When we first begin to meditate, we might notice that there is very little space inside our minds. It might seem like just as we are trying to sit down and settle down, our brain goes into hyperdrive. We might be making to do lists, we might be replaying something that happened in the past, we might be rehearsing a conversation we are never going to have. The moment we close our eyes, there we are, immersed in our internal noise, anxieties, and dramas.
Sometimes we get lost in the mundane, thinking or planning what we need to do. Sometimes the scene we are reliving or fantasizing about is so vivid and real it’s as if we are in it. When we become aware that we have been in some internal place other than in the present moment, it can almost feel like a jolt, pulling us back from where we have been. Sometimes it feels as if we will never tame our wild mind.
But we keep practicing. We keep coming back for some reason. Perhaps there is a moment – just a moment – of spaciousness that we feel, and in that moment it occurs to us that something other than our internal melodrama is possible. So we try again, and notice our mind racing again, but then there are a few more moments where we are breathing and we know that we are breathing, and maybe that spacious feeling lasts a bit longer.
In my Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class, after just a few weeks, students report greater ability to stay with their breath, even though their minds still wander. One student recently reported that even though she noticed herself thinking, there was a sense of steadiness in her body that was beginning to feel familiar. She felt she could have stayed longer in the meditation, with stillness, steadiness, and calm.
Another student shared that the more he practiced meditation, the more he noticed moments in his daily life where he was naturally present. Brushing his teeth, driving. He was beginning to discover moments of mindfulness without even trying.
When we are lost in our wandering mind, we are not aware that we are lost in thought – it occurs like we are really back in that storyline, playing out the drama again. But then we realize that we have been thinking or fantasizing or ruminating, and that moment of realization is when we come back to this moment. We become aware that our body is right here on the cushion. We gently bring ourselves back to the feeling of our breath, or sensations in our body, or simple awareness of awareness, and we are present. This is a moment of presence. Our noticing and our returning to the breath strengthens our ability to find that moment of presence again.
The more we practice, the more we sit ourselves down on our meditation cushion, or we come to our yoga mat to practice being aware of our body through movement, the more mindful moments are available to us. And the more moments of presence we have, the more we grow our ability to be aware. We are making it more possible to be mindful in the future. It’s like strengthening the muscle of our attention. The activity of returning to the breath or whatever we are focusing on makes it possible and easier to come back the next time. And little by little, incrementally, those moments of mindfulness add up to a lot of mindful moments that accumulate. Over time and through regular practice, mindfulness is the state we occupy more often than not.
The more we practice, the more we lay the groundwork, the foundation for a mindful life. Eventually we find that we are having more mindful moments than mindless moments. Our moments of mindfulness add up, and then before we know it, we are standing in a difficult conversation with someone and we are aware of our breathing and feel our feet on the ground, instead of just reacting to what the other person is saying.
And in that moment, there is a freedom to choose our response, rather than our habitual reaction. Instead of our normal pattern – lashing out at another, tuning out, or entering into a familiar cycle of self-criticism or self-blaming, we can choose to pause and offer a mindful response for ourselves and others.
Mindfulness is an innate human ability, but it can also be learned, and it can be strengthened. Each moment of presence grows our natural ability to be present, until that is what fills us, drop by drop.
“Like water filling a bucket drop by drop, each fleeting moment of attentiveness gradually fills us with presence.” – Trudy Goodman
Interested in strengthening your ability to be present? Join us for these upcoming events: