I want to start by describing what (I think!) mindfulness is all about.
It’s a complex concept, so please don’t worry about getting it all right away. That will come bit by bit over time.
Simply put, when we practice mindfulness we pay attention to what is happening in the present moment. We encourage our attention to settle on our outer landscape through the senses, (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste), as well as our inner landscape (internal sensations in the body). Our senses are the gateway to the present moment: you cannot taste chocolate tomorrow or feel velvet yesterday!
Without mindfulness we tend to focus our attention on our thoughts. Lost in thought, we spend much of our time regretting the past or worrying about the future. We are rarely fully present for what is happening right here, right now. We miss out on the veritable smorgasbord of delightful sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures all around us.
In The Empire Strikes Back Yoda admonishes Luke, but he could be speaking to any of us: “This one a long time have I watched. All his life he has looked away….to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing.”
Have you ever been eating a cookie (or munching on a bag of chips if you like it savory) and you find yourself looking around for that final bite, when you realize (with a sunken heart) that you already ate it? Without mindfulness, there are so many pleasant things that happen all day long that we are too often not fully present for: the cookies, the chips, the breeze on our face, the sunset, or the smile from a friend.
Without mindfulness we are not really present for unpleasant events either. This sounds good in theory, but in reality it just causes more suffering. We tend to react automatically and unskillfully when things get tough. We use any number of ways to mask our physical and emotional pain via drugs, alcohol, eating, shopping, social media, Netflix Binging – each of us has our own mix of maladaptive strategies for avoiding feeling our pain and discomfort.
These things are not problems when we do them in moderation, or simply for the pleasure they bring. They become a problem when we constantly use them to hide from what is really going on. When we use them to run away from the range of difficulties that have arisen in our lives since getting a concussion.
When we are not masking our physical and emotional pain by pushing it away, we tend to go the other direction by pulling our pain in; we get lost in it. Without mindfulness we are often at the whim of whatever physical sensation, emotion, or thought that comes along. We feel our concussion symptoms, and before you know it we have followed our minds down the rabbit hole of fear; what is just a headache can very quickly lead us to believe that we will end up unemployed and on the street!
In short, without mindfulness we are so often lost. We are on auto-pilot. It is a bit like being under the imperius curse in Harry Potter; we have no control over what we are doing. We have no agency.
With mindfulness we realize (hallelujah!) that we can wake up from being on autopilot. We learn that in fact we do have agency. We can see more clearly the options laid out before us. We can learn the spells that counter the imperius curse.
We practice mindfulness (paying attention to the present moment) in formal meditation (sitting, walking, standing or lying down), when practicing mindfulness is all we are doing. We just keep bringing our attention back to the present moment. We also practice mindfulness informally in daily life by practicing staying present while we are doing other things, such as cooking, washing the dishes, going for a walk etcetera.
The untrained mind is very busy. It’s flitting about like a butterfly. This is normal. With mindfulness we offer our attention a place to land, like a butterfly lands on a flower. We offer our mind an object of attention, or an anchor, so our attention can stay put. Sometimes our attention stays landed for just a few seconds before it flits off again. No worries. The practice is just to bring it on back to the anchor, over and over again.
Most often in formal meditation the core anchor is the breath. Everywhere we go the breath is there for us to call on as an anchor to the present. But an anchor can be anything that is in the present moment…such as a flower, or the feel of the breeze on your face or the sound of the birds in the trees.
As you begin to practice you will quickly find that it is shockingly difficult to stay focused on the anchor. The mind wanders. And wonders. And complains. And worries. The mind does any number of things but stay in the present moment! This is normal. This is what all minds do.
Concentration and Open Awareness
This focus on an anchor is one element of meditation called concentration. In concentration there are just three things going on:
- Our attention is on our anchor
- Our attention strays from our anchor
- We bring our attention back to our anchor
With practice, we can learn to extend the time that we are able to keep our attention in the present, but inevitably our attention wanders off again. We gently (but firmly!) bring our attention back to the anchor. Over and over again. In this way we strengthen the come back and stay muscle.
Another form of meditation is Open Awareness. In this practice we let go of paying attention to one anchor and we open up our awareness so that it glides from one anchor to another, noticing the changing nature of the present moment. For example, our attention may start on the pain in our knee. When that fades into the background, we may notice that our chest has become tight as we feel anxiety rising. Then our attention may land on the sound of an ambulance going by. For concussion survivors this sound may bring on fear. We learn to sit with that fear, and watch it pass on by.
Whatever arises, we let it be. We resist the urge to move away from whatever is here. We learn to respond wisely rather than react automatically (and unwisely!) to our ever-changing physical sensations, emotions and thoughts.
With mindfulness our life is enriched because we learn to sink in and savour the pleasant. It doesn’t take a lot of time to notice beauty, but we have to train our minds to remember to do so. How lovely life becomes when we make sinking into joy a daily practice! I try to remember to ask myself regularly: What Can I Enjoy Now? This is not about avoiding life’s challenges, but to recognize what is also true in any given moment. I call this Anding: I feel tired and the grass feels so good on my feet!
We learn that we can also cultivate calm clarity in the face of the storms that our concussion brings us. We learn that masking our concussion troubles or and getting lost in loops of lack related to our concussion troubles don’t serve us. We learn to viscerally trust the famous saying that what we resist persists and the less famous saying (because I made it up!) what we fight stays tight.
We learn to stop fighting our concussion symptoms and instead, acknowledge that this is just the way it is right now. We learn that what we feel we can heal. We learn to ask, which strategies will help me cultivate calm clarity right now in the middle of this difficulty?