Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Some musings on mindfulness

I am absolutely no expert on mindfulness or meditation. I've never been on retreat and I might have  spent about as much time reading (and listening to podcasts) about the topic than actually meditating. (Well, that's probably not true.)

This is probably just my bias, but I think that the intellectual understanding of what mindfulness is going for is more important than actually meditating (after a point). That is, I think that using meditation all day long is the goal, not sitting on the cushion for some time (or the bench, one of which was hand-made for me). 

Not that I'm anywhere near enlightenment, but I think that to get the "point" of mindfulness meditation, you have to embrace a paradox. The first step is realizing that "thoughts think themselves." We don't have any free will, no homunculus in there making choices of what to think (or do). The "self" is, ultimately, an illusion

My thoughts come and go. I do not think my thoughts. My thoughts are not me; I am not my thoughts. 

And yet we can "choose" [sic] to program ourselves such that, at some level, we can observe our thoughts. Like someone asking, "What are you thinking about?" except that we do it ourselves. 

Observing our thoughts and realizing the thoughts are not us, we can "choose" to let negative thoughts go. We don't have to hold on to any thought (except when a Hamilton song* gets stuck in our heads), so can "choose" to drop negative thoughts and replace them with recognition of beauty and good fortune. 

Of course, this is easier said than done. I have noted that depression is an issue that can, at least sometimes, be treated with drugs. (The side effects of my current antidepressant have gotten to the point where I'm probably going to dry a different one.) I have been able to recognize depression and negative thoughts, but not be able to mindfulness my way out of it. (Kinda like trying to stay awake for days based on "willpower.") It is only after getting to a better place with the help of medication that I'm able to use mindfulness to any good effect. 

I could clearly get much better, but that is my direction.

*Not a bad song to have stuck in your head:


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing about this despite your self-proclaimed status as a non-expert. You may not be someone who has spent their entire life meditating in equanimity, but you're right where you need to be on your path. So you *are* an expert on yourself, and your experience.

You wrote "I have been able to recognize depression and negative thoughts, but not be able to mindfulness my way out of it." It's clear you're being a bit cheeky—I did chuckle—but I wanted to offer some thoughts in case they might be helpful.

First, be elated. You've realized there's more to the story of life. Second, be encouraged. You're able to recognize depressive and negative thoughts. This is also significant progress. It took many years for me to realize how much suffering is self-inflicted. It's a game changer.

But, uh, ok, so you've recognized it. Now what.

An important step on everyone's path, after developing the capacity to recognize, is to accept. This is challenging. It may take a while. While seemingly obvious, often we don't accept that things are the way that they are. The thoughts that arise in our minds do so because of the particles that make up our physical body/brain, and because of our unique personal experience. We may not like what comes out the other side sometimes—disease, decay, harmful speech/actions—but it's crucial that we intimately embrace that the things that happened, have happened. And they made us who we are. It is what it is.

There might be a seeming paradox between being told to accept things are the way they are when we in fact want to see them change, but there is not. Accepting is the baseline. We simply must accept that imperfection exists, pain, misery, all of it. It's there. Then, once we accept that this is how things *currently* are, we can begin to craft the path toward where we would like them to be. It is only through first acknowledging that you are in prison that you can begin to plot your escape.

The good news is that change is the one law of life that we can always count on. Yes, certainly, a lot of people have lost their way. But if you think about it we're all lost at one time or another. And someone or something probably helped you grow and find your way again, or you got to work and figured some things out.

I have my ebbs and flows like anyone else. I am currently in a valley. I accept my current situation, and I'm not going to try to "mindfulness" my way out of it because that's not how that works. But I am taking lots of notes, meditating and reflecting on the patterns and reactivity that brought me here, and doing my best to make more skillful choices each day. Keep doing that and you will eventually develop new patterns that reduce the frequency of depressive responses. It's not like flicking a light switch, but if you want it, you can do it.

Amidst it all, offer gratitude for all that has brought you to this moment. Because even if skies are grey today, or if they have been grey for a long time, you know there's another way. Many people never even see that there's a fork in the road. How awesome it is that we have some degree of choice, and that we've started on our true path. It might seem random that I'm telling you to focus on gratitude when working on this stuff, but gratitude is so fundamental that it influences everything else.

Finally, note that I used "reflecting" and not "ruminating;" ruminating on your problems over and over again is extremely harmful. It is important to remember that we are the product of our thoughts. This sounds obvious, but really let that one sink in. The more we think things, the more that becomes our default pattern of response. So if we keep ruminating on our anger and resentment about a situation, then anger and resentment will come out more often. Reflecting on lessons learned, on the other hand, can be very long as it doesn't turn into rumination, or mentally beating up on yourself or others.