By Melissa O’Shea- Yoga Alliance Australia RYT 500 hour Gold Designation
There is nothing new about mindfulness: 2500 years ago Buddha taught people how to meditate sitting, lying, standing and walking, and then how to bring this focused attention to the rest of life. Mindfulness has become the preferred modern term thanks to the popularity of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. Some people prefer the term mindfulness as they believe it to be connected to clear physical and psychological benefits while distancing itself from the religious and spiritual aspects of meditation. Enlightenment and Nirvana aside, whether we call it mindfulness or meditation, the goal of sitting meditation is to get up and live mindfully.
Mindfulness is simple. It is doing one thing at a time with focused attention. It could be as simple as eating breakfast slowly, tasting every bite. It could be walking the dog, feeling every step beneath your feet, inhaling the scents of nature (be selective with this one). It could be showering, or gardening, or even washing dishes, stopping the car at a stoplight and taking three deep breaths. Mindfulness is the antithesis of multi-tasking: it is not texting while driving, walking while eating, or cleaning the kitchen, supervising homework and clocking up kms on the pedometer while you talk on the phone. Which begs the question, who has time for mindfulness, let alone meditation?
Apparently, about 300 people do on a Friday night in suburban Perth. Dhammaloka Buddhist Centre features a 3 metre tall golden Buddha and a monk in brown robes: Ajahn Brahn. Recently back from retreat and in full humorous form, Ajahn Brahn leads a 30 minute meditation followed by a 45 minute talk. Referring to the recent Time Magazine cover article, ‘The Mindful Revolution’ Brahn says, “If you want to know about mindfulness, you’ve come to the source.”. The audience laugh but then sit at attention as Ajahn Brahn explains what is missing from mindfulness as taught by psychologists and corporate gurus, and the term he would like to replace it with.
Meditation in western culture began as a spiritual practice but popular culture has now unhooked it from religious tradition and embraced as a way to reduce stress, promote health and sharpen the mind. Happiness is often touted as one of the outcomes of mindfulness/meditation. “Living in the moment” and “Be here now” is a prescription for how to live well. But what happens when the moment doesn’t feel particularly liveable? When we’re in pain physically or emotionally, or someone else is? When we have too much to do, our job is boring or underpaid or we work for the boss from hell? This is where compassion, or as Ajahn Brahn suggests, “kindfulness” comes in. Through compassion for our self and others we can infuse any moment with kindness, making the tough times more bearable and the pleasures more exquisite.
There is a story in the Buddhist tradition about a monk who went on retreat in a cave for 7 years. Upon finishing his retreat and heading to town for sustenance the monk tripped over a dog, kicked the dog and swore. Making meditation a separate pursuit is a good way to practice and hone the skill, but without compassion for yourself and those around you it can become just one more thing to do in your busy schedule, one more pressure to feel stressed about. What good is seven years (or ten days, or an hour, or even 20 minutes) of meditation if you yell at your kids or your partner when you emerge?
Practicing compassion can in itself be a form of mindfulness. Be kindful when your child tracks dirt onto the newly vacuumed carpet and gently help him to clean it up. Wait kindfully when you are stuck in traffic, focusing on some music or the blue of the sky. Listen kindfully to your colleague’s account of her latest illness. You could even kindfully take out the rubbish or scrub the toilet or make the coffee (especially when it’s not your turn).
With practice and a little effort, living mindfully and kindly can become a regular part of your day. At first, think of it like tea breaks or bathroom breaks, something you will do every few hours. Over time you will find favorite mindful activities, and you can experiment with more challenging situations (lunch with a prospective client, reading The Cat in the Hat to your child for the 40th time). Mindfulness with kindness is the whole package: it can promote good health, reduce stress, and make you a happier person, all at the same time. Through kindness you might even find yourself improving someone else’s life and, with each small act, potentially changing the world. How’s that for multi-tasking?