want to say that typically our neutral moments are the best times to lean into this practice so that we can be resilient during tougher-times.
* * *
Try this out. Sit in a comfortable position, turn your attention towards your center, and focus your attention on your breathing. Don’t worry about trying to change it or make it deep. Notice where you feel it in your body…maybe its in your chest, your throat, your belly. Just focus on it. And if you would like, begin to label it: This is my inbreath…this is my outbreath… inbreath… outbreath… inbreath… outbreath. Every time a thought comes in, put yourself in the mental position of being a witness to the fact that you have thoughts at all. Don’t judge your thoughts to be “good” or “bad,” just let them be as they are. When they arrive, let them scroll on past. You can do this for as long as you would like. If you haven’t done this before, you might feel more comfortable if you set a 5-minute alarm on your phone. If you choose to do that, go ahead. 5 minutes, inbreath... outbreat... come back to your inbreath... your outbreath... That is all.
Or, you might continue to explore with your senses. You might notice your senses. As though you were seeing your surroundings for the first time, ask yourself, what do I feel your body touch…a chair? The floor?…what do I see…light? Your desk? People? and what sounds do I hear…the leaves? Your co-worker or partner?…and then, once again, return to your breathing, in-breath… out-breath… in-breath… out-breath.
And to reiterate, permit your body and mind to trip over thoughts as your psyche wobbles towards solid ground, and know that it is absolutely expected (and normal!) to trip over thoughts, such as “am I doing this right?” or "I'm bored" or “this is good, I like this.” It is typical to have these thoughts. It is typical to come-to after being absorbed in thoughts for who-knows-how-long, the practice is to come back to the present moment anyway. To forgive yourself for getting tangled, and to give yourself permission to return to your breath.
Return, return, return. Withhold judgment of yourself and others, and come back to now. Feel now. This is mindfulness. This is the practice we speak of when we say that research shows that mindfulness helps people deal with sadness, anxiety, stress, depression, trauma, etc. This is a healing practice, a practice that can lead to sound-mindedness. This is a practice of wakefulness, of here-ness, of now-ness, and of what is real, real, real.
* * *
Having said all that, please know that this is not THE practice, but A practice. If you think to yourself, “I want to feel more aware of what is going on inside me, but this isn’t for me,” then that’s okay. I'll admit, because of its benefits, I might encourage you to give it another shot at another time, and I’ll certainly blog about it again. But know that there are other ways. You might draw, be mindful of your senses when you connect with loved one – remember their vulnerabilities and their hearts, move your body, listen to music, go outside, or read poetry…Actually, I’m probably biased by my stuff and leaving out some of your stuff – so, go do your stuff! Only, do it with presence. And if this doesn’t sound too abstract, as you do it, try to feel your being-ness from the inside out, and ground yourself by paying attention to your surroundings. See and feel what your busiest self would miss or ignore. Be curious, and be willing to be.
Back to what I was saying about mindfulness not being the only thing that works. Even though guided mindfulness has become a popular resource and a common buzz-word in today’s mental health publications, it is certainly not the be-all-end-all answer to our emotional struggles. In fact, there are very clear and definitive ways that we must eventually turn towards certain troubling and repetitive trains of thought and/or emotion patterns. And in another post, I’ll talk more about some of the ways that you can facilitate a practice of turning towards.
Sure, sometimes we may need or choose to practice present-moment awareness. And in other moments, we need to be in a place of developing an analytic understanding of the origin of X (lets say X is something you wish to resolve), the maintaining factors of X, the function of X, and the consequences of leaving X unresolved. And in other moments, we need to approach X in a manner that facilitates emotional feeling and healing, which is a practice that is different from connecting to now, and different from analysis.
Overall, we need different things at different times, and most people's growth processes are package deals. No one thing flies all the time. Mindfulness isn't everything, but it is a playfully serious something. To be sure, it can have a positive impact on you, your mental health, your relationships, and your well-being.
To end, here are a couple links to audio-guided mindfulness practices that I find myself returning to and recommending to others.
Focused-breathing meditation (A friend gave me this m4a file a while back, and I’m not sure who published it. It is straightforward, but can feel challenging because it includes long periods of silence. Give it a shot anyway. Even though you don’t need my permission, I will offer some – I give you permission to be in-and-out of focus, I give you permission to think “I’m terrible at this,” and I give you permissions to allow the parts of you that get self-critical, bored, nervous, and irritated to show up. Come back to the present moment anyway).
Anything from Tara Brach’s meditation page, but here are a simple ones:
A few wonderful video-based mindfulness practices
For readers, books you might like about mindfulness practice:
Full Catastrophe Living - Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD
Wherever You Go, There You Are - Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD
Peace if Every Step - Thich Nhat Hahn
Mindfulness in Plain English - Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
I truly hope you explore, challenge yourself to practice being your most patient, kind, and compassionate self, and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!