It’s funny that one would need reminding to be where they are, right? How could one do anything other than “be where they are”? In fact, when people demand too much of us, we often say, “I can’t be in two places at once!” But ironically, we are rarely actually “where we are,” at least mentally speaking. We live our mental lives in the past or the future, in the to-do list or the frustration at a friend, in the what-if and the someday-I’ll…Can you even remember the last time you were fully in the moment?
Having a mental illness only makes us less likely to be in the moment. I recently underwent two brain scans at a place called the Amen Clinic (not the religious “amen, hallelujah!” but someone’s last name, pronounced like a hick saying, “I’m aimin’ fer that there buck over yonder!”). My brain activity showed five different areas where the function/blood flow is off kilter. This is why friends, family, and doctors always eventually call me “complex” (which I think is sort of like calling a girl “big boned”…it’s certainly not a compliment, but at least the person is trying not to say what they’re thinking: “Damn, Tim, you’re so annoying!” or “She’s fat). All this is to say that, when your brain tends to torture you in some way, being in the moment is the last thing you really want to do. Thanks to my OCD, I’ve spent roughly 98.43256% of my life very much outside of the moment, usually trying to solve some unsolvable “what if” question.
Enter mindfulness, which is the practice of being “in the moment without judgment.” I’ve been “practicing” mindful meditation for the past couple of months – by which I simply mean forcing myself to sit down for 10-20 minutes once or twice a day to “meditate” on what I’m thinking and feeling at that moment…forcing myself to live in the moment for at least 10-20 minutes each day. Last Sunday, I decided to give the nearby Buddhist temple a try last Sunday for a “compassion meditation” session. It was awesome. I highly recommend it! The monk who spoke looked like a younger version of the Dalai Lama, and I swear he must’ve done Yoda’s voice in the Star Wars movies. But what was really helpful was that he addressed the topic of meditation in such a practical way. He said that meditation is nothing more than training your mind to do what it’s not very good at doing – just like you train your body to do new things like swing a golf club or run a marathon. During the actual “compassion meditation,” we brought to mind a variety of people, from loved ones all the way to enemies and even “all sentient beings.” The purpose was simply to practice feeling compassion rather than anger, jealousy, or frustration, which, as he said, we’re very skilled at…no practice needed at feeling jealous! Most of us are pros at that from about age 7.
Having never done a compassion meditation before, I didn’t really expect much in the way of change, certainly not after one 20 minute session. But oddly enough, it was like it became a “mini-habit” for about 4 hours. Without even trying, I found my mind drifting toward compassionate thoughts toward anyone in my path. (This wore off around 4:15 when the Falcons blew yet another game in a comically pathetic way, and I started thinking truly terrible things about the players, coaches, and even the actual birds (falcons) themselves! I mean, I wanted to hunt down a falcon, or Mike Smith, and really let them have it.) I didn’t do either, but the compassionate feelings were gone for the day. Oh well! They made me feel uncomfortable anyway. I mean, I sort of like my anger and jealousy and petty irritations. Thankfully, having only been out of practice for a few hours, anger, jealousy, and general irritation came back just like riding a bicycle. Phew!
Man oh man, do I get off the subject! Anyway, what I was trying to get at before talking about Yoda and the Falcons is that my recent practice of mindfulness is actually lasting for more than a few hours. After a couple of weeks of forcing myself to sit down for 10-20 minutes (1-2 sessions) a day, something clicked and my brain started to remind me to “be in the moment” on its own. The “non-judging” part is actually the harder part because I’m so used to evaluating how I feel internally every single moment of my life thanks to usually feeling anxious or depressed and trying to figure out how I could feel better NOW. But not judging the moment means that it doesn’t have to be a perfect moment for you to embrace it and be in it. How many moments are really perfect anyway? Over the course of a lifetime, I’d venture to guess that the “perfect” moments can be counted on your fingers and toes (unless you’ve had some of them chopped off, in which case I’m sorry for this reference). Most (all?) moments are broken in ways big and/or small. The practice of mindfulness meditation isn’t to teach you how to “transcend the moment” in some mystical way. Just the opposite, actually: It’s training to be exactly where you are, even if you’d rather be somewhere else.
