Practicing Mindfulness, Imperfectly
I was recently listening to an interview on NPR’s Life Kit podcast with author Oliver Burkeman, whose book titled, 4,000 weeks: Time Management for Mortals, discusses the limited time we have on this earth (hence, the title) and asks us to consider how we might live our lives if we only had one remaining week.
In addition to this somewhat terrifying question, he suggested several others to help us contemplate our current approach to our available time. For example, “In which areas of my life am I holding back until I feel like I know what I’m doing?” The one that has gotten stuck in my mind is “In what ways do I have yet to accept I am who I am, rather than who I want to be, or feel I ought to be?”
The concept of “generative acceptance” comes to mind. Suggested by the authors of Stanford’s “Designing Your Life” course and books, this type of acceptance allows us to recognize where we are, the surrounding circumstances and challenges, and find a direction to take when we move forward from this exact position, rather than where we wish we were.
Many of us struggle with this kind of acceptance for any number of reasons, including a fear that it may lead to complacency or lack of motivation. We then find ourselves in the bind of wanting to make a change, but unable to accept the starting point. Simultaneously holding in our minds both acceptance of what exists, and a desire for change, is challenging. However, it can also be healing, as evidenced by its role in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), a type of therapy for patients with chronic mood instability and suicidality. In addition to moving past shame by accepting their previous survival methods, this therapy also helps them build a future with strength and meaning, rather than uncertainty.
Mindfulness is another technique utilized in DBT. When attempting to practice mindfulness, defined by the authors of Becoming Mindful as “Sustained present moment awareness,” acceptance is an important feature. We are asked to accept that the present moment exists “as is,” at the same time as we know things are in constant motion. Acceptance is not a static, passive experience, but rather a dynamic, active effort to see what is happening now, not what was, or what may possibly be.
Often we hear about mindfulness in combination with meditation, creating a “practice” of brief pauses in our hectic day to look inward, notice our breath, perhaps with the help of a meditation app on our phone. However, mindfulness can be used even as we go about our daily tasks, as long as we are able to direct our attention to our own moment-by-moment experience (i.e. not when we are trying to wrangle our children into matching socks before school.)
One way I recommend my patients try to explore mindfulness is through their senses. It can be very difficult to block out thoughts in favor of simply noticing our breath, but it may be slightly easier to refocus our attention on our sensory experience. For an imperfect example, here is a rough summary of my attempt to be mindful earlier today:
“Ok, I am going to try being mindful. Let’s do this. Am I doing it? Do I need to change the laundry? Wait, nope, here we go, brain. I’m going to let that thought move along. What am I experiencing? Ok, let’s see. I feel the soft cushion of my office chair. I smell my desk candle, mingled with a hint of peanut butter after this morning’s breakfast. I love peanut butter. Is it good for me, though? Should I be buying that natural kind that you have to refrigerate? Ok, now I’m letting these thoughts about peanut butter move past without judgement. What am I seeing? Legos…everywhere are Legos. Should I pick them up? Or maybe make the kids do it? Wait, now I’m thinking about the future. Let’s reconnect with now. What am I hearing? Angry squirrels, chirping at each other. Probably mad that I used fake pumpkins this year. Ha ha. So there, squirrels. Wait, taunting squirrels is definitely not mindful. Let me try again. Or maybe that’s enough for now. I think I want another cup of coffee.”
I hope you enjoyed this little window into my mind as I attempted “informal mindfulness,” rather than a scheduled, orderly meditation practice. Not the easiest thing, living in and fully experiencing the present. But I believe in the power of this kind of thought work, both to help with anxiety, but also to boost our appreciation for this current moment in time, savoring the sensory experiences that we enjoy, and accepting what is. I strongly encourage you to give it a try today.