April 18, 2020
-Kathryn Nulf, MA, RYT
When I first learned about mindfulness I did so by way of surfing. Not the “in real life” surfing, but the analogy kind where I was encouraged to anticipate the thoughts of my mind like waves in the ocean which would eventually come in and go out and all the while I’d be there watching.
I heard my yoga teacher at the time saying things like:
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”-Jon Kabat-Zinn
This is still a practice for me today. I often hear when I teach mindfulness workshops, “I haven’t been able to do mindfulness because I have a hard time turning off my thoughts.” I’ve heard this so many times I’ve lost count, and I’ve thought it myself. Why can’t I just turn off my mind? If we could we would, but we’re human. The mind’s job is to think. And that’s why we have a practice called mindfulness.
John Kabat-Zinn is one of the “grandfathers” of mindfulness. I love the way Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Mindfulness then is a practice of paying attention to what is happening right now, without overthinking, judgment, or invalidating our experience. We accept this moment, and whatever comes with it.
One goal of mindfulness that I find to be interesting is that we aim to experience reality as it is. What does that mean? What happens when reality hurts us? What about the difficult moments, the ones I want to run away from? If we observe these moments through the lens of mindfulness, we’d be working toward experiencing this reality as it is without adding a judgment on ourselves or the reality itself. We may not necessarily approve of this reality as it stands currently, yet at the same time we accept this present moment and that this is a skill we can practice. I use this word “practice” often when I talk about the topic of mindfulness. Every day of our lives is different, we know this; what better way to be kind to ourselves then to know that mindfulness is a practice to turn to at any moment of any day? It is for helping us get back to our lives. It’s for helping us be in our lives now no matter what is going on, and what we may feel about things. We still deserve a way to those moments, so that we can be there if we decide to be.
Here’s the thing: sometimes we like to check out. We are human after all. The urges to check out will be there, the actions too. That’s okay. To use mindfulness here, remember the steps to take: bring your attention to this moment in a purposeful way, and avoid judging the moment and the people, places, and things included in that moment (including you!). Observing ourselves in this way takes some effort and time. Be gentle with yourself. Getting our attention back to the moment means we do a lot of repetition – we repeatedly return our attention back to this moment, as many times as the mind wanders off. We don’t judge the mind getting distracted, we do not judge thoughts popping in – because the mind’s job is to think. This is a practice of giving yourself a chance to observe yourself in a different/healthy way by being nonjudgmental, and maybe you get a sense of relief and space between your thoughts sometimes, which is a nice skill to harness.
Note that getting “distracted” is normal and turning your mind again and again to the here and now can feel a little cumbersome at times. I thought initially, when I started a mindfulness practice, How can I keep doing this? Keep coming back? It’s too hard. It’s so much attention. I was used to not being here, not observing the now, because why do that when I want to change everything. I’m not accepting myself right now, I’d rather be somewhere else. To that I say, start now anyway. Even when you’re not already loving yourself, accepting of yourself. Start now. Observe that, observe yourself in the state you’re in and do this with a spirit of nonjudgmental awareness. This does take effort, this part is on purpose and it does mean we make an effort to come back to the moment again and again. This takes time, you deserve to take that time and know how to get here.
When we’re not happy we’re not going to be emotionally okay. This means that we’re losing touch with who we are, what we want in life, maybe our values and our dreams. Mindfulness encourages us to validate ourselves in this moment, no matter what is happening, no matter how much pain we are in, no matter how much happiness we feel — wherever you’re at you observe it without judgment and without adding anything extra. You accept this moment, and yourself, as you are right now — unconditionally — because you deserve to.