After over a year in lockdown, people often talk about returning back to ‘normality’ again, and this desire is understandable. The current optimism regarding ‘normality’ is a welcome escape from the monotony we have become so familiar with. However, I hope this is not the primary lesson we draw from our lockdown experiences. Instead, rather than acknowledging the significance of a restriction-free society, we ought to remember the core value of remaining content regardless of these external conditions, and the practice of mindfulness encapsulates this perfectly.
So, what exactly does it mean to live mindfully? A common misconception is that mindfulness involves setting aside 15 minutes each day to sit and meditate – this won’t do any harm, but it is by no means necessary. In direct terms, mindfulness is the practice of being aware of what is going on in the present moment, internally and externally. If you are walking and your only attention is on your surroundings, breathing and the walking itself, then you are walking mindfully. The same is true for anything you may be doing, whether driving, washing the dishes, brushing your teeth, or just sitting and relaxing. Our mind’s tendency to wander means there is an element of discipline required, but the concept really is as simple as cultivating an awareness in our day-to-day life. For clarity, it is not that thinking should altogether be eradicated – thoughts of the right kind can be very productive. It is specifically our ‘straying’ and habitual thoughts that mindfulness seeks to eliminate.
Why, then, is it so vital to involve mindfulness in our lives?
The answer is as simple as the pursuit of happiness. The past year has been filled with many mundane moments and days, and in these times our mind is at peak susceptibility to wandering. When our mind is elsewhere, we often find ourselves longing for the past or dreaming of the future, but never focused on what is happening right now. Yet our suffering is repeatably caused by these very straying thoughts – this is why a mindless escape from the prospect of being alone with just our thoughts is often very tempting, and our modern society is definitely not short of means for these escapes. Still, this only ever offers temporary and unfulfilling relief. So although the notion of living in the present moment has become somewhat of a cliché, we must not forget its hidden wisdom. By appreciating our current environment, we can focus on the things we do have rather than the things we don’t have. By preventing the suffering inflicted by our minds dwelling in the past and future, mindfulness naturally gives rise to an inner peace and joy.
The boredom that has been symptomatic of lockdown (along with our endless and helpless exposure to advertisement) has reinforced the illusion that we always need something else in order to be happy. However, it is crucial to remember that, in most cases, we have more than enough external conditions for our happiness. We may have precious loved ones, the ability to see a world in colour, the ability to walk on the Earth, enough food to satisfy us, and even just being alive. For most of us, this list will keep going and going. So, although we can justifiably be excited about the restrictions lifting, it is dangerous to think it will boost our overall well-being. If we are not satisfied now, given all the conditions in place for our contentedness, then it is unlikely that true happiness will be achieved by further external conditions. Rather, we must look within ourselves, and mindfulness is often the internal condition that we are lacking. By bringing our awareness to the here and now, we can recognise our many fortunes, and this recognition alone can be a source of much joy. We need to stop chasing objects outside of us that we believe will make us happy; often starting chains of desire that are never fulfilled. Instead, we must realise that sufficient conditions are already in place in order for us to be happy. The final step, the internal condition, is just to maintain full awareness of this very fact.
Although the practice of mindfulness is simple to grasp, that is not to say it is easy. I have found numerous times when trying to walk, eat and live in mindfulness, that before I know it, my thoughts are elsewhere. Yet, this only reminds me just how important it is to practise mindfulness. To give an example, if I am having dinner and I catch my mind not focused on the food before me, I realise that the pleasure of eating was simply being lost. Everyone’s mind will inevitably stray, but it is key that you don’t let that frustrate you; even just the recognition of your mind being elsewhere is an important act of mindfulness.
There are some techniques that are very helpful in cultivating mindfulness into your day-to day life. Smiling, believe it or not, is one of these. As soon as you wake up, before you go to sleep, in any spare moment, there is never a bad time to smile. The act of intentional smiling instantly brings you back to appreciating the present, and it instantly offers a feeling of warmth and content. It can feel quite awkward at first, smiling without a direct reason, but smiling alone is the best reminder of the fact that you that you have every reason to smile. Meditation is the most direct practise, since it is based on silencing your mind and concentrating on nothing other than your sitting and breathing. Along with generating an inner peace, meditation is evidence of the fact that we can just be without having to do anything. Bringing our attention back to our breathing, whether in a meditation or not, is what I have found to be the most effective way of returning our mind to the world inside and outside of us.
In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist Zen Master who inspired this piece: “All the wonders of life are already here. If you can listen to them, you will be able to stop running”.
For more content like this click here.