One of the phrases that a lot of the mindfulness meditation guides use is, see if you can “make space” for X, Y, or Z, even if X, Y, or Z aren’t what you want to be feeling or thinking. For me, the aha moment came a few weeks ago when I was feeling the tidal wave of depression starting to drown me yet again one morning. I wasn’t trying to do anything other than what I had been doing, which was sinking into the hole of “why me?” or “the world is such a shitty place?” But like any new physical muscle memory that finally clicks, the mindful approach suddenly clicked for me. My brain responded to the depression differently. I didn’t try to wriggle out of it this time; I just said, “Ok, I feel depressed. I wonder if I can make space for it today. Let’s examine what depression feels like in my body with an attitude of curiosity and non-judgment. Just examine it and allow it to be present. It’s what this moment has to offer. Sure it’s a sign that something’s broken, but I only get to live this broken moment one time. Might as well sink my teeth into it.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if I could tell you that my problems were solved and I haven’t felt depressed or anxious since then? Quite the contrary; I’ve felt both of them a lot. But something’s definitely different inside of me in my response to the negative feelings. Their power to ruin my broken moments of life are waning. Not gone, mind you, but waning for sure. I’m under absolutely no illusion that my brain will quit being a mess, but since this mess of a brain/day/life is the only one I’ll ever have, I should probably quit wishing moments away and just accept them as the hand I’ve been dealt.
If you’re thinking you should give this mindfulness meditation a try, I definitely recommend it. But here’s the thing: you have to actually PRACTICE it, as in sit down and do it even if you don’t want to. I have known of the concepts of mindfulness for years, but I’ve never taken the time to do the exercise itself. At first, it feels like a waste of time, honestly. But remember the last time you learned a new sport, and think how much effort it took for quite a while. If you’re into golf (or rampant sex with virtually anyone), Tiger Woods makes a good example: He’s changed his swing a few times, and every time he does it, it takes him between one and two YEARS before he becomes the old Tiger who once again dominates (he actually just hired yet another new swing coach because it’s been more than one or two years without returning to the old Tiger this time). This is the guy who’s by far the best golfer in the world over the past 20 years, but it takes him MORE THAN A FULL YEAR before imperceptible changes to his golf swing become engrained enough that the ball goes where he wants it to.
Or watch a child learn to write. My kids are both in various stages of learning that skill. My 4-year-old son’s letters are often backwards and usually hard to decipher. So were my 7-year-old daughter’s a few years ago, but now her handwriting is far better than mine (though admittedly, mine sucks). It’s a cool thing to watch someone learn something new, but it can be very hard to be the one learning.
So, if you’re up for it, challenge yourself to practice mindful meditation for a full month, at least 10 minutes per day. If nothing’s changed for you, I’ll happily refund your time at no additional charge.
But really, whatever you do, try to be more “in the (broken) moment.”
PS. As I’ve been doing lately, I’d like to encourage you to think of someone who might need a hug or a pat on the back or to read this post and reach out to them. The purpose of this blog is for you to know you’re not alone in your struggles. If this has done that for you, please share the love and let someone who might be suffering in any way, shape, or form know that they are not alone. How you express it doesn’t really matter…just do it. (Sorry, Nike!)
And one final plea for your help: If you find this blog helpful, you’d be doing me a big favor if you’d “follow” it by entering your email address on the home page rather than relying on Facebook or Twitter to get these updates. I’m trying to develop this blog into something that broadens beyond my immediate circle of friends, and the more people who follow the blog, the more likely that is to happen via search engines, etc. You’ll get an email when I post…otherwise, nothing will change. And I certainly won’t ever do anything with your email like sell it to cats.com so you can get cute cat quotes and pix (though, who wouldn’t want that?!). But really, it would help me out if you’re so inclined. Thanks!