by Oori Silberstein
Many of us are drawn to mindfulness practice initially out of a desire to overcome some challenge or difficulty in our lives. While some of us are drawn to mindfulness when we’re feeling OK, and we want to sustain or increase our sense of well-being, I have observed that the majority of us turn to mindfulness from a place of struggle. For me it was anxiety, but there are lots of other examples: Stress, depression, grief, anger, physical pain, impatience or a general sense of discontent with our lives to name just a few. (These are all common and good reasons to learn and practice mindfulness, and mindfulness can be helpful for all of these.) In all these cases we want to move from the place where the challenge is overwhelming, burdensome or bothersome, to a place where the challenge does not exist, or at least where it does not bother or debilitate us. In other words, we want to get somewhere other than where we are.
We may think that getting to this desired place requires getting rid of the challenges we are facing. And we may think that getting to this place requires physically going somewhere else – a new city, or simply a retreat or training. Certainly, if the challenge is a physical danger or emotional abuse, then this instinct to get away may be essential and wise. But in many cases, working with and getting through the difficulties that lead us to mindfulness practice do not require that we go anywhere or get rid of anything. It requires that we learn to settle in more deeply exactly where we are, with curiosity that invites a fresh perspective. We learn that what is most helpful is to practice being exactly where we are, however we are, in a new way.
One of my teachers likes to say that the best way to get from point A to point B is to be at point A as fully as possible, and let point B take care of itself. This may sound ridiculous at first. We may think, “If I am looking to get rid of this challenge, why would I want to do something that requires that I see, feel and be with it more? This mindfulness thing is really missing the point”. This idea of being where we are more fully is not always easy, and it probably turns away a fair number of beginners. So why do we emphasize it?
Before I offer some answer to this question, I want to clearly say that with certain types of traumatic and challenging experiences it is actually not helpful to turn fully towards the difficulty. So if trauma or very challenging experiences is what brought you to mindfulness and it does not seem to be helpful, which is fairly common, it is best to seek out the support of a professional therapist specializing in trauma resiliency or a trained mindfulness teacher with extensive trauma resiliency training.
There are lots of reasons why being more present for our actual experience helps free us from the suffering that often accompanies life’s inevitable difficulties and challenges. I offer just a few of them here:
Our hearts and minds want to be happy and unburdened. Think of a young child in a playground. They want to play and laugh and run around freely, and so do we. Luckily, our system is wired to allow and encourage this. But this wiring is often corroded through conditioning, in which case it sends signals too weak for us to perceive. We are also self-regulating beings when the proper conditions are present. So one way to look at our role in working with difficulty is that we are setting the conditions that will encourage our minds and hearts to self-regulate into a place of OK-ness, or even of happiness. And the only place we can do this is in the present moment, right where we are, using tools that allow us to meet our experience in a new way.
All of our emotions and most of our physical sensations are extremely fluid and ever changing. We think they are fixed because we look at them for just a second and the mind tells us it's always like that. The reason we only look or feel for a second is because the experience is unpleasant and we turn away quickly to avoid or reduce the unpleasantness in the moment. But when we learn to be still, and to look more closely for more than a second, we see that there is movement within each experience, and experiences shift, and they arise and pass and then arise anew. We learn to see that things are not always how we think they are. We learn that what is unpleasant for a second sometimes becomes more workable if we meet it with open-ness and curiosity. And this increased attention to the actual experience of what is difficult leads to a weakening or even a complete falling away of the difficulty itself. Perhaps like the way attending to a crying baby with kind attention is sometimes all they need to settle down and feel OK. And paying attention can only happen in the moment, where we are right now.
We generally do not control our inner experience, but we can learn to control how we relate to our experience. As we practice being present, we see that thoughts and feelings and sensations come on their own, without us doing anything. This may be discouraging at first, but with continued practice we also learn that we can change how we relate to our experience, and that this in turn actually diminishes the suffering and difficulty that arises when things we don't like happen, including thoughts and feelings we don't like. So by learning to see and relate to our experiences in new ways, we alter the impact of our experiences on our sense of well-being, and we may experience more joy, happiness or OK-ness. And the only way to see all this, and to practice relating to ourselves and our experience in a new and liberating way, is in the present moment, here, where we are right now. Even if we don't like it.
Practicing being in the present is definitely not easy at times, it takes time and patience, and sometimes it is wisest to proceed very slowly. So practice being where you are, even in your practice itself. An extremely beneficial condition for mindfulness practice to take root and grow is cultivating and feeling a base level of safety and ease. Many of the tools of practice help us establish this sense of safety. For example, breath meditation, practicing guided body scans and doing self-kindness and self-compassion practices are all ways we might encourage some safety and kindness in our practice. We are all unique, and so we can each try and play with these practices and find the ones that resonate best for us, that feel safest and most kind. And with some safety or kindness as a base, we can then slowly begin to lean a little more into the present moment, and to be more fully at point A and allow and trust what unfolds from there.
Here is a link to lots of mindfulness practices you can explore.
Link to Practices.
Feel free to reach out with any questions about practice.