Mindfulness Tames Clutter

NOTE: I haven’t posted here for over a semester, but I just started writing a column for the Index on spirituality, so I’d like to revive this blog. Sorry for the inordinately long delay. I’ll post something most weeks (for sure, now that I have a weekly deadline), and I’ll try to keep adding fun little things in between to keep you coming back. Here you are-hope you enjoy, and feel free to leave feedback!

My friends and family tell me I am the spaciest person they know. All my life, I’ve been dubbed the “space cadet.” Since my first years of grade school, I struggled with inattention and took ADD medication for years before deciding in college that I couldn’t depend on a pill to solve my problems anymore.

Unfortunately, a running commentary of fantasy, worry and analysis constantly streams through my head. If I absentmindedly wade into this seductive current of daydreams, it lures me into the tantalizing world and keeps me distracted from whatever is actually happening. Despite my most valiant efforts, I am simply not the student who raptly follows a teacher’s every word during a lecture.

Although I realize my issues with inattention are at least somewhat worse than average, I think most Americans struggle with it to some degree. We avoid boredom like the plague. A friend of mine tells me that her house literally has a television in every room – even the bathroom. We have iPods to drown out dullness when we’re walking around campus, and we usually read or talk to friends while we eat. TV commercials have reached a five-second run time and USA Today no longer prints stories that are long enough to jump to another page because readers might get bored and never finish the story.

With a new distraction around every corner, I am not surprised that ADD diagnoses rose among school-age children by three percent per year between 1997-2006, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Something in us always wants something more exciting than what is in front of us.

The downsides of this mentality? First of all, we waste our money funding our distractions, and we waste our time planning for future distractions simply to avoid existing without something colorful or interesting around. Second, we lose when we forget the moment we are in right now. I have read the words of Eastern mystics who claimed the present is the only thing that exists. After turning over the idea, I decided this was true. Yes, the future will come, but the future only exists when it becomes the now – when we are living it.

When we spend all our time fantasizing about the future or wringing our hands over what could happen, we miss out. The same idea goes for the past. The cliché holds true – don’t cry over spilled milk. If you spent all last weekend procrastinating instead of studying, then stressing out about it won’t help. Just do the best you can right now.

On a side note, I don’t think the Eastern philosophers meant that you can’t plan ahead. As we all know, a degree-seeking Truman student probably couldn’t emerge from college unscathed without planning ahead. But agonizing over what you cannot control is anything but productive.

Although I will probably never be rid of my inattentiveness, I have learned that practicing mindfulness – living in the present – helps me immensely. Mindfulness slowly tames the mind to ignore the mental clutter, but Lord knows I haven’t mastered it – mindfulness is about as easy as capturing jelly in a net. We have hardwired our minds to sniff out the most interesting objects around, so change takes some time. But I have discovered that when I consciously focus my attention on what I am doing right now, the present becomes a lot more interesting. My mind stops trying to plan out my next ten minutes or ten years, and I can relax and enjoy myself.

Anyone who has tried to pay attention in a boring class knows that mindfulness is pretty difficult. But from what I have experienced, simple practice eventually pacifies the wild beast. The more I think about mindfulness, the more frequently I remember to be here. When your mind simply cannot come down from the clouds, try breathing. As someone once told me, breathing connects the body and the mind. That sense of physical stability will focus your mind and bring you back. Meditation clears and sharpens my mind-without it, I would never have survived school sans Adderall.

Buddhist Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a book called “The Miracle of Mindfulness.” I distinctly remember one passage in which Hanh explains that even when we undertake tedious tasks, like doing the dishes, the mindful individual doesn’t do the dishes simply to make them clean. Rather, he or she does the dishes for the sake of doing the dishes. Hanh writes, “While washing the dishes, you might be thinking about the tea afterwards, and so try to get them out of the way as quickly as possible in order to sit and drink tea. But that means you are incapable of living during the time you are washing the dishes. When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. … Each act is a rite, a ceremony.”

Those dishes are sort of fun to wash when you are living every moment, and the tea afterward tastes quite robust when you savor every taste.

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Let go of a teardrop…gain the entire ocean

If you want something, let it go. Then, you will uncover what you were looking for in the first place.

Today I used a meditation technique to improve my concentration. My attention span typically lasts only a few- look-a-bird! -moments, and my new short-term goal is to develop focus. Here’s the technique I used: I counted each breath, flowing in and out, for ten breaths. And if any distracting thoughts invaded the arena of my focus, I started over.

This was, of course, notoriously difficult. I started over repeatedly and repeatedly. Sometimes I couldn’t even count to two breaths. With a steely determination, I continued…one (in, out), two (in, out)…and as I tried harder, a voice of authority started overseeing the meditation, “fixing” my improper technique.

You shouldn’t try so hard. You should stay in the present. You should observe yourself more. You’re sliding. You’re sliding…

Eventually, this voice became another distraction, and I re-started my counting sooner each time.

Then, I gave up. My mind isn’t used to focusing for this long, I thought. I need a break. And the moment I stopped trying, I was there. My mind was crystal clear, and I counted my ten breaths with ease. Surprised, I stopped and checked myself, and counted ten more breaths without a glitch.

As soon as I started trying again, the same voices and clutter and limitations emerged. Whenever I honestly gave up, I stayed in the present without a problem.

The object of meditation is to let go of the meditator-the part of you trying to do the meditation right. This effort is the voice of your ego (the part of you that needs, wants, desires, and hurts). But when you clear away this ego-clutter of wanting and striving, you are free. And when you are free, you achieve the fulfillment you sought in the first place. You find happiness and peace, by letting go of the need for happiness and peace.

I believe that when we trust ourselves completely instead of obsessively controlling our actions, we will naturally do right. As I wrote in my last entry, love is our very core once we strip away the rest.

Try it right now, as an experiment. Take a breath, and notice how you’re feeling. Don’t try to achieve anything. Just sit…notice that if you try to achieve anything with this exercise, it won’t work. If you’re just sitting, with no underlying intentions, you will feel peace.

What won’t work is controlling your desires- whether you want comfort, possessions, or validation. Let it be. Don’t tell yourself you’re letting go of your desire to stop craving when REALLY you’re just doing it so you can get rid of the craving, because you want to stop hurting. Letting go must be honest, and if it’s not, desire still controls you. Relax- we’re human. It’s natural. (By writing this, I do not imply that I am at some expert stage of “letting go.” It’s not easy for me at all, but it truly works.)

When you stop fearing the loss of what you want, then nothing can hurt you.

Great meditation instruction website here.