It was only a year ago I realised I’d spent most of my life in a stupor. When you look that word up in a dictionary, it uses drunkenness in an example sentence: ‘an unconsciousness brought on by intoxicants’.
While I certainly used to enjoy a few glasses of the strong stuff, the stupor I refer to is one of non-presence: of being so intoxicated with reflections upon my past and thoughts (be they worries or wishes) about my future, that I was never really, truly, here. My memories were a haze, and I saw time flying by faster than I’d like.
Seeing the Beauty in Small Things
Mindfulness made an overdue entry into my life, but how thankful I was: I began to sit in silence and surrender to what was there; scanned my body for how it was feeling; sighed with pleasure at the heady steam from sage-leaf tea. Suddenly I saw the beauty in small things, witnessed the joy of nature, and felt deeper connection from conversation. I was also able to confront what we typically call ‘negative’ emotions: by finally facing my fears around sadness, anger or loneliness, and feeling them instead of fleeing, they loosened their hold upon me. They became smaller, more manageable, and certainly very human; I noticed that they simply wanted to be heard. My mental health improved, physical symptoms abated, and as I freed up energy I’d put into fretting or fantasy, I found it easier to heal while accepting my state of health.
To put it simply, mindfulness was my own medication for the monkey mind. It opened a pathway to being present that made me feel calmer, freer, and above all, alive.
Of course, once upon a time in our not-so-distant past, it made sense to listen to the monkey mind. We had to conceive of the past and future to make life-or-death decisions in the present: if you spotted a large, hairy creature with larger teeth than its mouth could accommodate, you’d be wise to reflect on what it did to your ancestors, and see that it’d make short work of you too. Check cave paintings for confirmation, and the conclusion?
It was a means for our survival.
But we don’t have to run any more: large creatures don’t roam our streets; we can grab a panini instead of poisonous berries; we do not fight with peoples living on the next plain. Yet we still try to escape, though not from dangerous situations – now we run from the present moment, from ‘dangerous’ feelings, and the truth of what we are experiencing. We’ll find ourselves caught in a conflict of our own invention, imagining how we’ll deal with some ill feeling that’s been bubbling to the surface. We return to reality: we’re in the kitchen, and it’s the soup that’s been bubbling over. Other times we’ll dwell in daydreams, creating a desert island to escape our sense of boredom at work. Evading what we feel is more easily done when we’re feeling blue.
Be True to What is Happening Now
The beauty of the present moment, however, is that it’s all that exists. We can’t change the past, and we cannot know the future, so as Alan Watts famously said: “worry is preposterous!” By being true to what is happening at this point in time, be it eating a delicious meal or finding ourselves in the heat of a difficult situation, we honour the truth of our experience. In good times, we simply enjoy more; in bad times, we’re better equipped to deal with what’s happening. We also begin to develop a more subtle awareness of how we and our loved ones feel, so we can tune in to our physical and emotional needs. As we become aware of our patterns of thought, we can recognise those that are unhelpful, as well as those that may simply be asking that we acknowledge them.
When do you find yourself drifting? Where do you drift to? What comes up most often?
Begin to observe when you are alert and yet dreaming, awake and yet in nightmare. You can make a mental note on what you were thinking when you did so, if you like, before bringing yourself back to what you’re doing right now. With time, you’ll soon learn what areas need your attention, where your subconscious is seeking action, and what to do to soothe yourself: often that won’t be distraction, but delving into the thing you’re evading.
The magic of mindfulness is that it’s not magic: it’s a tool we can use every day, and a simple state of being that becomes easier with time. While in meditation we may bring our awareness back to the breath, a candle or a sense of loving kindness, and in yoga we may return to feelings of tightness or expansion in the body, with mindfulness we simply return to the present moment, whatever that is, exactly as it is. It may be a meditation or yoga session, but it may not: when you chop vegetables, chop veg; when you listen to a friend, really listen; when you make love, make love!
It really is as easy as that, and there are no elaborate rules to follow.
Exercising the Mindful Muscle
You’ll naturally find yourself slipping, thinking about what that text message meant, what that blind date thinks of you, or conducting another five-year plan – but you can always hop back to the present when you realise you’ve left it. Drifting off becomes a gift to yourself every time you return. And for the record, it’s perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed by how much you ruminate: I’ve giggled and gasped at how neurotic or self-critical I can be...
But the more you return to awareness, the more you exercise this mindful muscle. And as we all know, muscles strengthen with use.
So use the medication you have inside you, and experience life just as it is. When you step outside the monkey mind, you’ll find it’s often the simple things which prove most extraordinary.