The Art of Practice

15 May

When I used to teach mindfulness meditation in the hospital where I worked, I candidly told people that they would feel no benefit from sitting once. To experience a shift, they needed to “practice” mindfulness.

Most people try meditation once, get frustrated that they feel no change, and then never try again. I find this curious as we would never expect to become a concert pianist without practicing our scales. Yet when it comes to wellness, and stress management in particular, most of us want a quick fix. We want to feel good, yesterday!

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I remember a yoga teacher once saying that in order to relax, one had to invest a certain degree of effort. I was struck by his comment because he was right. I found it a chore to go to his Friday night restorative yoga class. Inevitably, I just wanted to go home and have a glass of wine. To switch into yoga clothes and drive to a busy part of town was the last thing I felt like doing. What I discovered though was that after an hour and a half of lying in various poses, I felt as if I had been drugged. I actually couldn’t stop myself from falling asleep by 9:00 pm and sleeping ten hours straight.

All a mindfulness practice requires of us is that we be willing to sit on a cushion. And yet for a number of us, this can create tremendous resistance. To stop and pause in the midst of our busy day can seem both a waste of time and even silly. But if we want to develop the ability to be present with anything and everything that is happening within and around us, it is a practice worth cultivating.

Mindfulness is both a philosophy and a practice in which there is no goal. One doesn’t try to relax, to empty the mind, or to achieve a perfectionist blissed out state of being. The only objective is to observe one’s thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations with curiosity and compassion vs. judgment.

This is actually really hard to do at first. When I’ve taught mindfulness I have experienced people’s resistance in the form of coughing, shifting in their seats, fidgeting, and even getting up and leaving the room because they couldn’t tolerate sitting for fifteen to twenty minutes in relative silence. Yet inevitably, if we offered the mindfulness class a few times a week, which meant that individuals had more mindfulness exposure, and a structure to practice it, they began to actually look forward to the experience and to request it more often. As they practiced, they began to feel the comfort that  sitting with one’s breath can bring – even if comfort isn’t the objective. Once again, the only task is to just “be” in a state of curiosity and compassion vs. judgment.

I too have gotten out of practice. I have no idea why but after years of an active sitting practice, I simply stopped doing it. Getting back to sitting has taken some “practice.” I’ve had to develop a routine: ten minutes in the morning, ten minutes at noon, and ten minutes before bed. To enforce this schedule, I’ve had to leave my cushion out where I can see it as a reminder and sometimes I have to set an alarm. Mindfulness doesn’t come automatically. One actually has to be mindful about mindfulness.

I started sitting while living in NYC . I was overwhelmed by the onslaught of stimuli there coupled with my own emotional experience. I no longer live in NYC but now there is a different onslaught of stimuli that overwhelms me. While I enjoy the benefits of modern technology, the constant barrage of information makes me spin. I also find the pressure to respond to constant messages, whether they be texts, emails, or phone calls, exhausting.

The outside world isn’t going away. It’s here to stay. My inner world and physical body are the only things I have some measure of control over. I can take a few minutes to sit while the world runs around doing its thing. I can make a choice to be still and to enjoy a few breaths. Before the moment is gone. I can make living a practice and that practice an art.

 

 

 

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