by Mitch Meyerson and Laurie Ashner
In Beach Music, Pat Conroy's semi-autobiographical best-seller, the main character sits among the splendor of Venice, anxious and unable to relax. "I do not know why it is that I have always been happier thinking of somewhere I have been or wanted to go, than where I am at the time. I find it difficult to be happy in the present."
It's easy to relate. On a beach for a week, or even with four unscheduled hours at home, many of us can't enjoy it. There's a panicky, sinking feeling of, "I should be doing more. I should be doing something else. I shouldn't have done that." If you identify, you aren't alone.
Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., in Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, writes: "If you could train your mind to let go of other desires, returning to them when the actual moment has come to do the bills and make the phone call, you would be able to experience peace of mind. The road to peace of mind is through a practice called mindfulness."
A recent seminar on "mindfulness" was packed, with a waiting list. The participants were there to learn to be stop worrying about what might have been or what could be. They wanted to be here now, totally in the present. An hour into the program, the seminar leader passed out oranges. "Look at the orange. See the colors. Feel and taste the orange. Concentrate." Staring into this orange for ten minutes, half the room was thinking, "How much longer until we break for lunch? I feel so stupid doing this." Or even, "How is this going to help me make more money?"
"I feel like if I don't keep pushing, pushing, pushing, it'll all fall apart," a thirty-four year old man told us.
"A twenty-seven year old woman confided, "Sure I worry about the future too much. I don't want to set myself up for disappointment, I want to be on top of problems. Trouble is, lately I think I'm trading hours of worry to avoid a lot of stuff that never occurs."
There's an illusion if we keep trying to figure it out, worry about it, obsess about it, we'll reach the answer quicker. That if we learn to do three things at once, we'll ultimately achieve more. Very often, the opposite is true. Creativity is rooted in an ability to focus. Achievement is enhanced through focus and clarity of mind.
The ability to focus on, or be mindful, of the present is what mindfulness is all about. Mindfulness is a concept that is centuries old. It's been brought to the fore by the New Age movement, based mostly in Buddhism, which is filtering into the mainstream of this country.
Mindfulness promises such benefits of increased satisfaction, reduced stress, increased ability to focus, greater capacity for intimacy, more emotional stability.
What can one do to become more mindful? Realize, first, that although our minds are capable of darting around from one thing to another, the mind can really only hold one thing in full focus at a time. Trying to do several things simultaneously wastes time, creates stress and ultimately makes you feel less alive and vital.
Choose one activity to be more mindful about. It can be something as routine as shaving, or taking a shower. It can be taking a walk or making love. When you do the activity, immerse yourself in it fully. If your mind wanders, expect this. Be observant about where it wanders to. With a non judgmental attitude gently guide it back to the present experience. Breathe deeply and enjoy the moment. See how good it feels.
As renowned Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn says, "While washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance that may seem a little silly: why put some much stress on a simple thing? But that's precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I'm being completely myself, following my breath and conscious of my presence and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There's no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves."
If you find it hard to stay present focused, you may ask yourself: Is there something I'm running from? Is there something ahead I need to deal with?
Do you feel you'll lose something if you decide that you can only be here, in this moment, and no where else? You might want to decide to deal with those issues squarely, for once and for all, and finally let them go. As someone once said, "It may be better to lose our minds and come to our senses."
Mitch Meyerson and Laurie Ashner
Laurie Ashner has authored numerous books. Among the newest, she has co-authored with Alan Altman, M.D., Making Love The Way We Used To: The Secrets of Midlife Sexuality