On Mindfulness and a Crisp, Cool Clearing

Photo Credit: Angie McMonigal Photography
Photo Credit: Angie McMonigal Photography

I knew there was a problem when I reached for my phone sitting in my left coat pocket. It hadn’t been ringing. I hadn’t heard the shrill-ish brrriiinnggg of an incoming text. I hadn’t even felt the buzz of a new email.

There was no reason to reach for my phone, and yet as soon as I had just a minute to spare, maybe even two, while waiting in line at the grocery store, I found myself instinctively reaching for my phone. And that’s when I knew I had a problem – a real problem.

The problem became even clearer over the next few weeks as I started to notice the number of times I reached for my phone, like some kind of security blanket, whenever there were a few minutes of downtime; the number of times that I relied on a highball-like cocktail of busyness and chores and to-dos; the number of times that I was unable to recall the specifics of a situation – the clothes someone had been wearing, the details of a conversation, the way a meal had tasted – because I hadn’t really been paying attention, because I had been thinking about a work project or replaying an earlier conversation or wondering what I would say next or worrying about how a stressful situation might play out.

About a year ago, I realized that this “addiction to distraction” was a problem – a real problem. I wanted to be more present, more engaged, more aware of what was going on. I started to feel like entire weeks, months, and even years were slipping through my fingers. Time was moving way too fast and I felt a desperate need to slow it down just a little bit. Thus, the tech Shabbos was born. One day each week I power down my phone, keep my laptop closed, and don’t watch television. Basically I “turn off to tune in,” all in an effort to pay attention, to notice, to learn mindfulness.

What a minute, did I just say that? Mindfulness? Ugh.

Just saying the word “mindfulness” causes most people to conjure up images of cross-legged yogis, eyes closed, sitting in the lotus position or of New Agey folk talking in whispery voices and wearing smirky grins, pretending like life isn’t really freaking hard sometimes.

But mindfulness is really just the act of paying attention and being open to what is. In the words of James Baraz, “Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).”

As far as I understand it, the what of mindfulness isn’t necessarily the elimination of problems and stresses and the daily muck that we all deal with, nor is it about clinging to moments of happiness and pleasure. Mindfulness just seems to be about finding a clearing amidst the clouds – whether dark, looming storm clouds or soft, billowy cumulus clouds – to observe, take note, and experience.

Having read several books and articles about mindfulness over the years (everything from Eckhart Tolle to, most recently, Dan Harris’s book “10% Happier”), I am well aware of the touted benefits of mindfulness. Referred to as a “wise awakening,” mindfulness is shown to reduce stress and anxiety, increases happiness and productivity, and, in some abstract way, it might even slow time. Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh has said, “Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.”

Framed that way, the what and the why of mindfulness seem straightforward enough. Almost simple, right?

Well, clearly, mindfulness falls into that category of “easier said than done” because I am continually finding myself face-to-face with one big lingering question: Why in the world is mindfulness so FREAKING HARD?

Why do I constantly reach for my phone whenever there is even the slightest pause in the frenetic rhythm of my day? Why do I feel the perpetual need to read a few emails, sneak a glance at Facebook, or check latest weather forecast? Why do I fill up empty blocks of time with unimportant (maybe even unnecessary) chores? And why is it so hard to keep my mind from obsessing over all of the should’s and need-to’s and if-only’s?

Why is it so hard to just sit with my thoughts for a while? Why is it so hard to focus on what is going on around me, instead of planning for what’s next or ruminating about what just happened? Why is it so damn hard to rest inside the clouds for a while instead of jumping from cloud to cloud to cloud, trying to mold them and shape them and change them?

The thing is something tells me I might not be alone in this either. Something tells me that I might not be the only one to sleep with my iPhone within reach, that I might not be the only who is comforted by a steady stream of busyness, that I might not be the only one who focuses just a little too much on the Next Big Thing, that I might not be the only one who relies just a little too often on something out there – iPhone distractions, constant busyness, a few cocktails, that bag of M&M’s hidden in the back of the pantry, reality television, or what-have-you – to rest inside and keep me company. Something tells me that I might not be the only one who finds mindfulness to be hard, like really freaking hard.

Why is that? Why is mindfulness so HARD? Why is it a constant struggle to be fully present?

Maybe it is because some of us are just wired differently, constantly moving in third gear when first gear might be more appropriate. Maybe it is because of some kind of simmering societal pressure to produce, achieve, and obtain. Maybe it’s because of amorphous and illusive measures of success like “security” and “having it all” and “making it.” Maybe it’s because we aren’t comfortable with our own discomfort. Maybe it is because mindfulness goes against human nature, making it inherently difficult. Maybe it is the intrinsic challenge of mindfulness that makes it so important in the first place.

Whatever the reason, I know this much to be true: I want to be more mindful and I am trying to be more mindful.

And so maybe the question isn’t what (i.e., what is wrong with me?) or why (i.e., why is mindfulness so hard?); maybe the question to be asked is simply: HOW?

How can I focus just a little less on the Next Big Thing and a little more on the Right Now? How can I learn to float a little more often in the stark, crisp clearing so that I can take in the complex – sometimes harsh – beauty of the clouds? How can I learn to JUST BE STILL a little more often?

Maybe it doesn’t matter why I kind of suck at mindfulness. Maybe it doesn’t matter why it is sometimes SO FREAKING HARD to pay attention and be fully present. Maybe it doesn’t matter why I am addicted to my iPhone and a number of other distractions and numbing mechanisms. Maybe it doesn’t matter why I get all jittery and angsty when I don’t have the diversions to rest inside.

Maybe all that matters is the how. And maybe the simple – yet brutally hard – answer to that question is practice. Lots and lots of practice. A few deep breaths, and then some more practice.

Maybe if I practice flying around in the clouds long enough, I will eventually find a moment or two of rest in the crisp, cool clearing.

Maybe.

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Do you have a hard time practicing mindfulness? What are some of your tips and suggestions?

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This post is part of the weekly Photo Inspiration Challenge.  Special thanks to Angie McMonigal Photography for her photos. Make sure to visit her website or facebook page. Her work is both stunning and inspirational.

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4 Comments

  • Christie, I just love your writing , thoughts and photos. You and Angie make a great pair! I often wonder how at your young age (compared to me, 55yrs) that you have so many of the same feelings that I do. I am so looking for something in my life to make me feel I do something really well. My husband has never been (even when I tell him to ..haha) to give me compliments so I don’t know who I’m looking for acceptance from. Never have had great self esteem, and although I know that , it makes no difference. I pray to God for contentment in my life here in good ole Berlin, but I’m soooo bored with the same ole routine. Well I’ll stop blathering on now, keep up the good work. You have such incite into feelings and know how to put it on paper. What a blessing:)

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