A psychotherapist commented to me the other day that, “Mindfulness has little or nothing to do with introspection. It’s about learning to be in the ‘here and now,’ living in the present moment.”
Such simplistic notions of mindfulness upset me, especially coming from a healthcare professional. The fact is, simplifying life isn’t simple—it takes lots of clear thinking. Watching the breath may distract us from our anxieties for a while, but to truly get past them we have to drill down. There’s no magic.
The present moment is not some sort of thought-free zone of undefiled experience. There’s crap in the here and now. And then there’s the sheer volume. You feel cold and shudder; you hear a leaf blower and react angrily; you remember your doctor’s appointment and just have to go over the details; you find yourself preoccupied by a long-forgotten argument. Meanwhile, moods fluctuate and, as every meditator discovers, there’s an endless stream of apparently random thoughts that aren’t actually random at all.
And that’s just one moment! We can’t attend to it all. The choice of where to place our attention is either made consciously, or it happens unconsciously. This is the crux. When mindfulness is absent, automaticity steps in and we’re drawn to the same old patterns of denial, escape, numbness, self-deprecation and fear of rocking the boat.
In time, regular mindfulness practice lays bare the roots of automaticity. THAT'S ITS POWER—to directly and consciously undermine the whispering, self-limiting beliefs that are so harmful—especially, “I’m not good enough,” and “I don’t deserve better.” Without conscious attention, patterns of shame and guilt, as well as plain anxiety, effortlessly take over. Turning around and facing them is a big deal, the best thing we can do for ourselves.
Health professionals should never take this for granted. Indeed, they shouldn’t even talk about mindfulness until they’ve established a practice of their own and gained real clarity into their own mental patterns.
Perhaps it was because Dad was a lion tamer that I ended up funny. Yes, a lion tamer—and no, I don’t mean comic. This was all in his past by the time I was born, and since he was an absent father—there but not there, like so many men of that generation—I got to know him through his memories, or at least what I imagined were his memories. These I formed myself, from a pile of old photos that he stubbornly refused to talk about. He was ashamed of something.
He’d run away from his native Calabria in the 1930s to join his cousin Blacaman, who was touring South America with lions and alligators as the, “Hindu Animal Hypnotist.” When he fell out with Blacaman and ran off with his girlfriend Koringa to Paris, he managed her before moving on to an acrobatic dancer called Gwenda. Koringa was exotic and French. Gwenda was respectable and English. Dad admired England. Handily avoiding Mussolini’s call to arms, he ended up interned on the Isle of Man. They married and she became like him, an enemy alien. That ended their performing days.
These are the people who raised me. At least, they tried.
“Dad, where was this picture taken, and who's that girl with you?” No answer. Just a grimace. He'd get mad when I pleaded, and I'd get mad right back at his silence. A child needs the stories of the parents, preferably from their own lips. Mum told me everything, but she was no male role-model. He controlled us at home and I vowed never to be like him. But of course I never really knew him, so it was a difficult vow to keep.
The only person he spoke to—in absolute privacy—was his priest. He’d maligned Holy Mother Church for years and had more regrets. He clung to his newfound English and Catholic respectability like a talisman, but the life that I witnessed never inspired me quite like those old photos.
They empowered me to live passionately and uncompromisingly—just as, I supposed, he'd done when he was young and interesting. So when at the age of twenty-two I got to choose between a life as a social scientist and the opportunity to go native with a pride of learned Tibetans, it was a no-brainer.
I didn’t see my decision as an escape but it was. Just as Dad got away from the priests and mafia of his childhood Calabria, but he never escaped his unresolved past. I didn’t want to end up like that.
I knew he’d thrown everything to the wind, and I did too. He joined the circus. I became a Buddhist monk. He tamed lions and alligators. I tamed my mind (or tried to). He abandoned Catholicism temporarily. I gave it up for good. “You’re just like I was,” he’d say. Everyone would nod sagely and turn away.
I turned away too, of course—but not only from them. Eight years later I abandoned Buddhism and found myself on the margins of two cultures. I didn’t even aspire to fit in anywhere. I wasn’t happy and didn’t expect to be. Did he feel that way too, despite his success as a respectable restaurateur, husband and father?
