Walking out of the kitchen just now with my glasses in one hand and my mug of coffee in the other I wanted to turn the lights off before sitting down on my comfortable chair to write. I hesitated. I could reach up with the hand holding my mug full of coffee and flip the lights off with one finger: holding the mug crookedly and reaching around it with my pointer finger. Why not? I could do it. Get it done. Keep moving.
But wait. I paused. It's not worth the risk of spilling the coffee. What's the hurry? I had time to set the mug down and flip the light switch with my empty hand.
I felt so grateful to mindfulness practice in that moment. I could feel that little tremor of the "hurry habit" burble up. Hurry up, just do it, get this done, move quickly. I was able to notice it, meet it, and release it (this time anyway!).
When I get in a rush I take short cuts that really don't gain much. Does this happen with you too? A few seconds gained, but gained by taking a little risk often leading to a little disaster - whether it's spilling coffee all over myself or harming my relationships by not responding with full awareness to people in my life.
I'm grateful that mindfulness practice helps us slow down and evaluate these little (and big) trade offs and short cuts. I'm grateful for the pauses and the space that opens us for curiosity and a little wisdom to slip through.
Lately I've been thinking about two aspects of mindfulness: the practical and the mysterious.
On the one hand there are the practical ways, like my light switch-coffee mug encounter, that mindfulness helps us. How mindfulness training helps us stabilize our attention, helps us make better choices, helps us see some of the old patterns and habits that drive us and helps us feel that space where there's some freedom to choose another way.
And it's fascinating to read about the scientific exploration of how all of this seems to happen. Changes in psychological patterns, neurological changes in the brain, changes in stress responses, the power of mindset and intentional attention. Fascinating. And wonderful.
And there are also aspects of mindfulness training that are more mysterious, less step-by-step. Mindfulness can also lead to radical changes and shifts in our sense of who we are and what's happening. Sudden shifts in perception. We pause and find that we're a different person than we were. How did this happen?
Last night at the Zen Center we enjoyed a story of the mysterious side of mindfulness. One of the students shared a story from her early years of meditation practice. She was in very difficult circumstances. Things were not going the way she's planned in a big way. There was a lot of anger. A lot of frustration. She was worried and upset 24x7.
Then during a multi-day retreat (like the Roots of Mindfulness retreat we have coming up in October) she was all the more at the end of her rope. Day after day of meditation and thinking thinking thinking about her problems. Her mind was a torment and it’s a wonder she didn't quit the retreat right there.
Then one morning in the early morning light she watched as a large flock of Great Blue Herons flew overhead. At the moment everything stopped, she said. The constant, impenetrable and uncontrollable worry in her mind just stopped. For a few moments or a few minutes or an hour, she wasn't sure how long, she was just there. Watching the birds. Feeling the breeze. In her body. Just present. Just peacefulness. A huge relief that years later she still feels encouraged by.
Did this mysterious moment of peace solve all her problems and change her forever? Nope. The problems were still there. But her relationship to her thinking, her worrying, her life itself, had subtly and importantly shifted in a way she couldn't fully know or understand. But something changed. Something important happened and from then on life wasn't as difficult to bear.
This side of mindfulness practice is hard to think about; not easy to understand. Its not something that we make happen, rather something that our steady practice over time allows. Less a conscious act and more a manifestation of changes moving below the surface of our consciousness perhaps. And often perception - like this vision of the herons - is involved. We see our life differently when we see and sense our big open world more clearly.
It's wonderful to make room for both aspects of our practice.
Step by step. Pausing. Paying attention to what we're feeling and thinking. Doing our best to take the next step.
And open too. Open to the mystery of this being human. That it's all bigger and more complex than any of us will ever understand even with the most advanced brain scanners.
A bird flies overhead. We really see it. Everything stops. Life goes on and our relationship to the stress and craziness and joy of it all is changed.
May the practical tools and the deep mystery of being a person in this moment be of benefit to you today. And tomorrow. And the next day for as many days as we have left to be in this beautiful and troubled world.
All the best,