Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Mindfulness Police

I teach an eight-week intensive seminar in mindfulness. It's a course that's designed to help people understand mindfulness and to see how cultivating moment-by-moment presence has a fabulous natural side-effect of undoing stressful attitudes and behaviors. People love this course. I hear from people who complete the seminar, reporting that they have received their life back, talking about seeing colors for real now, knowing how life doesn't have to hurt like it has for so long. People find really powerful stuff with mindfulness. It's beautiful.

The name of the course is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. It was formulated about 30 years ago at UMass Medical School-Worcester, by a man named Jon Kabat-Zinn. You might have heard of him. He's since helped to make mindfulness an everyday word through the popularity and power of this course. He's written books, facilitated trainings, really dedicated his life to this way. He's a fabulous, warm-hearted teacher and force for good.

So it pains me greatly when I see people using the words of mindfulness as just another stick in the old carrot-and-stick game of life. The LAST thing we need is another thing to beat ourselves and each other up about.

I'll give you an example, something that happens to me a lot as I'm a mindfulness teacher. I hear people say something like "I wasn't being mindful when I yelled at my kid." Or, "Geez, Margaret, where was your mindfulness when you missed your exit on the highway?"

With mindfulness, we're interested in attending to the direct experience of our lives. This means the whole shebang, the full catastrophe, as J K-Z so aptly labels it. We make it our approach to stay with all the kinds of momentary experiences, to see what they're like, what attitudes they support and what behaviors come out of them. We're interested in seeing all of this, without making any kind of deal about it, good, bad or otherwise. We're just seeing, and that's the whole practice. The rest takes care of itself. There is no project to catalog all the wrong stuff and fix it. We're just fine in all the many ways that we find ourselves in this observation, and as we observe, the attitudes and behaviors that haven't been working for us get better and better, without trying to change anything. This is strangely counterintuitive and also powerfully freeing.

Here's how mindfulness works, moment-by-moment. Let's take the example of missing my turnoff, an event that happened to me just yesterday. I'm driving down the street, my destination clearly in my conscious attention. As I'm driving, I notice the monastery on my left, and begin sweetly reminiscing about a recent monastic retreat I attended. While continuing to attend to the act of driving, I also begin to pay attention to remembering the time away. I'm happily cruising along and remembering when I become aware that I have missed my turn. A flash of embarrassment arises, registering as light nausea, flushed face and tight jaw. I feel all of this as a body-flush. Then I smile at myself. I notice what's going on in my mind: I think that I have plenty of time to turn around and make my meeting on time. I notice that there is no one in the car to judge me. The flash of embarrassment is simply what it is, nothing to do with anyone else or even my opinion about myself. There are some further thoughts of judging my lack of focus, but none of them really take. There's no truth to any of it. I'm simply a lady who drives, enjoys remembering pleasant times, experiences embarrassment when she goes off course, and is often on time and sometimes late for meetings. I'm nothing more or less than who I am right now. Another day I might be a total screw-up. The next I might be a fabulously effective sort. The following I might be in a fog of frustration. It is what it is. And it's a great ride, the show of a lifetime, seeing it all play out just as it does.

In summary, I'm exactly like everybody else.

When I know this, really know this through careful, direct observation, the urge to call myself or anybody else on our performance in the mindfulness competition just doesn't come up. When I screw up, I notice what that's like, without needing to judge myself. Taking a kind, clear eye toward the thing ends up being very helpful toward undoing the old habit of beating myself up. And when I do beat myself up, I see this, too, without judgment. The point is, there always comes a point when I see what's happening clearly. This is the arising of mindfulness. And I've noticed that I have no control over when and whether this happens in a given moment. So all I can do is cultivate moment-to-moment awareness when I remember to, and let the rest go. It's the only sane understanding of how this thing called living a life works.

The mindfulness police, on the other hand, want to assess and grade all of your moments. They've been doing this for quite some time anyway, so now they want to tell you whether you are doing mindfulness "right." You might find for a time that you have a mindfulness policeperson sitting right on your shoulder, whispering your screw-ups in your ear. You know what... you need to fire that guy! She, or he, is not doing you any favors. She's actually an old, tired character you've been listening to for a long time, now dressed up in a new uniform. Don't be fooled!

Worse yet is when that guy starts talking out loud, about other people's mindfulness performance, even. Urgh. And, of course, if you catch yourself doing this, don't make a big deal out of it. Notice your breath, and your body sensations, and the thoughts that have you believing so strongly in your right to judge someone else's performance in their life. How's it all playing out for you, right now? And give yourself an A+ for being awake in the moment. It's called mindfulness. That's it. No problem about going all mindfulness-police on somebody, it just a thing that happens sometimes to you and to me.

Do you know why the "What Would Jesus Do?" rubber bracelets came and went so fast? I'm betting it's because people started asking each other the question, like it was their turn to point out that what somebody else was doing was not okay. And there's where the whole thing falls apart. I'm happy to contemplate an ideal peacemaker like Jesus Christ and emulate those qualities I revere. I think this is a practice that, if we all took it up with the moment-by-moment curiosity and interest of mindfulness, could transform the world. And the minute we start judging each other, and finding fault and blaming and shaming the other guy, hasn't the practice gone out the door? The only time I can find that Jesus directly engaged with people and their individual behaviors is when a person made a direct request of him for guidance. Otherwise, if I remember the deal correctly, it's "Judge not lest ye be judged." Right?!

Maybe you can start to get the feel for this, with that brilliant, concise teaching. What happens when you are in judgment, of yourself or someone else? Doesn't the effect of either scenario still only register as your mind tightening up, your shoulders tensing, your sense of superiority getting encouraged? Judgment ends up being an event inside your own body and mind, doesn't it? At least until you go to give some of it away...

As a last thought, I want to add that mindfulness does not make case for never saying anything. There are going to be plenty of times when you have to bring attention to something harmful or bone-headed or simply confused that's happening. So when this is necessary, here's a question to work with: can you do this without finding wrongness, without making the other the bad guy? What happens when you can? What happens when you can't? What happens when you remember that you are exactly like this person in front of you, having one way or another made all the same kinds of mistakes?

Let me know what you find out. In the meantime, I give you an A+ for life, giving it every moment I can remember to do so. And when I can't remember, that's okay, too. Because I fired that inner mindfulness policewoman. Turns out she just got in the way of actual mindfulness.

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