Mindfulness: Control and Choice

Mindfulness: Control and Choice
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Recently I was listening to a podcast that had been posted by a zen Center; it appeared to be a recording of the final session of a workshop on mindfulness practice. The instructors started the class by asking if there were any questions. I believe a woman asked (the recording wasn't great), "I'm learning all of this mindfulness practice, but when will I feel more peace? Right now all I feel is bored." She sounded a bit exasperated. I'm imagining that she attended the class thinking that, by the end, her stress would have melted away and she would be swimming in a pool of bliss. And who can blame her? I mean, she took the class, right? Where's the payoff?

After joining in the laughter that her comment elicited, the teacher answered her by making some excellent points about the importance of not having expectations and explaining that insights will happen in their own time.

Reflecting on this in the light of my own practice and teaching, I think there's another important piece to this puzzle regarding when one will notice changes from a meditation and mindfulness practice: You'll begin to feel "peace" when you decide to do so. Meaning, once you decide to stop feeding the constant churning of thought in your mind; once you stop indulging in the addictive emotions over which you feel you have no control that hurl you around from moment to moment; and, finally, once you decide to stop creating -- what you'll come to recognize with a disciplined practice -- all the drama, drama, drama in your life. And in case you're unclear about this, yes, you have the option not to engage in the aforementioned habits.

I'm not saying this is an easy thing; real mindfulness is difficult. I know this firsthand, and I would suggest that anyone who tells you otherwise... well... ask for your money back. The thing is, though, mindfulness works. For many, it works better than anything else out there (and if you know of something better, please email me immediately). And, for reference, I don't consider mindfulness to be just the act of "paying attention to the present moment." I consider it to be dutifully and constantly examining everything going on in your consciousness that pulls you away from the present moment. It's not just learning to "pay attention," it's being, living and existing as the present moment. Unraveling the states that keep your mind from being quiet, still, clear.

So just how do you "decide" to reside in peaceful states? Well, let's look at other situations we may face in life that require difficult decisions. For example, if you realize that you need to lose weight, or give up smoking, drinking or using drugs -- and that you face potentially dire consequences if you don't -- then you do something about it. You understand and acknowledge that you stand to benefit from a different type of behavior.

When battling these habits, you engage your will power and decide moment to moment, as best you can at the time, that you are not going to give in to your cravings because you want to end up in an alternative scenario. Engaging in these life changes is difficult, uncomfortable, irritating, painful, and it can take a significant amount of time. And, though I hate to break it to you, gaining control over your mental states can be just as challenging and take just as long, if not longer (why wouldn't it?).

What I've found is that to get to a point where you can decide which state of mind to reside in at any moment, you must build up a level of mental control. You need to get a handle on the cyclone of thought that we refer to as "the mind." As in the examples above, these changes can take time. (I know, impatient Americans, we don't have time, we want it now... Dear God, man, isn't there a quick solution? I don't have time!) My point exactly.

It is important to learn how to calm the mind down, from a cyclone to a calm breeze. Here formal meditation (and patience) is key. I recommend finding a meditation technique that teaches you to detach from the constant stream of dialog that occupies your mind and allows you to touch the stillness beneath it, as opposed to some relaxation method that takes you to a magical land by engaging your imagination; that just creates more thought.

Start to understand what stillness feels like, that there is an alternative to chaos. More than likely, you will only feel it for a few brief moments in a meditation, but you'll know it when you touch it, and it may take some time to get there. There are many descriptions of meditation, and what many say is that in those moments of stillness, the burdens imposed by the world or our mental states just fall away; the mind is not in conflict with the world or with ourselves... it all just stops and there is a relief. With practice, those few brief moments can become longer, more extended moments. It's like lifting weights at the gym: We start with smaller weights and, as we become stronger over time, we are able to handle larger, heavier weights... our strength grows.

When not engaged in formal meditation, practice mindfulness exercises that teach you to tap into that same level of peace as you navigate your day-to-day life. Yes, it's absolutely possible to feel the same peace of mind that you feel in meditation sitting in the middle of the most boring corporate meeting imaginable (trust me, I know). Stillness is always there, always beneath the surface of mental chatter, always. And, no, when you do this, you're not checked out, you're there and you're engaged; you're just not attached to the drama swirling around you.

The hard truth is that achieving mental control can take years of practice and, in my experience, it happens by degrees. Once you understand how mental choices work, you can start working on not engaging the strongest states of mind we may struggle with, such as anger and fear, and instead find ways to react with compassion and empathy. This involves the (often difficult) work of understanding why you dwell in the "negative" states that you do, such as making judgments about others, and what that really does to your state of mind.

Eat chocolate cake or choose a sensible salad? While it may not give you the same satisfaction while you are eating it, how do you feel after changing that behavior for awhile? You may find that what you learn about stopping one mental habit can actually be transferred to other mental habits you engage in, and that making changes becomes increasingly easy.

With control, when you face something that brings up a reaction, you can stop at the intersection and decide... if I go down this road, I will end up in the land of anger, sadness, self-loathing. But I can also take another route (a road less traveled?), one that leads to non-reactivity, detachment, staying in a more peaceful centered state. I have a choice.

When I'm writing about mindfulness, I sometimes worry that people will become discouraged because I often write about the difficulties of the practice. But I'm a realist and, when I embarked upon my journey (which I'm still on by the way, I'm far from done), all the flowery writings on meditation and how simple mindfulness is started to piss me off. Yes, they were encouraging, but I was struggling, and people who said it was easy made me feel worse about myself, broken and unfit. So I don't want to sugarcoat anything, because I believe that does a disservice to people, and is actually somewhat cruel. I've done the work, and sometimes it sucks. But, my God, the epiphanies, the magic, the discoveries along the way, and the milestones you'll hit... except for some writings by spiritual masters, no one could have prepared me for what life can look like when you let go of those burdens.

Most people don't believe they have a choice and many may scoff at this article. Years ago, I would have agreed. But I had no control back then and choices weren't even an option. Trust me, the journey is amazing!

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