I want to become a better version of me. Not a kind, wonderful, self-sacrificing, always cheerful, perfect ideal of a human being. That is not going to happen in this life-time. But maybe an improved version of the flawed – sometimes selfish, sometimes angry, sometimes needy, sometimes arrogant, sometimes insecure – me. Yes, this normal me wants an updated version of humanware in her mind.
What is mindfulness? A simple definition could be – ‘to pay attention to the present moment.’ Practically, it means becoming increasingly aware of what is happening at this very moment to me. Becoming aware of what is going on in my body, what am I feeling and what thoughts are crossing through my head. Just observing life – as it unfolds, for me, right here, right now.
You might be wondering – what is so special about that? If, at any moment, you were asked about what is going on with you, you would be aware of what state your body is in, what mood you are in or what you were thinking about. No big deal. Right?
Wrong. Most of us are unaware of what is really going on within us. We are not sensing our body, we are unaware of the layers of feelings that may be making us stressed, resentful or exuberant and joyful. Most of us are completely unaware of our thinking process. The interesting part is that we are unaware of the fact that we are unaware of all of this. Yes, we are living 99% of our lives on auto-pilot.
“Wait a minute,” you might interject, “that is incorrect. I am consciously choosing to turn a certain direction when I go from point A to point B. I am making informed rational choices when I buy my toothpaste or my next house.” Yes, we may think we are making rational choices but we are not truly aware of WHY we are making those choices. Most of our choices are based on our emotions. We then spend 90% of our decision-making time rationalising those emotion-based choices and then believing those rationalisations, or what I call ‘stories’. Unfortunately, our motivations are completely hidden to our conscious mind. The issue is not that our emotions are driving our actions but the fact that we are unaware of that fact. And this unawareness is what is unhealthy. The theory is that if we become aware of what is going on within us, then our minds are better positioned to deal with the ups and downs of life AND we discover additional mental capacity to be more creative, productive and fulfilled. In other words, a more ‘aware’ us would be less stressful and lead a more joyful life. This theory is why I choose to practice mindfulness. Yes, I do want this upgraded version of humanware.
Pragmatically, mindfulness is training our brain muscles to pay attention to our multiple faculties of perception. It expands our perception beyond uncontrolled thinking, our usual mode of operation. It trains the thinking mind to become still for a while to create space for other perceptions to engage. In this state, we can feel our body, tune into our feelings and even step aside to observe our own thinking process. We gradually come face-to-face with ourselves. Why am I kind at certain times and a selfish nut at other moments? Why do I lose my patience with my kids when they are just being kids? Why do I behave at times in ways that I know I shouldn’t? Our beliefs, habitual patterns and knee-jerk reactions to the world start to come into focus. With this improved clarity, the hope is to be able to pause and choose a considered response rather than to react. The forgetful kids, reckless drivers and clueless politicians will continue to be there but how I relate to that world is what gets transformed. With mindfulness, it is not just the negatives of life but all the goodness of life also gets magnified. Kind strangers, caring colleagues, loving gestures of family and friends become more noticeable and warm up the heart.
So is mindfulness all about self-analysis? Aren’t there better things in this world to focus on? My short answer to that is – maybe, maybe not!!!
When life throws a curve ball or when we are stressed, mindfulness helps us press the pause button before we react. If we can notice ourselves while we are getting stressed AND if we can find the courage within us to not to react, then we are able to ride the wave of stressful times with a bit of grace. When we are mindful, we are more open to surprises in life. We accept criticism and failures with honesty and dignity. The world becomes much more agreeable. In other words, mindfulness helps us meet our true selves and others a little bit more gently.
Practicing mindfulness is not magic. Just because we decide to be mindful doesn’t mean that we suddenly become better people. As a mindfulness practitioner and teacher, impostor’s syndrome haunts me all the time. I am still me. My lifetime habits haven’t suddenly disappeared. But I do like working out my mental muscles using a daily regime of mindfulness practice to improve my psychological fitness.
I recently attended a 7-day silent mindfulness retreat. I did it because it is a requirement for the Masters degree I am pursuing. But I loved it and hope to make it an annual ritual. Despite short bursts of boredom and restlessness during the retreat, the experience confirmed some valuable lessons for me.
- ‘I think therefore I am’ is not true.
- Our minds can be trained to find stillness.
- Still mind feels like ‘coming home’.
- Being with nature has a huge impact on stilling the mind.
- Our choices about the content we feed our minds with (news/entertainment/company/conversations/reading material) also has a huge impact on our states of mind.
- Speaking is not required for deep human connection.
I must admit that the biggest attraction of mindfulness for me is that I am just plain and simple fascinated by human mind. Why do we humans behave the way we do? Can we operate at a different level? I want to explore these questions not just intellectually but by experimenting on myself. I want to experientially explore the assertion of ‘mindfulness’ that we can improve our general well-being by deliberately cultivating ‘wholesome’ states of mind. I fully understand that this is not a one-week or even a one-year endeavor. This is a journey of a life time. Fortunately, as a Hindu, I am in no hurry and have the luxury of multiple life-times for this exploration!!!