“You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf” – What Mindfulness means to me

As a Mindfulness teacher I am often asked to explain what Mindfulness is. And that is not easy to do because its one of those things you need to experience for yourself in order to make sense of it. Because what is is for me might not be what it is for you. That is not particularly helpful though is it? So here goes with what Mindfulness means to me and I hope that it is helpful.

Mindfulness asks us to be present with our moment by moment experience. Because in essence that is how we actually experience this business of living. Or how we have the potential to experience it. In reality we miss quite a lot of life because of our tendency to live in our heads. The mind endlessly produces thoughts about things that have happened and makes up stories about things that might happen, and that is just what minds do. And there are very many real and useful functions provided by these amazing minds of ours that we wouldn't want to be without. My own experience though, and that of many of my clients, is that we can be at the mercy or our minds. Endlessly pulled about by thoughts, which trigger emotions, leading to more thoughts and often to behaviors which quite frankly do not always serve us well. And to be honest a lot of that still goes on for me but my mindfulness practice enables me increasingly to be able to step back from my thoughts and feelings and observe them. And this awareness enables me to break out of the thought/feeling/behavior cycle. To see and do things differently.

For me this is best understood though renowned Mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn's waterfall metaphor: "Another way to look at meditation itself is to view thinking itself as a waterfall,a cascading of thought. In cultivating mindfulness, we are going beyond or behind our thinking, much the way you might find a vantage point in a cave or depression behind a waterfall. We will see and hear the water, but we are out of the torrent." It has been through developing this capacity to observe my own thoughts and feelings that I have come to understand that thoughts are not facts, they are mental events arising in my mind and I can choose whether to engage with them or not. The same principle applies to feelings as these, like the weather, are ever-changing.

What I love most about Mindfulness though is its 'heartfulness'. By this I mean the fact that it is infused with kindness. Or it should be. Without the compassion to self it could be brutal. A cold acceptance of how things are, or worse another opportunity to give ourselves a hard time about out perceived failings. Common to all good guided Mindfulness Meditation practices are regular and kindly reminders that the mind will wander during meditation, that distractions will come: as thoughts; feelings; noises or bodily sensations. And that when this happens are task is to become aware that is has happened and to gently, and without judgement guide our awareness to where we had intended it to be. Over time, and in our own meditation practices we can come to develop this kindly attitude towards ourselves.

One of the best things about taking part in an 8-week Mindfulness Course, or attending a regular meditation class, is that we get to realise that everyone struggles during meditation. That everyone's mind wanders, or races about! That everyone gets distracted and experiences boredom and frustration or finds it hard to sit with difficult feelings or thoughts, or with discomfort and pain in the physical body. And with that knowledge we are able to let ourselves off the hook a little, to ease up on the self-criticism and to move towards accepting our experience in meditation to being just as it is. And if we can practice that self-acceptance and acceptance of how things are in our mediation practices then we can begin to extend that kindly acceptance to all aspects of our selves and indeed to others.

Mindfulness is about training our awareness so we can be fully present with our experience just as it is. And with that comes an acceptance of how things are, and that acceptance is an act of kindness towards ourselves. I, like many people, came to Meditation wanting to get rid of stress and anxiety and other difficult thoughts and feelings. I wanted to find stillness and peace. But Mindfulness isn't about getting rid of difficult thoughts and feelings. Being present with our moment by moment experience involves asking ourselves the question; "Can I be with my experience exactly as it is?". This is a big question. Being with your experience exactly as it is will mean sitting with difficult thoughts and emotions and behaviors. This has been massive for me. Having spent most of my life trying to avoid feeling painful feelings for fear that they would overwhelm me, Mindfulness asks me not only to acknowledge the existence of those feelings but also to turn towards them.

And that is where another Kabat-Zinn quote, "you can't stop the waves but you can learn to surf", has real meaning for me. Some days I am standing on the surf board, some days I am under the waves trying to find my way back to the surf board and some days I am hanging onto the board for dear life and that is OK.


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