Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mindfulness - Living in the Present

I published this on mcmanweb nearly two years ago. Happy reading ...

A thought-provoking Zen parable goes like this:

A man encountered a tiger in a field. He attempted to escape by lowering himself down a precipice. He looked down and, to his horror, saw more tigers looking up, anticipating their next meal. He looked up and spotted two mice above gnawing on the vine he was clinging to.

Oh, crap.

Then, looking to his right, he sighted a strawberry growing from the cliff face. Reaching over, he grabbed the morsel and popped it into his mouth.

“Mmmm!” he thought. “Delicious!”


I must admit that it took me more than one try to get the point. Kipling was right, I thought. East is east ... But the sentiment resonates in every culture:

“There is nothing under the sun better for man than to eat, drink, and be merry,” reads Ecclesiastes, the most Buddhist book of the Bible. In 1 Corinthians, Paul counsels, “Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die.”

Life is a bitch. No one gets off this planet alive. We have to savor our good moments while we can. But, of course, we will miss them completely if we keep getting stuck inside our own heads.

Very shortly following a move to southern California in the wake of my marriage break-up late in 2006, I happened to look to my right. The valley below was bathed in shadow, as were the peaks that rimmed the valley. But the setting sun happened to magically catch one distant summit.


I was out of my head and into the moment. Tomorrow I could very well fall to pieces. But today was a gift.

Granted, the past and the future provide context, but life is all about the present. If you’re not in it, you’re not playing. To play, you have to pay attention.

Mindfulness incorporates the paradox of no-mind. “When you eat, just eat,” Buddhist teachers advise. “When you sit, just sit.” In a similar vein, “when having sex, just have sex.” Tantric sex is basically mindful sex, fully-engaged and in the moment.

Fine, but what about life’s many unpleasant moments? Who, for instance, wants to be mindful of a toothache? True, Buddhists teachers acknowledge. But consider the “non-toothache.” Non-toothaches are very pleasant experiences. Are you enjoying your non-toothache right now, or are you too busy thinking about what your boss may or may not say to you two days from now?

The practical benefit of mindfulness is that as our awareness becomes more heightened and our thinking more focused, we slowly acquire the ability to reel in our runaway thoughts, or at least slow them down a tad. Slowly, we gain skills in negotiating our way through the present. Slowly, we learn to manage our illness rather than our illness manage us.

We can all recall our exceptionally aware moments. Unfortunately, they tend to occur in highly-stressful and often life-threatening situations, such as skidding on glare ice at 60 MPH. This is when our fight or flight response takes over. The frontal lobes go off-line. We literally stop thinking as the faster-processing and more primitive regions of the brain assume executive control.

Fight or flight is normally associated with an over-reaction, but here we are talking about a rare mental state that can only be described as calm awareness. If we had time to think about the dire straights we were in, we would probably panic. Instead, barring bad luck, we successfully avoid wrapping our vehicle around a tree. On one hand, the crisis is over in a micro-second. On the other, it’s as if time were slowed down.

Athletes refer this state as “the zone.” Something seems to take over. Everything goes right. Nothing goes wrong.

My mind races way too fast and is far too wayward to achieve the full benefits of meditation, but my first attempt produced a mind-popping insight:

I was concentrating on following my breath in and out. I literally could not put two breaths together without losing my concentration. As if that were not bad enough, for the first time in my life I actually watched my thoughts. Without realizing it, I was engaging in a form of mindfulness meditation, of the mind watching the mind. I simply could not believe the crap I was thinking. It was like I had a hundred different radios turned on, all tuned into a hundred particularly bad talk show stations.

Where’s all this coming from? I could only think. This isn’t me.


With that realization, I think I grasped three out of four of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. I may have prided myself in my ability to think, but dispassionate observation revealed that I was living in an illusion. My thoughts weren’t real. It was a humbling - and ultimately liberating - exercise.

Over the next four or five years, I managed to stick to a regular meditation practice. When I caught myself “thinking,” without judging, I would let go of the thought and resume my meditation. I never became enlightened, but, among other things, the discipline did teach me very vital skills in concentration and mindfulness, skills I would later apply in managing my illness.

Meditation may not be for everyone, but I do urge trying it at least once. In addition, I strongly encourage taking up a new hobby or resuming an old one, preferably a challenging one. Playing a musical instrument, for instance, even very badly, requires an enormous degree of concentration and awareness. Practice makes perfect.

Hobbies constantly place us in novel situations. We are not sufficiently proficient to be thinking on autopilot. We have to concentrate. We have to be aware. Without realizing it, our minds become disciplined. We learn mindfulness.

I’m the first to acknowledge that my thoughts and feelings often get the better of me. But I am in a far safer and more enjoyable space than I was even a year ago. Tomorrow, my world may collapse on me, but today I have the confidence to face tomorrow, not with trepidation, but with hope.

The tigers will always be lurking at the bottom of the cliff. Enjoy the strawberries, live well.

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