Applying mindfulness in real life

I was deeply struck by this Pema Chodron quote: “How we regard what arises in meditation is training for how we regard whatever arises in the rest of our lives.”

When I read that line, I immediately thought of kindness and how   we can bring it to our practice.  For instance, when our minds wander and we return to the breath over and over again with a minimum of self-judgment, kindness slowly rises up the list of automatic reactions. I have found this to be true in my life. Today in fact, self-compassion is all the way up to third place for me, right behind “instant analysis” and “self-recrimination.”

What she means is that if, when we catch our minds wandering during meditation and bring them back to the breath with an attitude of non-judgment and kindness, we train ourselves to react with kindness to ourselves when we stray from our intended path in our daily life. I have found this to be true for me. Kindness and self-compassion have been slowly replacing self-judgment and self-recrimination as my default reactions to my forgetfulness, carelessness, or laziness.

This realization about kindness and self-compassion got me wondering:  what other ways is mindfulness  affecting my dealings with life? Here are a few of my thoughts:

Feel the sensations, not the story

One of the lessons I’ve learned about mindfulness involves applying it to “unpleasant” physical sensations. It started with my feet cramping whenever I’d sit on a cushion for longer that 15 minutes or so. I’d start to feel pain in my calf or feet muscles, a “certain” precursor to a painful cramp, and I’d immediately shift positions to alleviate those sensations. Then I heard our Executive Director, Tim Burnett, suggest that we not be so fast to react, to instead focus on the sensations themselves without paying attention to the story we tell ourselves about them. As mindfulness helped me slow the cramping process down, I was able to finally see that there was a difference between the actual sensations and the story (“Uh-oh, major cramp about to arrive”) that immediately arose. I could just let the sensations be. And guess what, 95 percent of the time, the sensations just subside on their own – no cramping.

Seeing a bigger picture

Instead of focusing in on something during meditative practice like the breath, or sounds, or the body, the practice of Open Awareness meditation allows my awareness to expand and include everything that’s happening, inside and out. In this type of practice, I am able to sense everything while not being carried away by anything.

Seeing this bigger picture really helps me as I have walked the emotionally difficult path of recovering from childhood trauma over these last eight years. My introduction to mindfulness came by way of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class recommended along the way. And, as with many complicated recoveries, things often got “worse” before they got better. It’s been pretty easy for me to get fixated on the pain, the length of time I’ve been working to get better, and to lose hope. In these moments (well, days really) life seems to collapse into a single dark confined space.

When I get that way, I now remember to relax my awareness (breathing into the fixation) and relax my body, taking in everything, getting carried away by nothing. In those moments I realize there are a whole lot of other things happening in my life beside trauma recovery, that I’ve gone through these “getting worse” phases before, and how I always find progress and even happiness on the other side.  I realize that there is much more “right” than “wrong” with my life.  Over time, slipping into that larger space has become natural, and I hardly ever get caught up in the dismal storyline I used to create automatically.

And even the “little” things

I recently moved into downtown Bellingham to a place conveniently located within walking distance of many things. Unfortunately, one of those nearby things is the train track, and I developed a lot of fear that I’d never get any sleep.

One day prior to moving, I realized I was getting caught up in another storyline, and that mindfulness could help. Starting a couple of weeks before the move, every time I was downtown and heard the trains, I’d pay attention to my reaction (here’s the PG version):

There’s that darn train…holy mackerel that horn is loud…do they really have to blow it five blessed times for every crossing?….And all the live-long night???…I’m an idiot for moving here…I’ll never get any sleep….

And so on, ad nauseum.

So I started intervening. When I’d hear the first horn blast, I’d focus just on the sound, and keep my focus there not allowing the storyline to get a foothold in my awareness (although I could hear it knocking at the door). I’d remind myself that people had told me “I don’t even hear them any more” and figured that that process would go faster if I didn’t have to also learn to not hear the storyline.

Sure enough, less than a week after I moved, the trains rarely awaken me.

I’ve loved everything about mindfulness since the first day of MBSR class. Mostly, at first, I was in love with the ideas and world view. Now that I’ve seen what I do “on the cushion” translate into my everyday life, I’m in love with the fact that mindfulness works

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