Ahhhhh . . . .summertime. A time to relax, unplug and recharge. Here are ways to make the most of those long, beautiful summer days.
How many times a day do we meet a friend or acquaintance, trade polite greetings and ask, “How are you?” The response is almost always, “I’m fine.” No more is said, no more is asked. We exchange pleasantries and go about our busy days. I can’t help but ask, "Are we all really fine?" If we are not, do we really want to lay out our laundry list of struggles when asked, and do we really want to take the time to listen to the honest response of others?
An important reality of life is that everyone is not fine. Everyone has problems, everyone is struggling with something in their life. Yet, so often we are unable or unwilling to share our struggles with others. We put up walls and keep a "safe" distance so as not to appear weak or vulnerable. We use the excuse that we don't want to burden people with our troubles or waste their time. Or, we hold back, fearing they will judge us. Instead of sharing our real fears, worries, and challenges, we opt to put on a happy face, a strong front, and tell ourselves and those around us that everything is “fine.” But living in a sea of “fine” can leave us feeling lonely and isolated.
I am not proposing that we disclose a litany of woes every time someone asks us how we are doing. I am suggesting, however, that we chose wisely who we want to share with and share away. Asking for help, leaning on friends in times of need, and sharing with others what is really going on takes great strength and courage. It is only by opening ourselves up to those around us that we can truly know each other, and feel comforted by the fact that we are not alone. Giving others that same gift of open-hearted, empathetic listening in return connects us in a very profound way.
I am grateful for the people in my life with whom I can share my joys and my struggles, and who trust me to listen to theirs. Together, we have faced the death of loved ones, the rewards and challenges of parenting, the great joys of life, the heart-wrenching battles with disease and illness, and so much more. We allow ourselves to be seen and known. In doing so, we strengthen our connection built on respect, trust, kindness, and love, knowing there is no judgment, only open hearts and open minds, and a soft space to land when one is needed. That is the true foundation of friendship. So, thank you to those people in my life who let me know that everything is not always fine and thank you for listening.
Lately, I have had the opportunity to think about all the gifts of my mindfulness practice and what I have learned on this journey over the past ten years of studying, practicing and teaching mindfulness and meditation. My Mindful Roadmap to Living Life offers a few of the most important lessons I have learned.
Mindfulness can help us learn to accept what is - to accept our life experience as it unfolds. As Eckhart Tolle likes to say, we must accept the "isness" of our lives. When we are mindful, we begin to observe whatever we are experiencing - our physical body, our thoughts, and our emotions - and simply notice our experience as it is happening. We notice our bodies: tightness, tension, openness. We notice our thoughts: "Why did I do that?" "I can't do this." Or, "I'm never going to get his all done." And, we notice our emotions: fear, sadness, joy.
One myth of mindfulness is that it eliminates all the bad stuff and leaves us to simply relish in the pleasant, joyful moments of life. Mindfulness does not eliminate difficult emotions. Instead, we become more skilled at self-awareness and better at understanding our experience without judging it or becoming overwhelmed by it. We learn to be with whatever is there and feel it fully - the pleasant, the unpleasant and the neutral. Rather than trying to get rid of it, fix it, or figure it out, we learn to sit with it, see it for what it is and accept it fully.
In this process, we begin to recognize that some things are simply out of our control, like other people's actions, illness or even our own feelings that can arise in response to those things. But by sitting with our experience, by observing what is there, and acknowledging it, we can begin to accept it as it is. We can be with our sadness, our frustration, our anger or our feeling of powerlessness, and simply recognize that those are all OK to feel and they are justified simply because we are feeling them. No judgment, just observation. Acceptance does NOT mean that we have to agree with the situation or that we have to like it, it simply means that we accept that it is happening.
While mindfulness helps us recognize that many things are outside of our control, it also helps us learn that there are many things within our control. We can begin to exercise our power to choose how we want to view our situation, we can choose how we want to respond to it and we can choose which actions we want to take to move forward in a healthy and meaningful way.
Mindfulness strategies we can use when faced with challenging situations:
(1) Focusing on A Pleasant or Neutral Present Moment Experience.
Sometimes accepting your current situation can be incredibly difficult, particularly when you are facing great challenges. Often that difficulty brings up strong emotions like fear or anger. When we are feeling overwhelmed and having difficulty sitting with strong emotions, it can be very helpful to direct our focus and attention to something neutral or pleasant. This is when our mindfulness practice gives us the insight to know that we are struggling or feeling overwhelmed, and the ability to place our attention on something more positive while our minds and bodies settle down.
Simple mindfulness practices like placing your attention on your breath, mindfully drinking your coffee, listening to the sounds around you or going outside and enjoying the full sensory experience of being in nature, can help you get out of your thinking mind and into your sensory world of experience. This can be at the very least a neutral experience and at best a quite pleasant one. Taking time out to take a few, deep, mindful breaths can also help activate your Rest and Digest response and turn off your Stress response. Practicing mindfulness in this way can help you relax, settle your mind, and add some pleasant, more joyful moments to your day. I love this poem that beautifully expresses how we can move mindfully through our day . . .
