In this series I will write down some of my experiences of the journey towards a more mindful self and the process of building the mindfulness habit with the support of training from Mindfulness Association. In part it’s for myself to take note of the bigger bumps on the road during this journey as well as ink the reflections on learning that may be useful going further. Nevertheless a casual reader may resonate with my experience, be encourage to reflect on their own or simply find some value in it.
To begin with, while scientific community is working hard on a unified definition of mindfulness, in some sources you might find it defined as “just being” – a.k.a. “nowhere to go, nothing to do”. Well this “just being” takes a whole lot of effort. Yes, we practise mindfulness without struggle, with kindness to self and light touch to the experience. However, it is exhausting shifting your awareness back to the present again and again when your mind wonders. Say what you want but it takes mental resources. And personally I find myself drained at the end of mindfulness training weekends. That is why I will talk about ‘work’ when talking about mindfulness practice.
So here I am beginning the quest to build regular mindfulness practice. I feel I understand both aspects of it – the technique (shifting awareness to present, engaging meditation support, letting experiences flow etc.) and the attitude (practising with kindness, non-judgement, non-attachment and curiosity).
And here I meet the first object of mindfulness practice – the thoughts. Aah, thoughts, these visual or wordly fragments, the little bits you can attend to mindfully and let them go away… like clouds in the sky, balloons in the air or leaves on a stream. I feel, to my surprise, that work with thoughts is going well (yep, judgement here ;)). They come up, I meet them with all due attitude and let them go. Not bad at all for the ruminator-overthinker kind. But something feels very uncomfortable.
Then comes the body work. We learn that body is the aspect of mind and practise attending mindfully to sensations. “Itch, pain, tingling, numbness, contact, pressure” – the instruction guides our awareness. Aah, sensations, these little bits of physical experience, clear, isolated… it all seems rather intuitive. We all probably had this experience that if you just notice the itch and let it be, it goes away. So I am working mindfully with sensations and it’s going well (oops, judgement again ;)) But something still feels very uncomfortable.
At this point I start wondering why it feels so uncomfortable to sit in meditation if the practice with mind and body seems to be going well. I just can’t put my finger on it. It becomes frustrating. The funny thing is I can work with this feeling of frustration too because it’s a rather clear and familiar experience. Aah, feelings, their temporary nature, a certain shape or even colour, a set of related sensations… Yet again I attend to it mindfully and it seems to lose its power. However, something in the practice still feels very uncomfortable. I can’t sit still in meditation. This thing is overwhelming. And I’m not sure I want to do mindfulness anymore. It feels like a struggle.
Maybe it was this struggle that helped me arrive at a certain point where I felt I had enough experience and confidence to try just one more time. Anyway… I think I finally allowed myself to just explore this… thing. And what I realised was that even in mindfulness practice at some level of consciousness I held a strong expectation that the things I will find, the experiences I will observe, will be of a certain… shape. And this Thing… it had no shape, no clear lines or boarders… the whole overtaking experience… when the whole body shrugs… there is no thought preceding it… no isolated sensation that one could become aware of… it’s indescribable… it’s so wide… just takes you and holds you tightly in a fist, preventing from seeing clearly and moving forward. It didn’t match my expectation, so I refused to look at it.
Once I dropped any expectation, I allowed myself to gently approach this Thing with curiosity, with wonder and explore it as it was. I would literally say “Hey Thing! What’s up? What’s going on?” I stopped turning away from it and turned towards it. I invited it to join the house party. And no, the discomfort didn’t go away, but me and the Thing, we coexist. I can’t say we are friends, but we are good neighbours. I realized that the Thing was simply a concerned neighbour. And, being a good neighbough, the Thing will always tell me when my house is on fire. And you know what? I am grateful, because now I know that once it knocks on my door, there is smoke coming through my windows and it is time to get a fire extinguisher out. You have probably guessed by now that he Thing is my body’s physiological stress response :).
So coming back to the title of the post “the shape of experience”, this whole reflection really is about expectation. My experience will have different shape from your experience, as my own experience will differ from moment to moment. Meeting this experience with fresh eyes, without expectation of how it should be, and with curiosity to explore how it actually is, is what we are practising. And if it feels like the hardest thing, with a little kindness to self, we can always try one more time.