About a week ago I signed up to take a four-week course in mindfulness, not really knowing what I was getting myself into. Because I spend a lot of time alone, part of why I signed up for this course was that I hoped it might help me get out of my own head for awhile. I also thought it sounded interesting and figured it would be a good way to meet people.
As it turns out (and it always turns out this way) it was not at all what I had anticipated. Instead, this was going to be a huge lesson – the start of an immense, perhaps life-long challenge – of learning how to become comfortable in the vastness of my own head.
Mindfulness is, in my opinion, a terrible representation of the word’s actual meaning. It should be called something more along the lines of mind-emptiness. Believed by some to be part of the path to enlightenment, the practice has its roots in Buddhism. But in the western world, it is less of a religious practice, more commonly used as a helpful psychological tool; a way to decrease stress, manage anxiety and overcome difficult emotions.
Last week, I knew none of this. I figured we’d have a bit of an introduction and I sort of expected to be taking notes, chitchatting about the benefits of meditation. In short, I thought we’d be talking about it when instead we spoke little about the definition of it or the theories behind it and just began to practice it. The horror!
The teacher asked us to get into a comfortable sitting position on the floor and cover ourselves up with the blanket she asked us to bring from home. In her Indian / South African accent she gave us few instructions:
Close your eyes. Take a moment to notice the sounds around you, both inside and outside the room. Now focus your thoughts only on your breathing.
I succeeded in doing this for about five milliseconds. Then my thoughts shot off into their own stratosphere, slung by the slingshot of the senses. I heard a car and the car (was it red?) took me with it, down the road, with the anonymous driver (who were they?), past the McDonald’s being built at the edge of the village. (I love cheeseburgers.) I heard what I thought were the rustling of birds in a tree (what kind of birds?) outside the open window (it’s kind of chilly) and I was there, too, imagining what kind of birds they were. (How many were there?) I tried to bring myself back into this very room with these other women and my thoughts carried me away again, full of curious questions about these people sitting just a few feet away from me. Vicki said she was from England. (Where?) It didn’t matter because I made it up. I imagined the green hills and the dampness of the British countryside. (I wish I’ve been to Ireland to see those shades of green.)
Our teacher’s voice interrupted my thoughts again. Focus only on your breath. Inhale one, exhale two but if you must count, keep the counting quiet in the back of your mind.
I tried that but it didn’t work for very long. Every so often her voice would reappear on the scene and she would encourage us, Lovingly, gently, redirect your mind back to your breathing.
This went on for an interminable thirty minutes.
She saved me from my thoughts a few more brief times, reminding us to Think of yourselves as a puppy in training. We were to guide ourselves back into the present breath, focus our senses on breathing.
Let me restate what I said before as an exclamation: This went on for an interminable thirty minutes!
When the thirty minutes were finally up she asked us to open our eyes. I thought I was going to cry from desperation. I wanted out out out. Out of my head, out of the room, out of this stupid class I’d just paid for and signed up to be in for the next four weeks.
The teacher asked us to share our experiences. One woman had already taken this course six months before and wanted a refresher. (!) Another woman, who I felt like sticking my tongue out at, had previously told the class she practiced mindfulness on a daily basis. She shared her feelings of bliss during this exercise, her feelings of warmth and love and even joy, in particular for her fabulous thirteen year old daughter. I think I heard myself making juvenile gagging noises in the back of my throat.
The next woman said, “Wow. I did not realize how slippery the mind can be.” This relieved me to hear. It wasn’t just me. Naturally, I was judging myself against the others. Why did I think I could do this?
When it was my turn to share my experience with the group, I wasn’t quite sure what to say. My mother taught me that if I didn’t have anything nice, don’t say anything at all. I didn’t want to sound negative but I didn’t want to lie and say, Jeepers, gang, that was great! So I said the first thing that came to mind which was, “Put me in solitary confinement and tell me I’m not allowed to think.”
This got an eyebrow raise from the teacher. She began nodding and half-smiling at me. Go on, she said. So I did: “I did not enjoy that at all.”
That’s when she came clean with the hardcore facts, the truth behind mindfulness. Apparently our brains have had the run of things for the majority of our lives. Only as small children were we ever fully engrossed and mentally engaged in a moment or a task. Somewhere along the way, growing into adulthood, we learned to think and let our minds stray into the imagination’s sometimes wretched wilderness. We learned to create fantasies, false scenarios, we learned to worry. Somewhere, somehow, we gave up control of our brain and let it run itself. She said that when we practice mindfulness, we are reining our thoughts in and telling our brain that it is no longer in control. Our brains—accustomed to being in charge—do not like this. Hence the resistance. Hence my discomfort and uneasiness with the exercise.
