Mindfulness - the end of suffering?
The ancient Hindu and Buddhist practice, Mindfulness, which has been widely adapted for contemporary Western use, was originally designed to show us how we get caught up in and can let go of suffering. That is, suffering we cause ourselves through our own thoughts and feelings.
“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” Zen proverb
Mindfulness is both a style of meditation and an approach to life, and as such we can practice it formally in seated meditation and informally as we go about our daily activities. (Making or drinking a cup of tea mindfully, eating mindfully, driving mindfully, walking mindfully, cleaning teeth mindfully etc)
Mindfulness essentially means paying attention on purpose (intention), to whatever is happening (attention) with an open and accepting awareness (attitude).
The three core elements of mindfulness are intention, attention and attitude. These are equally important to the practice of mindfulness.
Intention sits behind everything we do, whether we are conscious of it or not. Being clear about our intention helps to focus the mind on what we want to achieve. What do we want to come back to or cultivate within ourselves?
Attention is about being conscious of where we place our attention, understanding that whatever we give our attention to we energise. Mindfulness practice involves keeping our attention in a state of monitoring (rather than focusing in on one thing), aware of whatever is happening internally and externally, moment by moment.
Attitude involves cultivating an open, receptive and accepting attitude towards our experience. We are willing to see what’s there and not judge it. Having a kind, non-judging and compassionate attitude towards our own experience helps us to open to and accept reality as it is, warts and all, which frees us from the suffering caused by our own mind and allows us to respond to life from a place of calm and clarity.
This takes practice to create new ways of perceiving and engaging with our experience as it is not how we are conditioned to be.
Mindfulness means being less distracted and being more present. While mindfulness involves keeping our mind present with whatever the body is engaged in, attending to our felt perception and gently bringing our attention back whenever our mind becomes lost in thought, it is not about stopping thoughts or suppressing emotions that arise with them but experiencing thoughts and emotions (sounds, sensations, whatever is there) more fully.
In other words, thinking itself is not a problem, it’s when we get caught up in and identified with thinking that it can become a problem.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our power to choose our response, and in our response lies growth and freedom. In between moments that something happens, and our brain reacts, there’s a space where a snap judgment – a decision is made – usually beneath our awareness.” Victor Fankl
The increased awareness we gain through being mindful shows us how we get caught up suffering and where we are hostage to our thoughts, emotions, habits and impulses. We become more aware of our snap reactions, judgements and decisions and are more able to let them go and let be, giving us more choice in how we respond to what happens.
Mindfulness is about accepting reality as it is - as it ACTUALLY is, and experiencing this at the root level of sensation, without the prejudice or influence of thought. We are not trying to change ourselves or our experience we are okay with what is. We learn to accept our experience whatever it is (sounds, thoughts, emotions, sensations, perceptions, itches, urges, pain …) and disentangle from any reaction to it, any resistance, aversion, fear, frustration, anger, any need to change or fix our experience.
“What you resist not only persists, it gets bigger.“ Carl Jung
We suffer when we demand that our experience is consistent with our expectations. Like thinking, having expectations is not the problem, it’s holding on to our expectations (especially when they are different to what is happening), our preconceived ideas and our resistance that causes suffering, distress, frustration, anger etc.
“Stress is caused by being here but wanting to be there.” Eckhart Tolle
Accepting reality doesn’t change what happens, but it does make it a lot easier to deal with what happens.
"You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf." Jon Kabat-Zinn
Remember, you are not your thoughts, emotions, sensations or perceptions, you only experience thoughts, emotions, sensations, perceptions. These are temporary, you are much more than these.