Day One: What is Mindfulness?

The Power of Observation

If I’ve learned anything from years of mindfully observing my inner experience and coaching others to do the same, it’s this: you can’t change a thought or feeling the same way you change a flat tire. You can’t replace an unwanted emotion with a more desired one. If this were true, no negative feeling would last longer than a few seconds, because you would undoubtedly swap pain for pleasure.

Some things just can’t be voluntarily changed. A good example is trying to force yourself to fall sleep. It doesn’t work—never has, never will. Try it and you’ll find yourself more awake than you were when you first laid down. The same is true for what you think and feel. If you’ve been trying to change how you experience certain thoughts or feelings, my advice is stop!

You were likely brought up to believe that problems can and should be fixed with hard work and perseverance. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for regulating your mind and emotions. If nothing else, methods that rely on self-control only make things worse, because when it doesn’t work, the mind tends to spin debasing stories about you—the one who can’t control herself—and that yields even more negative thoughts and feelings. The real problem isn’t you not trying hard enough. My guess is you’ve been trying too hard. Inner peace isn’t earned through willpower. Instead, it’s discovered simply by observing your inner experience because observation has the power to bring the change you’ve been looking for all along.

Imagine you’re at the mall, sitting at a table in the food court. Suddenly, you see the most attractive person you’ve ever seen walking on the other side of the building, and you begin voyeuristically watching from afar. Then unexpectedly, the person looks directly at you and catches you spying. What would you do? Chances are you would look away, or if you’re braver than I am, you would smile or make a flirty gesture. This is a simple, real-life way of showing how you change what you’re doing when you know you’re being observed.

Now imagine you’re at the gym. You’re doing crunches. Your abs are on fire. Your entire core is shaking and you can’t do any more. You want to stop and rest, but just as you are about to give up, you notice that same attractive person watching you. What would you do? My guess is you would suddenly be filled with energy, at least enough to pound out five more crunches. Again, observation brings change.

Now, let’s say you’re driving and your favorite song comes on the radio. You start singing along and really get into it. Before you know it, you’re singing and dancing like no one is watching. Only when you pull up to the next red light, you realize you are being watched by you know who—that same gorgeous person. What would you do then? Chances are you would stop singing, blush, fix your gaze firmly on the instrument panel, and pray for the light to change faster. On the other hand, you could begin serenading him or her. The funny thing is, if you did, the person of your dreams would likely look away once too much attention was given. In this case, observation would change what you were doing as well as what the other person was doing.

The idea that observation brings change should be obvious to anyone who has children. Little ones behave completely differently when they’re being watched versus when they’re not. When children aren’t being supervised, they’re more likely to act out. Thoughts and emotions are exactly the same: they are less likely to misbehave if regularly checked in on.

This approach may seem foreign, but it’s great if you desire to change the way you think and feel, and have struggled to do so. The good news is you can stop struggling and do less than you’ve ever done. After all, doing more hasn’t worked. Chances are, everything you’ve ever done to not feel anxious has led you to feel more anxious. Likewise, everything you’ve ever done to cope with depression has caused you to feel more depressed. My advice is to stop trying to force change. Instead, simply bring mindful awareness to what’s happening in the moment, and allow change to unfold on its own.

What Is Mindfulness?

Being present and accepting sounds great. Maybe you’re asking, “How do I do that?” The good news is that’s precisely what this training is intended to pass on. In fact, this how we can define mindfulness. Mindfulness is observing and accepting what is happening right now regardless of what it is.

Mindfulness is a hot topic these days. Chances are you are reading this because you’ve heard something in the past about how the present is the place to be (as if you could ever be anywhere else). Many people seem to think that being in the moment requires attending the right retreat, doing the right meditation, finding the right teacher, wearing the right clothes, or reading the right book. In an attempt to monetize the moment, people have marketed mindfulness into something that it’s not, something much more complicated than it needs to be.

To be mindful, all you have to do is connect with your senses. This includes your five senses that tell you what is happening in your external environment: what you hear, see, smell, taste, and touch. It also includes your “felt sense” that tells you what is happening in your internal environment—your inner sensations. It also includes your “mind’s eye”—the ability to consciously observe your thoughts. The only way to connect with the moment is through these senses because your senses are your body’s way of telling you what is taking place right now. After all, you’ve never smelled anything in the past. You can think about something you smelled before, but that doesn’t mean you smell it now. Think about the smell of a rose. You might have an idea of what that smells like, but that’s all it is, just an idea. Notice you don’t really smell it. There is only a thought about a smell, and there’s a big difference between thinking about something and actually experiencing it.

            The moment is always happening. In fact, that’s all there ever is—this present moment. Everything continually unfolds before us and within us in one timeless, cohesive, perfect movement that we call “now”. Nothing in reality is actually separate and everything is exactly as it should be. That is, until the human mind enters the picture and does the one thing it does best: it adds to the moment. What does it add? It adds thoughts of all kinds—labels, judgments, analyses, descriptions, concepts, and stories. And as it adds to the moment, it tends to pull the person’s awareness away from what is happening in her internal and external environment, and pulls her awareness into thoughts about what is taking place in her environment. My hope is that through this training you will come to experience life as it really is in the here and now rather than connecting with life through your thoughts about it. Put another way, let’s spend less time thinking about the present, and more time experiencing it directly.

Mindfulness also requires a sense of curiosity and adventure. You must be willing to look at things as if you’re seeing them for the first time—like an inquisitive child. Your mind must be open to the possibility that there is another way to be and that anything is possible. And this willingness to be open to new things is good. It leads to a sense of adventure that can carry you to new places that ironically are the only place you’ve ever been—right here, right now.

Exercise for Day One: Mindful Hand Exercise

Today’s experiential exercise is called the mindful hand exercise. It’s a great way to begin engaging with your senses and thus connecting with your direct experience. To begin, click play on the video below.