Reprinted with the kind permission of Toni Bernhard.
Practicing mindfulness helps you make wise choices.
Here’s the simplest way to practice mindfulness: stop whatever you’re doing and shift your attention to the physical sensation of a few breaths as they come in and go out of your body. This plants you squarely in the present moment. (The breath is a good anchor when practicing mindfulness because it’s always in the present moment.)
When you pay attention to the present moment like this, you’ll notice lots of things in your field of awareness—sights and sounds, etc. That said, for me, the most valuable thing to notice is what’s going on in my mind. To paraphrase John Milton, with our thoughts, we can make a heaven or a hell of our lives.
When I become aware of the contents of my mind, I’m able to notice when I’m about to fall under the spell of what I call want/don’t-want mind. This mental state is characterized by the delusion that I have to—really have to—get my way about almost everything. This type of desire causes me nothing but disappointment, frustration, and sometimes misery.
For this reason, I make an effort to notice when that desire has arisen in my mind. Becoming aware of it in this way makes it possible for me to make a conscious choice not to take up the desire. I think of it as “leaving it on the shelf.”
Another way to look at this is to say that mindfulness opens the possibility of choosing how you want to live. (And note: mindfulness can be practiced in or outside of meditation.) Choice becomes possible because, with practice, you can learn to be present for your experience without your habitual responses automatically kicking in—responses that are often unskillful, knee-jerk reactions that you later regret.
Those habitual responses don’t kick in because, when you're practicing mindfulness, you're no longer on autopilot. Paying attention to your present moment experience slows you down and this opens up some space in your mind. I think of it as being given breathing room. In that space, it’s easier to become aware of your autopilot tendencies and to then choose a different way to respond (whether it be in speech or in action).
For example, when an experience is pleasant, if you’re using mindfulness to keep you in the present moment, you can choose to enjoy the experience right now instead of ruining it by imposing your wants and don’t wants on it. Here’s a story that illustrates what I mean.
Many years ago my husband and I—sometimes with our kids—frequently attended concerts in a small barn that had been converted into a music venue. We saw many great singers and bands in this small intimate setting, from Taj Mahal to The Chamber Brothers to Etta James.
But, invariably, as soon as the music started, instead of sitting back, relaxing, and soaking it in, my mind would start spinning with wants and don’t wants: “I don’t want him to sing too short a set.”; “She’d better sing my favorite song of hers.”
This mental chatter kept me from truly enjoying what was going on right then in front of me. Had I tried mindfulness—consciously paying attention to the present moment —it would have taken me out of my habitual want/don’t want thinking patterns. In the space created by dropping all that mental chatter, I’d have had the opportunity to choose a different response—in this case, choosing to simply enjoy the concert I was watching instead of imposing my fruitless desires on it.
Here’s an example involving an unpleasant experience. In the winter of 2014, after a lump was found in my breast, I spent almost two months waiting for the results of one medical test after another. It was not a pleasant experience, and I spent many a moment thinking: “I want to get rid of this experience!” But of course, I couldn’t. Waiting was in the cards for me during those months. No way around it.
Finally, I began to practice mindfulness about the situation. I paid conscious attention to the physical sensation of a few in- and out-breaths. This brought me out of my stressful stories (which, of course, were centered on worst-case scenarios about the various tests). As I rested in the experience of the moment, I made a conscious choice to acknowledge without aversion: “Yup, this is one of those tough moments in life. It’s unpleasant, for sure, but I’m not going to make it worse by deluding myself into thinking I can always make things be the way I want them to be. Now let me see what this day has to offer.” This turnaround lifted a heavy burden off of me, and I immediately started feeling better emotionally.
I still get caught in the net of want/don’t want mind, but now I know the drill: stop, take a few conscious breaths, acknowledge with compassionate that I’m having a tough time, and then consciously choose not to feed this type of desire; after all, it only makes me unhappy in the end. When I do this, slowly but surely, I begin to be present for the day I’m living in right now, with its pleasant-nesses and its unpleasant-nesses.
Using mindfulness to help you choose how to live can save a lot of needless anguish. For example, instead of mindlessly calling or texting someone in an angry tone—one that you might regret later—you can stop, breath in and out a few times and step back from your habitual tendencies. In the space created by mindful attention to the present moment, you can make a wiser choice about how to respond—a choice that will lessen mental distress in yourself and others, instead of intensifying it.
I hope this practice bears fruit for you.
© 2017 Toni Bernhard.
Toni Bernhard is the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers and How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Her newest book is called How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. Before becoming ill, she was a law professor at the University of California—Davis. Her blog, “Turning Straw Into Gold” is hosted by Psychology Today online. Visit her website at www.tonibernhard.com.