Why mindfulness?

‘We don’t meditate to get good at meditation, we meditate to get good at life.’ (source unknown)

Are there moments in your life you’d like to remember forever?

Are there conversations or relationships you want to feel more present for?

Have you ever felt disconnected from your body?

Are you stressed, anxious or fight circular thoughts that cloud your mind?

Do you want to feel more at home in yourself and more connected to others?

If you have answered yes to any of the above, mindfulness and meditation may just be the thing for you.

Let’s start with my ‘why’

For many years I said to myself, and to others, that meditation had found me by chance. I had practiced yoga for years and yet never got into this other form of practice I’d heard lauded by many of the teachers I’d come across.  Now that I think about it, unlike yoga, which was becoming a popular if holistic body practice, I didn’t have a single friend who meditated.

I fell into it, as if by magic, after a single group class while on holiday in Thailand. From one day to the next, I became someone who meditated every day. If you wonder what happened, why it happened and whether it could happen to you, you can read all about it here.

The practice which catapulted me into this new direction is called Loving Kindness, or Mettā (its original name in the Pali language). A few weeks or months into it (I didn’t record the exact timeline) I started to dabble with other types of focused meditation; Kundalini, Vedic mantra meditation, mindfulness of breath, mindfulness of body. All these served mein their own  unique ways, because I was indulging myself, following both my curiosity and my instinct.

I noticed that Mindfulness meditation felt like the best fit for me because simply it’s what I came back to most regularly. 

This single word, ‘mindfulness’, describes or encompasses several practices: mindfulness of body, mindfulness of feelings, mindfulness of mind and mindfulness of the movements of the mind or dhamma.

I coupled this with my daily Mettā meditation, complementing my practice of kindness and compassion with a practice of presence and focus, all coming from the same Buddhist source. 

What do they have in common? Well, they are all concentration practices, the point of anchor however changes. Focus shifts from breath or body to mind, or to phrases of loving kindness, self-compassion or equanimity. 

I followed my instinct, I was my own case study. The more regularly and consistent the practice, the more I felt grounded – more at home in myself, at ease. I gradually became less and less emotionally reactive, regardless of the situation, and instead more spacious. I could see possibilities where before I would have been closed off, blinders on so to speak. 

My inner critic (that voice that criticises and comments on all our actions from morning to night) became less annoying. Over time, it became supportive, present, wise even. Simply put, I became a better roommate for myself.

But why teach?

Firstly, the real life benefits I started to enjoy became visible to my friends. Upon seeing me grounded, clear-minded, living with integrity in myself despite navigating big changes in my life, they started asking for suggestions and resources: 

What could they read? 

What teacher could I recommend? 

What would be the best practice for them, or how could they integrate it into their lives?

Of course, I gladly passed on all of my favorite teachers, books (which are also available for you here (link)). Then I figured: ‘If I’m going to offer advice and resources about meditation, I may as well study it.’ Right? But with whom?

Then, I spotted an email from a teacher I greatly appreciated: Tara Brach. Actually, I deleted it with a swift finger swipe on my phone, then went: ‘What? Tara is offering a certification for mindfulness teachers online!?’  

I promptly fished it back out of my bin and indeed, there it was! An online course with a two year certification was open for registration. It felt like the answer to my prayers: to study with someone I already knew and admired, but on top of it all, without the necessity and cost of international travel.

And so I did it, and ta-dah, I became a teacher. That I graduated in the middle of a global pandemic was more of a surprise, and then again, I don’t believe in coincidences. 

To sum it up, my big why is that what I found in mindfulness I found so precious and transformational that I wanted to share with others, beyond that first group of curious friends. 

What’s with mindfulness?

Quoting from the book Awakening Joy by James Baraz and Soshanna Alexander:

As meditation teacher and psychologist Jack Kornfield likes to point out, the signs in Las Vegas casinos have it right: “You must be present to win.”

Right. Most people when they hear about meditation think it is an impossible exercise of stopping our thoughts. If you have ever tried that, you may have realised it’s simply impossible.

