Over the last few years, with the stress of COVID, online school, working from home, and the typical everyday difficulties of family life, my family and I have tried to be more intentional about spending time together meditating. This has been an imperfect endeavor at best. Yet, it seems that maybe something even better than we originally intended may have manifested from our haphazard attempts to get ourselves and our kids to unplug, settle down, center in, and manage stress.
Mind Full or Mindful?
Now, the mental and emotional benefits of meditation are well documented these days and are certainly being professed on a podcast, website, or TED Talk near to you. Meditation can be a helpful tool in managing stress, calming our overactive brains, and improving overall well-being. Not only that, but meditation is even kind of hip these days. I’m a big fan of meditation’s move from awkward sideshow obscurity to wellness culture headliner, as long as the overall purpose of the meditation we engage in is meant to increase our ability to live our lives, moment by moment, more present and down-to-earth. Meditation isn’t about proving that we’re more deep, conscientious, or mysterious than anyone else. It’s about increasing our ability to be mindful as opposed to always walking around with a mind full of worries, distractions, judgments, expectations, and endless noise.
Mindfulness is the daily state of being we are training for during activities like meditation. Even more than managing stress, thought control, or feeling better, mindfulness is the overarching goal for a practice of meditation. Mindfulness is a word most people have heard but typically gets relegated to the experience of hippies and monks. When I ask folks about mindfulness they usually say something like “you mean like meditation, yeah I tried that, it doesn’t really work for me.” However, the particular thing that ‘didn’t work’ for them is often some form of ancient monasticism that has very little in common with learning to live life today with more freedom, flexibility, and fullness.
Mindfulness is a Path to Self-Awareness
My understanding of mindfulness is pretty simple: it’s the ability to pay attention, on purpose, to what is actually happening right now. I know, it’s not super fancy. Still, I find that when I’m able to maintain this level of mindfulness, simply paying attention to and participating in my life as it unfolds moment by moment, my daily experience takes on a fullness and texture that otherwise I remain completely oblivious to. Mindfulness is always more about awareness than it is about feelings. Often, the misplaced goal of ‘feeling better’ undermines the entire mindfulness project. However, if we can hang in there through the initial choppy waters of enhanced awareness of our internal experience, we eventually sail out into amazingly wide open waters. But that takes time, so if we are only interested in feeling better we will usually turn back after a few run-ins with our inner riptides and undertows. Self-awareness is the necessary prerequisite to any significant personal growth or change. Mindfulness is our deliberate intention to observe and examine our lives as we are actually living them. In other words, mindfulness is my way of catching myself in the act of “doing that thing I do.”
Once I can start to observe myself in real-time, the change I want to make is well within reach.
Unexpected Impacts of a Mindfulness Practice
I mentioned earlier that I have been trying to spend more time meditating with my family and I’ve found myself asking these questions: Is this really worth all the trouble? Is any of this even working? Do my kids even care at all? Am I just forcing them to do something that they think is stupid anyway? The answer to those questions came in a very unexpected way. We had been traveling and had just gotten settled in with all the stress and irritation that can often come from family travel. No one was being especially mean, but there was tension in the air. It was at this moment that my young daughter announced that she was going to lead us all in a guided meditation. We all looked at each other with surprise and amusement, thinking, is that so? Our doubts came from the fact that her wiggly restlessness during our family meditations had been a regular theme. Nevertheless, she settled us all down and began to lead us, nearly word for word, through a meditation we had listened to over the past few weeks. She began, “make yourself comfortable and close your eyes, take a slow deep breath and let your thoughts float away…”
After some initial shock and awe (and a bit of laughter) she took us on an inner journey to a calming beach in our very own hearts. It wasn’t really the memorization that struck me, it was her recognition that we were all missing out on the moment that she was so keenly aware of. It was her invitation to us to join her in the present moment and to participate in the beautiful uniqueness of the here and now. I think that’s what all mindfulness is, an endless invitation from life to fully participate in the one phenomenally extraordinary experience that is our life.