This is not easy, she said reassuringly. You are performing brain surgery. Practicing mindfulness rewires the synapses of the brain and this takes time. She said for us to think of a bonfire, a huge, raging bonfire that must be extinguished. Ladle by ladle of water, we are throwing it on the fire. The more we practice, the better it gets. We can’t expect to sit down once, be mindful for thirty minutes and think we will successfully put out a bonfire with one ladle of water.
I raised my hand. “So, like, how long is this going to take?”
She just laughed.
Our homework for the week was to practice two forms of mindfulness—one thirty minute session a day where we sit and do nothing and practice breathing one two one two one two. The other form of mindfulness is the practice of being in your body, in the moment, whatever you find yourself doing: washing dishes, taking a shower, concentrating on a task at work. Despite various forms of resistance that manifested themselves in sly subtle ways throughout the week, I tried this, reluctantly. I’ll admit. I did not do it every day. For three out of the seven days I counted lying in bed in the morning an extra thirty minutes my “mindfulness” time.
What I have found and learned by TRYING (and not trying) to practice this seemingly simple exercise is that the brain is a bitch. The action of controlling one’s thoughts is next to impossible because your brain won’t let you do it. It’s constantly unleashing itself and you are constantly both either tying the leash up or helping untie the knot you just made. It’s a constant struggle to herd that puppy back to the task of focusing on your breath. You are asking yourself to do one measly thing. ONE THING! And it can’t do it. Won’t do it. It does not want to relinquish the authority it has given itself to create chaos in the mind.
More than the sheer, teeth-clenching will and discipline that I oftentimes lack, this task requires an enormous amount of compassion. Compassion for yourself. Your WHOLE self. The parts you like and the parts you don’t like. The parts you like to like and the parts you don’t like to like. I did not know how many ways I battered and bruised and abused myself mentally until I began TRYING to do this mindfulness thing. All the judgment that goes on up there, constantly! The guilt trips, the jeering, the banter, the shoulda coulda wouldas. It’s relentless and exhausting. And so extremely pointless.
Today I am going back for week two. I already did my thirty minutes of mindfulness for the day and I am stunned at the complexities that the brain will hurdle at you to get you NOT to do this exercise. This time, I was accosted from all angles with my brain’s attempt to blackmail me emotionally. Some of the things I heard: Why bother? You know you’ll only fail miserably. Quit while you’re ahead. I’d barely managed to start the 30-minute timer and I literally burst into tears over this stuff. How pathetic! How quickly I am deceived by myself! Furthermore, how incredibly cruel and hurtful we can be to ourselves.
My mind was giving me emotional jolts, ambushing me with every possible fear I could summon. It didn’t work. It didn’t work because I wouldn’t let it. I also wouldn’t let it make me feel guilty for sitting still doing nothing. I wouldn’t let that voice enter into my head telling me I should be doing something more significant with my time. This is significant, I found myself saying. I focused on my breath, one two one two and just let it pass.
I have found that I am at odds with myself more than I would have ever known or would have liked to admit. But I have also found an immense amount of relief in knowing that if I just focus on this breath one two, and the next one two, then all the rest will pass. It won’t go away but it will change. Learning to step back and not allow my ego to control my every waking thought is empowering and liberating. Hard as hell, but worth it.
Last week it was Doris, teaching me not to extinguish the fire. This week it’s my kind, soulful teacher with the South African drawl teaching me how to throw ladle after ladle on the bonfire of the brain. Somewhere in the middle between fueling the fire, controlling it and extinguishing it is where I am now, nurturing what I suppose the stuff growth is made of.
Sometimes I think of my life in pictures, a chronological arrangement inside a giant leather-bound album. The above would be a picture of me sitting still, hands on my knees, eyes closed, back straight. If I were showing this to people, to you, in the future somewhere far away from now, as a wiser version of myself, I would laugh and point and say, “Oh that’s me in New Zealand, 2012, back when I was learning how to get comfortable inside my own head.” How old was I? “Oh, I would have been about thirty-two in that photo.”
The next photo you see is a picture of an old Maori guy in a wheelchair, yelling something at me across a parking lot. You want to know what that’s about. Oh, ha. I’ll tell you about that tomorrow. For now, let’s just focus on this. Inhale one, exhale two.