As a teenager, I sensed that I could be happier if I could just figure out which knob to turn. I began practicing mindfulness because I realized that being happy didn’t mean trying to control the world outside of me, but rather tending to my inner world. It made sense that being happy was determined by learning to work with my thoughts and feelings in a healthy way.
Left to our own devices, the habit seems to be to float along, getting yanked around, blown here and there by the crazy, changing winds of our thoughts and feelings. It’s quite a volatile, dynamic weather system! Usually, we are not really aware of what is happening. We just find ourselves unhappy all of the sudden, or short-tempered without warning, or just in a perennial habit of feeling angst and worry all of the time.
What if there were some pretty simple ways we could deal with thoughts and feelings, with our minds and hearts, that would offer more ease and keep us closer to our intentions? Mindfulness offers practices that help make being human not such a crazy and dramatic ride. Mindfulness is defined as paying attention, on purpose, moment by moment, without judgment and with compassion.
How does this simple act of paying attention help us? Let me give an example. I might be feeling icky all day long and slog around with this awful weight. Then I sort of wake up and think, hmm, what is going on with me? I stop and do a sort of scan (which we get better at with practice) and realize that I felt left out when I read an email earlier in the day. OK. Now I know what has been weighing on me all day: I feel left out; the basic human need to be included felt threatened by that email. This is something that hurts, so I can have some tenderness for myself for feeling this.
But can I let it just be that? Something that feels uncomfortable? I don’t need to start scripting a big story about what that means. I don’t need to judge myself and tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way I am. I don’t need to take action, necessarily, and try to make the situation different. As long as I don’t start embellishing that simple fact with a big story, I will likely see that there is not actually a problem, certainly nothing worth me feeling icky all day. It’s just a feeling. It is simply what it felt like to be human at that moment.
By noticing my discomfort in the first place, by stopping and doing a light investigation, by identifying the feeling and its trigger, and by acknowledging and having some compassion for how that felt, a little space opened up and a weight lifts.
We all have the same set of human needs that get met or not all day long, generating various thoughts and feelings. It’s how we handle that weather that largely determines how at ease and happy we are. With practice, we can cultivate that little space of awareness so that we know what is up with us when we are thrown out of balance. Add compassion, and you are practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is not a thing or some permanent state. It’s what we do, moment by moment, whenever we remember to notice and have tenderness toward the whole, beautiful, dynamic process that is our life.