Back in August when Persephone started school my morning routine changed severely. Instead of being responsible for bundling a toddler off to daycare, suddenly I was seeing wife and daughter on their way. I waved goodbye and then they were gone.
And there I was, with the house to myself, and at least an hour before I needed to leave for work.
What to do?
After a couple weeks I’d exhausted the more obvious possibilities. I realized this would be the perfect opportunity to establish a regular contemplative practice, to fit meditation into my daily routine. This was something I’d been wanting to do for at least a year, since reading Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry and attending the Contemplative Academy.
OK, great idea, but again: What to do? There are many types of meditation. Hmm, well, how about mindfulness meditation? That’s something I’ve heard about repeatedly. Sounds interesting. Maybe I could try it.
I found a short article in Psychology Today, titled “How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation” by Karen Kissel Wegela. She made it sound so damned easy.
So I decided to start, just five minutes a day.
I didn’t really know what I was doing. It must have felt good or something because I kept on doing it. In those first few weeks I got some of my most dramatic results. They are hard to describe. The practice seemed to induce an altered state of consciousness, a subtle euphoria, a feeling of mystery. I might say that it evoked a sense of the numinous. After my brief sessions, I tended to want to listen to ambient music rather than my regular eclectic mix, because that seemed to keep the mood better. I also noticed a slight increase in impulse control, and a corresponding negative correlation with alcohol consumption. When I meditated in the morning, as a rule, I seemed to drink less in the evening.
However, as I kept at it, these effects seemed to wear off a bit. The shock of the new practice was over, and my mind was reverting to form. After a time I realized I didn’t even know what “mindfulness” meant. I decided if I wanted to deepen and strengthen my practice I would need to learn more.
I cast about the net looking for resources. They are plentiful, but the diversity of perspectives was a bit confusing. For example, one guy says mindfulness meditation should be limited to five minutes, whereas others talked of sessions lasting for hours.
I needed something deeper than short web articles. I found Mindfulness in Plain English by the Venerable H. Gunaratana Mahathera. It’s a full-length book, available in print but also floating around on the web in various forms.
I read my way through this book slowly over several months. I’d never read anything quite like it — a practical meditation manual. It’s written from a Theravadin Buddhist perspective. I don’t know much about Buddhism, but I gather the Theravada branch claims to be closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. Despite this, or because of it, there was little religious baggage. There was some, however. I’m not sure I buy the talk of enlightenment and liberation and Nibbana. There were also some passages, such as a brief allusion to sign-objects, that I found mystifying. But for the most part the writing is admirably clear, and I found the practical advice very helpful.
My favorite passage:
We are learning here to escape into reality, rather than from it.
According to this author, the ecstasy I sometimes experience is not really the point of the practice. It’s a pleasant side effect, but just like the unpleasant side effects, one should not get distracted. Getting attached to any experience, however pleasurable, is a distraction. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a hedonist like me. But I do see the point.
Let me recount one particular experience I had somewhere along the way. This was several months ago. Like all such experiences it is hard if not impossible to describe. I’m foolish to try, probably. I will have to resort to metaphor because that’s all that I have.
So I’m sitting there, and I seem to become aware of a wind blowing through me, through the house, through the earth, through the entire cosmos. It’s blowing through all of us right now, and has been for our entire lives, through all time, only we don’t ordinarily perceive it. It not only pervades all but gives shape and motion to all.
I guess that’s a classic mystical experience. I find those kind of experiences compelling, but I also understand the need for detachment. If you sit down with a desire for some particular kind of experience, or any particular expectations, you won’t be fully alert and aware to what is actually going on.
There’s a paradox there, of course. We may be drawn to meditation because we perceive we’ll gain some benefit. And there are benefits. But the practice is worth doing for itself with no end in mind, and I suspect it’s more beneficial when it’s approached without anticipation or expectation.
But what do I know?
A truly wonderful thing about my job is that I’m able to explore so many divergent interests. And so it was that I found myself headed to Bryn Mawr College for the Fifth Annual Mindfulness in Education conference. It was a pleasant trip and an interesting experience. (I took some photos.) The conference concluded with a day of silent meditation. I’ve never done anything like that before. On the way home, I wasn’t sure what I’d really gotten out of the conference, but after a few days I realized I’d learned plenty. Sometimes it takes a while.
I’m now able to offer a definition of mindfulness off the cuff. Several definitions, in fact. Mindfulness is paying attention to your attention. Mindfulness is awareness of the present, moment to moment, without judging. Mindfulness can be practiced at any time; formal meditation is just one way to promote it.
I think virtually every human being values and practices mindfulness to some extent. It’s a basic part of being alive. But we also do plenty of things that run counter to mindfulness, sabotaging ourselves and our own best efforts without even realizing it. Formal practice can help us figure stuff like this out, and allows us to cultivate mindfulness in our whole lives.
Footnote: The license attached to Mindfulness in Plain English indicates it may be “freely copied and redistributed.” So I’m taking my first venture into e-book publishing. You can download a copy of the book, reformatted with minor corrections by yours truly, in EPUB format. I’ve not done this before, so if you run into trouble please let me know.