One of my teachers helpfully pointed out that minds create thoughts like mouths produce saliva. Point made.

Others think it is about transcending the body, having perhaps heard or read about practices done by ascetic monks, somewhere in a cave.

That’s not what I found in these teachings and I assure you, there is no need to become a monk or nun, in order to reap the benefits of mindfulness practice (though I have nothing against those who choose to be ordained, I should add).

Here is a definition from Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, which I like very much:

Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present and alive, body and mind united. Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to know what is going on in the present moment. I drink water and I know that I am drinking the water. Drinking the water is what is happening.           

Mindfulness brings concentration. When we drink water mindfully, we concentrate on drinking. If we are concentrated, life is deep, and we have more joy and stability. We can drive mindfully, we can cut carrots mindfully, we can shower mindfully. When we do things this way, concentration grows. When concentration grows, we gain insight into our lives. —Thich Nhat Hanh

As he offers, in cultivating mindfulness of body and breath, we learn to be in the body, in our experience, rather than in our heads. Whether we practice the shifting focus of a body scan meditation or we try mindfulness of breath, or sound, the starting point in anchoring ourselves into the present moment starts with our bodies – tapping into our senses.

I personally found it both relaxing and difficult to get to know, listen to and explore the body’s sensations, my experience, directed by the light of my attention. I hadn’t realised that there was an option to cultivate intimacy with this vessel through which we get to experience this human life.

One of the key tenets of mindfulness is non-judgement, and teacher Jack Kornfield likes to go a little further by upgrading it to a kind presence:

Traditionally called Sati-Sampajenna, or “mindfulness and clarity of purpose,” mindfulness has two aspects: receptive and active.

Mindfulness is first a spacious, kind, non-judging awareness of the present.

Second, as sampajenna, mindfulness includes an appropriate response to the present situation. —Jack Kornfield

I like that very much, though it takes a while to get there (first to non-judgement, then to a kind presence) for many of us

Over time, being mindful helped me to become aware of the constant narratives I was creating about my experience and my relationships. In practicing mindfulness of feelings and mindfulness of the mind, I learned to become acquainted with myself in a deeper way still. 

Was every day easy? Certainly not.

Did I discover things I had been unwilling to see or that made me a bit uncomfortable about the content of my own mind? Absolutely!

But perhaps because I had been cultivating loving kindness for many years, I also had developed a capacity to look deeply with kindness at myself, even at the parts I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge (you know, the things we keep locked away in a dungeon, about past mistakes, shame and guilt).

Thich Naht Hanh looking deeply is the path to understanding. He believes deep understanding is the path to love. He even goes as far as saying that without understanding, true love cannot exist.

The teachings and the daily practice offered me a path to explore intimacy and deep understanding with myself, body, mind and  heart, with an attitude of compassion and kindness. With that work came a feeling of being more at home in myself, something that Tara Brach refers to as ‘true refuge’: truth, love, and awareness.

The gifts of practice

So the first gift, or benefit of regular practice, became the gift of presence: really being in conversation with someone, rather than being in my head, being in my body as I move, breathe, work, play. Many experiences felt heightened, as did my memories of them sharpen, when I was really paying attention. 

In doing so, I found myself feeling more grounded, happier, more at home, and less reactive to negative internal or external stimuli. I was able to pause. My mind was lo longer on auto-pilot.

The precious value of this pause has best been encapsulated in this quote by Viktor Frankl:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”.

The second benefit was acceptance. Accepting to be with what is, in the moment, without pushing away any part of my experience. And being there in the moment, sans narrative, stories or judgement around it. 

Finally, I found understanding, or insights, in myself, the result of all this deep looking, and a sense of connection to others, certainly thanks to my LovingKindness practice. 

Later on, as I continued to explore the teachings, I found that cultivating mindful communication, mindful speech and deep listening positively affected my work, my communication style and was helping me with decision making. This remains a really important area of study for me, something I am also offering others in my daily life as a consultant and coach. 

I will leave you with a final quote:

“Let go of your mind and then be mindful.
Close your ears and listen!”
– Rumi