Monday, January 17, 2011

Mindfulness Basics

So what exactly is meditation, anyway? What is going on when ‘nothing is going on’? And, always assuming I have answers to the first two questions, what does this process look like when I move it out of that half-hour meditational period and into the day to day? What are the mechanics – in plain language, if you please?

Consider first of all that the human condition is to be distracted and distractible. And the 25-minute sit is not exempt from that normal, predictable, relentless process. The practice of mindfulness is, at core, the practitioner’s coming to accept this most human of activities and his/her cultivation of a simple strategy through which he/she may return to a more ‘unified’ state of mind – only to be distracted once again.

My wife presented me with a lovely metaphor for this process. Consider one’s ‘desirable’ state of mind (both in and out of one’s formal practice period) as consisting of a committee of ‘individuals’, all happily working together around a shared centre or focus; but all with quite unique agendas: management by committee. Let’s call this the ‘syntonic’ state – centered and grounded. In my wife’s example, I had been dispatched to find dining table accessories for a larger than usual (for us) dinner party scheduled for an evening on the weekend. No problem so far – my wife’s ‘committee’ had a clear expectation of the product with which I’d hopefully return. Her creative side saw ‘matched and blue’; her time manager was comfortable that all would be in place with time to spare; her chef was well-prepared (and didn’t really care about the niceties anyway – as long as the menu worked); and her ‘how do I compare’, socially conscious committee member was aware that one of our guests was a consultant for an interior design magazine – and, as yet, she (my wife’s committee member, not the guest) wasn’t squawking too loudly. Enter David with red and green napkins and place mats, a bouquet of flowers more suited to the floor beside a pulpit than the dining table – and powdered (vs. block) parmesan to boot.

Quite suddenly the harmony of the ‘management committee’ is fractured. An outlier had been pulled from the centre – by a distraction (I’ve been called many things, but rarely a distraction), leaving the rest of the group more or less in tact – but with the attention now on the outlier. (For the sake of illustration, let’s make the outlier the ‘creative’ committee member.) In the example, the issue / challenge to the group is not so much its source (aka: me), but the outlier. They notice the fragmenting behaviour of the outlier. Her focus, however is more likely on the source – ‘he should have called’; ‘he could exchange (but there’s no time)’; ‘my table will look like a Christmas tree’ – and the need to have the source fix the problem and restore harmony. The result, further contributing to the disruption, is to more fully engage ‘the source’, pulling herself even farther from harmony – as voices rise, explanations flow, anxiety and urgency build. Syntonia has become dystonia, wherein the environment has become very ‘noisy’ courtesy of the distraction.

The essential element at this point is for the outlier to notice, become aware of the process that she’s (dangerously) engaging. Then to allow the situation as it is comprised – not as she would have it or needs it to be; loosening the grip on her ideal. This acceptance (not resignation or capitulation, mind you) serves both to remove her from ‘battle ready’ status and to free her up to address the ‘real issue’ – not the source’s cock up and all the judging and negative evaluation that that might include – the circumstance in which she now finds herself and finding a solution within it.

If one is actively meditating, this ‘notice and accept’ phase might look something like ‘there, I’ve become caught up in that distracting sound or sensation or thought’; then, allowing it to recede, to ebb or flow – as they usually do – and return to one’s breath / focus. If one is outside the sit, it’s sometimes necessary to push a ‘pause button’ – I went and shoveled snow; my wife reframed the ‘Christmas tree’, cutting flower stems down and minimizing the volume of observable red and green – to allow our ‘lizard brain’ (our very old and instinctive chemistry that readies us to fight or flee), and the activating messages it’s sending to the body, to catch up with our consciousness. When the body is ready – defused and less inclined to work against our efforts to rejoin the rest of the committee – we can successfully return to the task at hand. It’s important to note that the ‘old brain’ and the body are just doing their job (granted, one that was defined 30,000 years ago) – which is to address the ‘distraction’, be it a wooly mammoth or an irritating spouse; they must be allowed their due – not judged. It should also be noted that breathing is a very potent mechanism for ‘calming’ the side of our nervous system that prepares us to act, to engage. So whether you’re sitting and meditating or facing your neighbourhood mammoth, breathing is a good thing, working equally well in both cases.

And so to summarize. Mindfulness practice is a four step process: NOTICE – observe that the outlier has removed himself from the core committee; ACCEPT – as the outlier, allow the situation as it is, not needing to control it, wishing it were otherwise (and further entrenching in the distraction); PAUSE – as needed, to allow the energized body to stand down from its (natural) preparation to act; and BREATHE – returning to the committee with a calming breath, rejoining the rhythm.

By the way, the driveway got cleared, the napkins got rolled, the flowers are still in bloom – and the Bourguignon was marvelous!

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