No epiphanies. No clear moments of insight. No one hundred-eighty degree, life-altering changes. Whatever is happening, it is subtle. Even minute. But I’ve realized that even these tiny shifts are not to be taken for granted. They are all a part of the practice we call mindfulness.
I’ve been sitting on the subway these days focusing on my breath instead of aimlessly reading the ads on the wall to avoid eye contact with other commuters. It’s not the most ideal situation — not what I envision when I think of meditation. Even when I close my eyes, a cacophony of sounds envelop me as the train moves from one station to the next. But I try. I keep coming back to my breath. Keep coming back to the present moment, no matter how many times I get distracted.
Practicing on the subway, however, has actually helped me work on the day-in-and-day-out drama playing inside my head. Even when I’m not actively practicing mindfulness, I catch myself refocusing my attention on my breath. In the few weeks that I’ve been practicing, you start to notice things. In fact, you start to notice how much chatter you have in your mind. Like the subway, there’s a cacophony of thoughts, emotions, associations and judgements whirling around in your head. I become fixated on it and won’t let it go. I say to myself, “What am I doing? You know where these kinds of thoughts will lead.” And then I remembered my practice.
“As feelings arise, rather than running away, you lean into them. Instead of trying to get rid of thoughts and feelings, you become curious about them… We touch thoughts by acknowledging them as “thinking” and then we let them go. It’s a way of relaxing our struggle, like touching a bubble with a feather.” – Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully.
“Thinking,” I say to myself, acknowledging that I have been lost in a story line that will ultimately bring unnecessary apprehension, fear, or sadness. I catch it before it becomes a movie in my head, before I get “hooked,” as Pema Chodron likes to say, before I lose my sense of self or sense of control. “Thinking,” I simply say to myself. And believe it or not, that is enough for me to let go of the storyline and refocus my attention to my breath.
“The practice of meditation gives us a way of working with thoughts and emotions, with the fears and doubts that arise over and over again in our minds when they are triggered by difficult outer circumstances. Supported by breath, we learn to stay present with all of our experience, even great adversity, and to label the thoughts, let them go, and come back to the here and now.” – Pema Chodron.
Practicing mindfulness isn’t some meditative nirvana idealized in stock photography photos. For me, it’s hard work. It takes discipline to keep your thoughts, emotions and judgements from taking control and allow yourself to let go and focus on your breath. The practice is in the everyday. It’s in the subway ride, or taking a shower or making dinner or putting your kids to sleep. It’s in the everyday that we can be most present.