When people begin practicing mindfulness they often hear things that seem contradictory. Some common phrases someone might hear are: “making the effort to practice every day,” “practice without effort or controlling anything,” “letting go,” “focus your attention,” “don’t control your breath,” “non-attachment,” and many more. A new practitioner may get confused. Am I trying to use effort and control or am I letting go and not being attached? The answer is, “Yes.” So, in reality, you can do all of the above at the same time- use effort, have some control, let go and practice non-attachment at the same time.
Using effort is absolutely necessary. Effort simply means “determined attempt.” Let’s be clear. I did not say, “Perfect attempt.” People have some messed up ideas about what mindfulness is, I know I did. Sitting down to practice the first time many of us leave the first session saying to ourselves, “I am freaking crazy. I had so many ideas. I am NEVER doing that again.” But what we find if we return again and again to the practice is that when we at least try to bring our attention to the present moment purposefully without judging ourselves we are practicing mindfulness. The problem is not that people cannot bring their awareness to the moment. The problem is that when people bring their awareness to the present moment they find something other than expected. Judgement sets in. Mindfulness is lost. This is where most people leave mindfulness saying that it is crazy, they are crazy, or simply it “just won’t work for me.” The people who persevere simply recommit in their effort. Perhaps the biggest nuts are the ones who return to sit with the millions of thoughts and feelings to see what will happen. But those who do put in the effort find more beyond those initial findings.
I am a member of at least 3 groups that are known to be control freaks- parent, teacher and recovering addict- I know control. When we approach mindfulness one thing we might find in that present moment is…..I am a control freak (among other things). Let me just reassure you- we all are. Some just hide it better than others.
We may want to control how we feel, what we look like, how other people feel, the outcome of a situation, the weather (teachers suddenly become mystical creators and forecasters of snowy weather in winter), our children, and list continues. When we sit to practice mindfulness we might feel out of control. We notice how many thoughts we have, we become aware of emotions that have been buried in work or ice cream, we see clearly the reality of our minds- and it ain’t pretty and serene. It’s alright. If we continue to practice we may come to accept even these times when things just aren’t pretty.
When we begin focusing on the breath we might find we are controlling the rate. I once had someone tell me that the breath is not a good place to start with mindfulness because we try to control our breathing. I disagree. The breath is a wonderful place to start because mindfulness is about bringing awareness to whatever is happening without judgement. When I notice that I am controlling how I am breathing I used to say, “AAAAHHHH I am controlling my breath.” Now I notice it without judging it. So what, I am controlling how slowly I am breathing.
Letting Go and Non-attachment
I very much dislike that the movie “Frozen” ruined this saying for me. Every time I think, “Let It Go” I want to break out in song. But now that we have some applied some effort and found out how controlling we are, it is time to let it go. This is the part of mindfulness that I find the most rewarding and the most difficult.
Our identities are wrapped up in what we do and feel. What are the main questions ask you daily- How are you doing? What do you do (for work)? With feelings we can feel “bad” or “good.” We don’t want to feel “bad” because in some weird way that makes us “bad.” If we lose our job or it is a stressful day then our identities suffer. But here is the secret- we are not what we think, we are not what we feel, we are not what we say, we are not what we do. All of these things arise in our minds and are expressed but none of them are our true nature. Mindfulness, in my experience, is about realize this point.
Our minds subtly convince us that we are the things we do, say, feel and think. When we can understand that “I had a thought” instead “I am that thought,” or “I am holding anger” instead of “I am anger,” or “I work at a job” rather than “I am my job” then we can create some distance. When we can bring those unconscious thoughts to our conscious awareness without judging them or ourselves then we experience non-attachment. When we are able to step back in this way then we can let go of our preconceived notions of what we “should” be thinking, the way the situation “should” be, or what someone else “should” be doing. Instead we can be aware of how something actually is, have a level of acceptance of the way is right now, and let it go with a level of compassion for ourselves, others and/or the situation at hand.