Monastic life had given me more respect for my mind than I’d ever had before. I studied history, computer science, typography, design, book production, psychology, neurology. I wrote a memoir and other books. I fed my brain and developed my skills as assiduously as I avoided my heart.
I called many people ‘friend,’ but never got from them what I needed. I only realised it when I made a new friend, someone who recognized my passion for mindfulness and encouraged me to teach it. I’d trained for eight years. Why didn’t I use it?
That’s when everything changed. I became happy. She helped me put on workshops. I loved public speaking and wrote books. I’m often thanked for my teaching and praised for my intelligence, but there’s still a voice in my head that says I'm not enough. It no longer does the damage now that it once did. When it shows up I see it, counter it and refuse to follow.
This is the process of self-acceptance. My work has shown me how hard it is for others too. We’re all susceptible to shame and the defensive, defeatist voices in our head—but that’s no reason to give up or to even attempt escape. I married that friend, though the belonging part is still elusive.
What did I learn from Dad? Escape is not only impossible—it makes everything worse. My work fulfills me because it requires me to be ruthlessly honest. Teaching, writing and communicating this sort of deep meaning and emotional intelligence fills my life in many ways.
End of story: I avoided being like him, more or less. I’m happy to share my stories. I hide nothing. I catch my reactivity better than ever, and face those voices without any desire to escape. I connect the dots. Perhaps he did that with his parish priest. I’d like to think so.
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What a year! Not exactly one we want to commemorate, but unforgettable—a game-changer. Life as we know it stopped. There’ll eventually be a new normal, but it’ll take some getting used to.
Let’s not forget that change itself is normal. Even pandemics have their time and place in the saga of human history. It’s a reminder that our species, like them all, is temporary.
This thought may paralyze you, but humility would be a more useful response. Ever since the authors of Genesis gave us “dominion” over the Earth and its inhabitants, we’ve been taking it for granted.
We think it’s up to us to determine the future of our planet and our race. We have a say, but we certainly don’t have our hands on the controls of creation, and thank god for that.
Life is wonderful and exciting when it’s not terrifying and forbidding. It’s by remembering both these possibilities that we keep our balance. Rather than considering ourselves the dominant species who will wrestle Covid to the ground, let’s just be grateful each morning to wake up and draw breath. This pandemic will end, but there’ll be others.
We’re just fragile individuals of a fragile race. Remembering that is not depressing. It’s sane, and my prediction for 2021 is that our sanity will continue to be tested.
Please care for yourself and for those around you. Take nothing for granted. Be satisfied and grateful. It’s a wonderful life, if you care for it.
For me, mindfulness isn’t just a way to stay calm. I was still a young man when it became the most important thing in my life, even though no one else had the faintest idea what I was doing. Nothing was harder for me than living in the moment, and yet there was nothing I wanted more.
The first time I really ‘experienced’ the present moment I couldn’t believe it. It was so simple! I thought I’d ‘got’ it—but then I forgot. That's when I saw where the real practice is—walking through each day with your eyes wide open, balanced between focusing and letting go. If you don’t use your newfound skill, you lose it.
Caroline and I have set up Mindfulness Support for two reasons: First of all, we want you to understand the full potential of this practice and how different it is from ordinary meditation. After all, it does much more than manage stress. As mindfulness enters your life, you're increasingly able to identify and let go of the reactive patterns that keep hurting you.
Secondly—most importantly—we want to help you actually do it, day by day, week by week. No matter how much you understand, it only works when you practice.
Our dream is for you to sit down every day for at least a few minutes to check in with yourself. Join us on Facebook. You’ll meet other people who care like you. There’ll be posts and comments, and you can ask questions at any time; I’ll answer within 48 hours.
For those of you ready to build a regular practice, we offer Zoom meetings three times a week, at 12-noon ET. There’s a whole free month for you to see or yourself if you like it or not. After that, you’ll be hooked, and mindfulness will be something you won’t want to live without any more. And why should you?