Walk Slowly (Danna Faulds) It only takes a reminder to breathe, a moment to be still, and just like that, something in me settles, softens, makes space for imperfection. The harsh voice of judgment drops to a whisper and I remember again that life isn't a relay race; that we will all cross the finish line; that waking up to life is what we were born for. As many times as I forget, catch myself charging forward without even knowing where I'm going, that many times I can make the choice to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk slowly into the mystery.
(2) Accepting What Is.
This may be much easier said than done, but it is the key to lowering our suffering. In Buddhist teachings, suffering is caused by our struggle against what is. Life can be painful, but our true suffering comes from our struggle against what we cannot change. We don't have to like it, we don't have to agree with it, we just have to accept that it is happening. This shift in mindset can help us move forward and take the necessary steps to cultivate a healthy approach to how we can move on in a healthy and productive way.
When you are feeling ready, you can simply sit with whatever you are feeling and allow yourself to feel it fully. Invite it into your meditation, as we say. You can simply label it - anger, sadness, disappointment, etc. Notice how it feels in your body. And, simply notice how that feeling may change by simply observing it and accepting it as it is. Soften into it. One of my mindfulness teachers likes to point out that the word emotion has the word "motion" in it for a reason, and that is because emotions will move through us if we allow them to.
One critical part of all mindfulness practice is self-compassion. It is OK to feel anger, it is OK to have trouble accepting what is. Be aware and be careful not to add on a layer of self-judgment and self-criticism to what you are experiencing. By using your mindfulness practice to simply see what you are experiencing, to feel it fully, to acknowledge it and to accept it, you can begin to move forward. This self-compassion is a critical part of your self-care. Remember, we are not trying to eliminate, suppress or "correct" our emotional response, we are simply trying to recognize what we are feeling and accept it fully. We are human and our feelings are real and justified simply because they are there. In doing this, we can allow our emotions to move through us so we can move on.
(4) Acceptance and Mindful Parenting.
Acceptance is critical in mindful parenting. Too often we try to correct our children or tell them why what they are feeling is not valid or why they should not feel that way. For example, we may catch ourselves saying, "One day you will realize how silly this is." Instead, we need to listen fully and attentively, offering them our open, nonjudgmental attention. We must turn off our mental running commentary and hear what they are saying. Try not to interrupt. Just listen. Be aware of your own thoughts and judgments and how those may be interfering with your ability to simply listen and absorb. Accept what they are feeling simply because they are feeling it. Finally, we need to validate what they are feeling and let them know that we hear them. For example, we can simply say, "Wow, that must have been very hurtful." Simply listening without judging or trying to solve a problem, accepting fully what your child is feeling and validating those feelings can create an open and meaningful channel of communication. It fosters deep connection and a safe space for them to feel heard and understood. It also allows them a healthy roadmap to process their own feelings.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”- Viktor Frankl
I have seen firsthand over the past seven years the benefits of mindfulness being taught in schools, in inner city youth programs, in hospitals, in prisons and in private classes. My fear is that many people who would benefit greatly from mindfulness will read this article and never try this incredibly helpful practice.
My colleague, Julie Bayer Salzman, sent the following response to the New York Times, which I think sums up so many important points.
After reading Ms. Whippman’s account of her experience with Mindfulness, I encourage her to continue her practice, not abandon it. Her frustration is normal, and I believe stems from a common misconception about Mindfulness. Mindfulness is not about "constantly policing our thoughts away from the past, the future, the imagination or the abstract"; it is simply about being aware of what we're thinking, how we're feeling, or what is happening in and around us, at any given moment. There is no judgment in the practice; there is only awareness. Nor is there shame in a wandering mind – we all have them! But most of us, too, can probably identify with the distress that comes from a mind that is constantly preoccupied with either the past or future, and cannot focus on the present. There is a practical benefit to training the mind to stay present, and a reason it’s referred to as a “practice” as opposed to a philosophy.
Her statement that "we give inner-city schoolchildren mindfulness classes rather than engage with education equality" disregards the proof that teaching kids mindfulness has positive effects on not just the individual child, but the classroom as a whole. Obviously there are issues that need to be fixed in an educational system that tries to find quick and easy solutions to deep, systemic problems, but that has nothing to do with the relevance of Mindfulness in the 21st century classroom.
Overall, though I understand her tone is intentionally witty and sarcastic, I am disheartened to know that this “opinion” is going to be read by millions of Times readers and add to the various misinterpretations of the practice that already exist. The essence of Mindfulness has been diluted and distorted, leading people to believe it is something it is not. It is not about “not thinking”, or being calm, or even finding happiness. Though a degree of happiness (perhaps “contentment” is a better word) and present-moment awareness are by-products of the practice, they are not the goal of the practice itself. Actually, there is no goal. It is in the "doing" that "being" arises.
At the end of her piece, Ms. Whippman writes: "rather than expending our energy struggling to stay in the Moment, we should simply be grateful that our brains allow us to be elsewhere." That's the one statement where I am in agreement with her, precisely because of my practice - for gratitude is at the core of the work (yes, even being grateful for a wandering mind!). The “struggle” need only exist for as long as one chooses.
It takes time for Mindfulness to take root, and the guidance of people/organizations who really know what they’re doing. I hope she does not give up.