I’m in the midst of an online course on mindfulness meditation. I’m diligent about doing all the coursework and I practice every morning, faithfully sitting and breathing. I do my level best to pay attention to my breathing and only my breathing.
And every morning, as soon as it notices what I’m up to, my mind zips around in squiggles and blurts, squirting out of my grasp like a blob of mercury. It turns out that breathing is not such an easy thing to pay attention to for an extended period of time, like two seconds.
There are no onscreen car chases to beguile my brain, no urgent bulletins, no tweets or texts or Insta-whatevers. There is nothing to do but just be, in the here and now, sitting and breathing. In. Then out. That’s all. And again, in. Out. Wait, what? Sorry, I was thinking about the movie I saw last night, and the leading lady’s English accent which reminds me of a writing partner of mine, not that she’s English, actually she’s Scottish, which reminds me, I should make sure that I have the next season of Outlander on Tivo, since I’m not sure my husband took care of that since he wasn’t a big fan of that show, anymore than he was a fan of that recipe I tried the other night, which reminds me, I think we’re out of arugula . . . I’m sorry, where was I? Oh, yes. Breathing.
I thought I knew pretty much what there was to know about breathing, at least from the point of view of your standard breathing human and given that I’m not a pulmonologist. Turns out there are methods I hadn’t yet explored. Counting breaths in a certain way. Anchor words, spoken silently or, when necessary, aloud, to keep me grounded. Most especially, refraining from self-recrimination when I can’t get past breath number seven without losing track because my mind has tiptoed off without asking permission and is now busy elsewhere.
It’s not like I’ve never meditated before. I’ve flirted with it off and on for years. But with the structure of this class, I am committed to the essential component that I’ve blithely ignored in the past: discipline. Attention, say the teachers, is like a muscle. If we hope to strengthen it, it requires training. Just do it.
We are doing this, I tell my mind as I take my seat every morning and set the timer. My mind sincerely wants to comply. It’s like a puppy, eager to please and enthusiastic about the whole project, and — SQUIRREL!
It doesn’t do any good to scold the puppy, which is only acting according to its nature. The idea is to gently correct the little critter by guiding it back to where it belongs and give it a pat on the head for trying. Back to one, pup.
I do begin to notice a difference in my interior life, a growing space between the moment when something prompts me to react and the reaction itself. It allows me more choice as to how to react, or whether to react at all. This, I gather, is a central tenet of mindfulness: the ability to live more skillfully. A worthy objective, certainly.
Alas, I am also more mindful of how much of the time I operate by rote, in knee-jerk fashion, or am simply oblivious. Mindless, in fact. Just because I meditate every morning doesn’t mean I can’t still lose my cell phone in my own house (and it’s a small house). Not only do I forget items on my To Do list, I am fully capable of forgetting I made the list in the first place. I leave my sunglasses or my groceries or my dog in the car (not for long, don’t worry). I know it’s not unique to me, but I hate to admit how often I’ll march purposefully from one room into another and then stand in the middle of room number two, brow furrowed, wishing I knew what I’d meant to do there.
To paraphrase some witty person whose name I can’t dredge up from memory: it’s true that my mind wanders, but being a small mind, it can’t get far.
Perhaps this will improve if I keep up with the meditation. Or maybe I’ll just get better at accepting that sometimes I forget things, and sometimes I make mistakes, and sometimes I fall short of my own expectations. Either way, mindfulness offers more peace, and that’s a good thing.
Do you have a meditation practice? Or do you just spend quiet time with yourself from time to time? I love to hear your thoughts (I need a break from mine)!