Both Caroline and I have had difficult lives, but with the help of people like you we’ve been inspired to take every obstacle as an opportunity to learn and grow. We want to help you do the same. No one really ‘learns’ mindfulness from someone else. We know that. Only experience can teach you—and we also know the indispensable value of a support system that works, along with an experienced teacher and a clear way forward.
When I was a boy churches were full. Now they’re empty. For
millennia, religious authorities were the arbiters of moral value and atheists
kept a low profile. Today, everything’s changed. Churches are renovated into
condominiums. The day of rest is no more. Even the word ‘religion’ sounds
This is modernity. Science rules, and religious belief is unscientific. Hard scientists seem compelled to attack religion, even though social scientists find it sublime.
To preserve their faith, believers must either deny science or juggle two realities.
What everyone seems to have forgotten is that there’s more
to religion than belief. It’s about experience, and the natural human longing to
be awed. I call it a religious instinct. We can all imagine our ancestors staring
into the night sky asking irresistible, unanswerable questions. Then—humans
being what we are—someone invented answers.
Mindfulness bridges religion and science. Its focus is an objective, non-judgmental perspective. Its goal is to let go of reactivity, which means changing your behavior in ways that you choose. Mindful thinking trains you to choose well, so it’s also a moral practice.
“I like to believe,” says a character from the TV show The
Village. If you google that phrase you’ll find all sorts of things that people
like to believe. I once liked to believe in reincarnation, and then— even
though I still would have liked to—I stopped. Reason got in the way.
Questioning beliefs is hard. The possibility that they’re wrong seems to threaten who you are. That’s why people sometimes defend incredible ideas. Flat-Earthers are still with us; anti-vaxers are ushering in a new age of childhood diseases. We integrate our beliefs into who we are, so that we don’t just vote for conservatives or progressives; we are conservative or progressive—even when we don’t even care enough to join the party!
This is reactive believing, and it’s all about defending our choices. There is another way to use the mental factor of belief—by applying mindful thinking. First, you temporarily suspend your decision about whether something’s true or not, so you can check it out. Then you decide whether it’s credible—and worth holding onto even if it’s true.
This is easier said than done, but not because evidence is hard to evaluate—that’s the easy part. The difficulty lies before that—simply allowing for the possibility you’re wrong. This is is not a rational decision; it’s deeply emotional. To question your beliefs is to question who you are. Once you open that door, who knows what’ll happen?
Although testing beliefs is central to the Buddha’s teaching, it’s one of the hardest principles for Buddhist communities to implement. Preserving the founder’s legacy is their mission, and to do that they insist that all he taught is beyond question. There is no place for the possibility that the man might have been ordinarily flawed, and sometimes wrong. As happens usually with religion, often with politics and not infrequently even in scientific communities, advocates feel compelled to establish ‘truth’ beyond question, and end up trapped in dogma.
You however, have no such monumental beliefs to defend. Your job is entirely different, and thankfully much simpler—simply to know what you believe and why. That’s what mindful thinking is for, and that's what we’ll be discussing in our upcoming workshop.
I take a blackberry from its box, wash it with others, put
them in a bowl and set them down between us. I take one. It is
delicious—perfectly ripe, sweet, tart, juicy, firm and succulent. How many adjectives
for a humble berry?
Perhaps an infinite number. You see, the berry is changing
every moment, and so are you, and so is your perception of the events taking
place in your mouth and sensory nervous systems, and so is your sense of where
and who you are.
Look: I begin to bake and am tempted, when opening a jar of clover honey, to place a pearl of it upon my tongue and let it dissolve. It lingers deliciously, cascading endorphins far beyond my mouth.
And then half-consciously, while reaching across the counter for a measuring spoon, I pluck a blackberry from its bowl. Realizing suddenly that this is a treat worth savoring, I bring my full attention to the bite of the fruit.
It’s as juicy as ever, but now it’s tart on my honeyed tongue—no treat at all. The magic is gone.
Zoe’s parents were very protective and shielded her from any danger and discomfort.
