Minding the Mind

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

“Mindfulness allows you to live deeply every moment that is given to you to live.” Thich Nhat Hanh

Zen Buddhist master, teacher, and writer Thich Nhat Hanh died in January of this year at the age of 95. He introduced many Westerners to the practice of mindfulness and the discipline of mindful meditation.

Mindfulness is the simple practice of staying in the present. Meditation is a way to practice mindfulness. When I meditate, I focus on my breath. As a thought arises, I return to my breath, let go without judgment. I observe where my mind has traveled as I return to my breath. I notice how I feel—afraid, angry, weary, joyful, serene. I return to my breath. My meditation practice prepares me to be mindful as I walk through my day.

Staying in the now I let go of fears and defenses. I rest from worries. When I focus on the past, I live in regret, loss, and grief. If I move into the future I hover in anxiety, foreboding, and fear. In the present I am safe and fully alive.

Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.” As I create the spaciousness of mindfulness, I observe my own ego engage in its powerful defense strategies.

We are all wounded—none of us escapes loss, hurt, grief. When I am rude, resentful, or passive aggressive I know something is going on with me that needs attending. As I notice how I think and what I feel, I dare to risk changing the pattern. I heal the hurts and wounds I carry.

We needn’t become Buddhist monks to draw upon their rich spiritual heritage. Here are ways of mindfulness I find helpful.

Walking mindfully. Walking to the rhythm of my breath—breathing in with one, two, three steps, breathing out at the same pace. Once I have the rhythm, I attend to my senses. My senses draw me out of my head and into my body. As I increase my awareness I notice new sounds—the caw of the crow, the laughter of children, the squeak of cold snow.

I notice scents. I lived in Berkley, California, in the late 70s where I walked regularly in the freedom of beautiful weather. I remember a November outing when I caught the aroma of meatloaf wafting from an open window. It felt out of place, smells I associate with cold weather as I walked in a t-shirt. I was immediately transported to Minnesota and the warmth of an oven meal on a cold autumn day. The smell lifted me from warm California and dropped me into cold Minnesota.

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A mindful walk frees me to take in the sights—noticing the first daffodil in a neighbor’s yard, ash stumps where trees lined the street just days ago, bursting buds that forecast spring. I am not lost in the thoughts and fears of the political circus or worries about those I love. I am engaged in the gift of this present moment.

Eating mindfully. Thich Nhat Hanh describes eating a tangerine attentively—seeing it, smelling it, appreciating each bite. How often I eat something without really noticing what it is I am eating, without enjoying or savoring it. When I attend to eating mindfully, I appreciate the food and relish the experience. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future; live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.”

Single tasking. An enemy of mindfully staying in the present is multi-tasking. I worked in information technology for 30 years when computers were huge, and data was punched on cards. I remember upgrading to a computer that could do two operations at once—“dual job stream” we called it. We celebrated the great improvement and noted how fast it was. We are not machines and though we claim to effectively multi-task, nothing is done well. While not all my activities deserve full concentration, I deserve to be present to whatever it is I am doing. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks to this, “Don’t do any task in order to get it over with. Resolve to do each job in a relaxed way, with all your attention. Enjoy and be one with your work.”

Mindfulness in Sanskrit means “attend and stay.” When I notice a feeling arise, I stay with it. I allow it to come to the fore. Where is this feeling in my body? What is it trying to tell me? What memory does it hold? I allow it to be. I might even appreciate it, give it some space, inquire of it. This is my mind tending to my mind. I observe what happens, how it operates in my body, how it feels.

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Staying in the present is a lifelong journey. Of late, I am noticing how I put things off, procrastinate. What is under that? Am I afraid? Do I not know how to deal with it? Or do I simply not want to do it? I check-in with myself, I investigate how I feel. Once understood I choose an approach. If I am afraid, I look at my fear to see if it is real or false evidence appearing real. Then I address the fear and determine a way through. I don’t just ignore it and pretend I am not afraid. If I find myself not knowing how to tackle this, I consult someone who does. I check the internet or call a friend to help. If I am putting it off because I am low on energy, I schedule it for a time when I am more energetic. All this is possible when I recognize what is going on within me. I notice. I am the observer of me, a loving witness. In that loving space I choose my response.

Our human species’ evolution gives us a complex brain and a fine mind. By attending to how that mind works we live more deeply each moment we are given.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Mindfulness frees us of forgetfulness and dispersion and makes it possible to live fully each minute of life. Mindfulness enables us to live.” Live well!

Mary Lou Logsdon provides Spiritual Direction in the Twin Cities. She is an instructor in the Sacred Ground Spiritual Direction Formation Program. She can be reached at logsdon.marylou@gmail.com.

Last Updated on March 8, 2022

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