WTF is mindfulness and does it work.
When I’m leading a guided meditation or counseling session, people sometimes ask me that. Along with:” If this process is so non-linear, how do know if the skills I’m developing are “working?”
What they usually want to know is: can I have faith in this practice? We all sometimes feel calm on the cushion and then feel, speak or act in ways that aren’t totally aligned with our “ideal selves.” Some days it’s hard to focus. Some days it’s hard to make it through the morning rush of the city.
I’ve asked myself this a lot in the last few years. Being a part of the “wellness,” “mental health” and “mindfulness” worlds in NYC has thoroughly convinced me that spiritual teachers are no less likely than the general public to do horrible things from their own confusion. When we see teachers doing harm, it’s only normal to start to questioning our own practices. If so many messed up people practice meditation: shouldn’t I have some doubts?
To be honest, I’m not a person who’s necessarily inspired by the idea of enlightenment or perfection anymore. I don’t always love spiritual language. The older that I get, the more that I learn that wisdom is all about where you’re standing and how loved and seen you feel by the person who offers it in a given moment. But we know it when we feel it.
In my earlier life, I was a nanny to a little boy I totally adored. He was affectionate, sensitive, smart, generous and funny. But also, being with him all day was at times, tough. He was like any other kid—with the volume turned all the way up emotionally. Transitions were hard. He would sometimes act impulsively and intensely. Physically, he was strong and fast. Sleepiness or hunger could trigger a screaming, kicking, frustrated explosion before I could find the keys in my purse. In the blink of an eye, he could start running as fast as humanly possible in the direction of water or traffic, without thought to the cars in front of him. Let’s just say cardio endurance was necessary for our mutual safety.
A few years ago, we were hanging out at one of our favorite adventure spots: The Museum of Natural History. Max was totally in heaven. He held my hand and led me all around the museum, reminding me of what was around us in every direction. He named every animal before slowing to a stop. Then he quieted down to show me the “most beautiful thing” the pair of wolves on the 2nd floor.
We rode the elevators as much as I could stand before we hit the final floor, the Dinosaur exhibit. When we arrived, I looked at Max and realized I had miscalculated in some way. I must have not been as connected to him as I thought I was in the elevator process. I let him play too long. It wasn’t nap time yet, but I could see by the way he was moving that he was TIRED and overstimulated. I realized we needed to make a quick exit, and quick exits were not our thing.
I know that slowing down could be an epic task for us, and I braced myself at the idea of communicating that we had to go without taking every elevator up and down a few more times. Before I knew it, his arms were flailing and he was screaming as loudly as humanly possible “NOOOOOOO.” I’m pretty sure the people around us were nervous a dinosaur had come to life.
I did the only thing I could think to do. I scooped him up, sat down right where I was and held him close in my lap. I talked to him as gently as possible as he, in all his inconsolability, exclaimed, “SYDNEY, HOW DO I FEEL RIGHT NOW?!?!?”
I was stunned by his mindfulness of a big feeling. That was one of the things we had practiced together, naming our feelings when they got overwhelming. We would talk about what colors and shapes they were, try to point to the moments where they changed, discuss what images they reminded us of, where they were in our bodies.
My own impulsive, tired and frustrated voice spoke first in my mind. I wanted to say, “oppositional.” But that was me, projecting a fight. And oppositional is not a feeling. I took a second and realized that that’s how I was feeling: annoyed, resistant and tense about what could come next.
I felt the anxiety and cultural conditioning that wanted me to use coercion to make our exit easier. I also felt shame. I was the adult. In that moment, I was tired too. I wished I had been more aware of time. He deserved a more organized care-taker. I felt terrible about not being more aware. I was swept up in the joy of the day, and it was my impulsiveness that placed us both in hot water.
In Buddhist traditions, we use the term, “the second arrow” to point to the way our minds create meaning from a painful situation that can exacerbate our suffering. The idea is that when we're mindful, we can notice the suffering that's present and respond in more skillful ways. We can lengthen and deepen our out breath, we can release tension that our bodies are holding, we can practice compassion and coach ourselves towards a response to the circumstances that's more likely to result in a beneficial outcome for ourselves and other people.
Someone wise once told me that the first thought is your conditioned thought, it's the second one that matters. The truth was in the second thought: Max and I were on the same team. And luckily, between his mindfulness and mine, we could use the same tools. I looked up at the dinosaur bones around us, letting out a slight giggle at the thought of our reptilian brains being activated. I mean, hey, at least we didn’t really have to worry about being chased by a T-Rex.
I felt my heart soften; “Sad,” I told him. “I think, maybe if I were you, I might be feeling sad, because we love this place and it’s difficult to leave. And maybe you are also feeling mad at me, because I’m making that decision. But I think you are also feeling sleepy and that is why your body is so heavy. Why don't we find out? How does your body feel?”
In that moment, he softened.
I stood up and we started to breath together. Within minutes, we were in an Uber, on our way home.
Reflecting on this experience, I know having a daily practice that includes mindfulness and loving kindness offered me more clarity, I’d been repeatedly setting intentions calm myself and recognize my projections when less was at stake. And that is what I look for in my life - the ability to respond in a way that reduces suffering and increases connection..
Meditation does not automatically grant that every moment of conflict will go this well. On it’s own, it won’t transform your life. I’ve made peace with the idea that there’s a good chance that for the rest of my life, I will sometimes slip into the mental chaos that arises with difficult feelings. I’ve also made peace with the fact that it’s not a panacea or a complete way of living. But meditation does give me more agency, more moments like this, where I can be loving and wait for the second thought. It gives me just enough space, in a difficult situation, to act outside of my conditioning, to act like a person instead of a dinosaur.
Sometimes people think being a meditation teacher grants me the tools to banish all second guessing, to be fully present, at ease, and namaste-ing everything around me. But unfortunately, none of that’s in the contract. When people come to me seeking comfort about their doubts, I always offer them the truth: it happens to me too.
I tell them that it’s irrelevant how many retreats a person’s been on; we have rough weeks and we have triggers . Sometimes I revert to an old behavior. Sometimes there is nothing to anchor me to the moment and I get swept away in a sea of racing thoughts.
Sometimes my time on the cushion feels stale, frustrating, ridden with aversion or craving and fantasy.
It helps a lot to have someone older and wiser to hold us close energetically and remind us of our wisdom, but luckily as adults, we don’t need a teacher to guide us when we’re triggered or overwhelmed. I hold onto this personal truth: that there’s a part of each of our awareness that softens us and helps us access a place of deep knowing. The best a good teacher can do is offer us some clues to how to connect with it. A good practice is one that helps us be more in touch with that part of ourselves.
There have been moments when that extra bit of clarity meditation offers has the ability to shift the world for me and the people I love. I’ve been a witness enough times to know that when I engage in practices that cultivate the conditions for wisdom to arise, I have these moments more often. But often, I risk missing them if I’m only on the look-out for an immediate, radical behavioral shift or earth-shaking insight. In bits and pieces, i find myself arriving to that place I know is possible with doubt still present, but not in control.