Her parents lavished all their love on her, and little on each other. They never held hands or kissed. They were often short with each other. They held opposite views on politics and religion. Neither would even consider the possibility that their marriage was in trouble. They agreed on one thing: to keep their conflict hidden from Zoe.
But Zoe lived there too. She didn’t ‘know’ what was going on (or not going on) with her parents, but she lived amid the tensions they were trying to suppress, and did what she could to ease them. It was a burden, but she accepted it with the same sense of responsibility.
Zoe’s mother was easy to get along with. Most of her anxiety came from her father. On the one hand he couldn’t handle conflict; on the other he’d sometimes fly into a rage. In either case, he went out of reach. When this happened, Zoe took responsibility for bringing him back.
If she didn’t, who else would? Keeping him happy became her raison d’être. She adopted subconscious behavior that in time became an automated role. Throughout her life Zoe felt competent in these sorts of conflict situations. She was drawn to them.
Sadly, her first marriage resembled her parents’ marriage.
At the time, Zoe’s parents claimed they were ‘protecting’ her. What they didn’t know was that they were setting her up in her role of peacekeeper. The peacekeeper’s dilemma is that she holds all her anxiety inside. She doesn’t talk about stressful situations, and believes that thinking about them makes them worse. She believes the solution to conflict is to avoid it, and that it’s a best to not challenge people.
Zoe’s role is inherently unstable because it’s based on these limiting beliefs: 1) talk threatens peace; 2) silence keeps the peace; 3) ignorance is safer than knowledge.
Who suffers from these beliefs? All three of them. When did they choose them? They didn’t, they simply adapted to their reality. So what can they do? They could examine their behavior and their motives. They could trust Zoe’s intelligence and speak to her (in age-appropriate language) enabling her to see how they handle conflict through healthy open dialogue.
These changes require nothing but natural skills that we all possess—courage, empathy and effort. They take practice, but that’s what mindfulness is for.
There are times when everyone wants to stop their mind. That’s why I got into meditation in the first place, and it’s what everyone always tells me when they come to learn mindfulness. They say, “I feel like my mind has a mind of its own!”
There’s definitely something about being human that makes us yearn for control. When it comes to dealing with anxiety, we all want to be able to hold up a hand like a traffic cop and stop the flow of thoughts.
Unfortunately, mind is not a device that you can switch on and off. It’s a process—the entire package of you holding yourself together—bodily perceptions, emotional feelings and mental thoughts. You are a whole person, changing constantly.
In mindfulness we don’t try to stop the mind. Instead, we learn to accept it. We look closely at ourselves and how we’ve turned out. We watch out for patterns like stress, anxiety, and guilt to see how they emerge from mind processes. And, as you begin to understand these patterns more intimately, something natural happens—you fine tune them. The end result is less struggle, greater joy and personal growth.
When it comes to struggling with your story and how you fit in, thoughts and beliefs are a big part of the package. In fact, what contributes more than anything else to your mental balance or imbalance is your story.
This story doesn’t have to be realistic. It just has to be complete in ways that you can accept and defend. Without work it tends to be soft, mushy and confused. With effort, it becomes wise and kind.
Ordinarily, your story consists of memories, opinions and expectations. It describes who you should be (according to yourself and/or others), and in that way can be quite a burden. In either case, the way you deal with it makes you you. It also makes you vulnerable.
Into this very personal story we fit our beliefs. There’s what we believe in, like god or science. There are conclusions we came to a long time ago and have never reexamined, such as “I am open-minded.” There are logical beliefs in ultimate truth or ultimate relativity, and emotional beliefs such as, “I’m not worthy.”
Somehow, this story must hold everything you think you are—all your thoughts and all your beliefs. Your very self seems to depend on it. Too little and you have no direction. Too much and it weighs you down. How do you sustain your integrity while not taking yourself too seriously? With mindfulness of your story, of your beliefs and of your thoughts you become naturally less defensive and less judgmental. You become more accepting of yourself and others.
These are not trivial matters. Nothing’s more important to each of us than ourselves. Without that, we have no life, no relationships, no significance.