Mindfulness is NOT a Self-Improvement Project
It took me 10 years of Buddhist practice and study to learn this lesson. It took me pursuing a Master’s Degree in Comparative Religious Studies at Naropa University, several month long meditation retreats in the Tibetan tradition at the Shambhala Mountain Center, a handful of solitary retreats at Dorje Khyung Dzong in Southwestern Colorado, leading several meditation weekends and retreats over the years. It took me leading meditation groups at 15 plus treatment centers and at cancer treatment centers. And, it takes my setting aside this sacred space of daily practice, to this day, to remember the sacred/mundane that just is. If we make the space to remember and experience this truth.
This is what one part of my “self-help” or “self-improvement” project or journey looked like. It looked something like studying, learning, striving, curiosity, exploration, etc. It looked mostly healthy and I think it was. It was healthy, in large part, because the journey toward “liberation”, I started to realize that the journey was not “toward” liberation, but was a journey “of” liberation. In this journey of waking up, there is no finish line. The sky is limitless and the road is endless. And when you can slow down and release that truth, experience that space of awakening to the “crack in the armor” of self-improvement, you see that underneath is the momentary experience of wholeness, self-acceptance and gratitude. This is the “realization” that I’d been chasing and carrying all along. But I wouldn’t have realized my version of this truth without the path that I took to get (t)here.
“Mindfulness is NOT!! a Self-improvement Project” was always the first thing I wrote on the white board or chalkboard when I was teaching groups in meditation halls and treatment centers. Pema Chodron, a Western Buddhist Nun and senior teacher in the Shambhala lineage, talks about the natural but somewhat “self-aggressive” genesis of the self-improvement projects many of us subject ourselves to. We can, instead, hold the possibility that from the outset, in a deep and fundamental way we are already ok – if we would just slow down long enough to notice this fact – without running away from our “truer” selves. By putting the “container” of a meditation or practice session around the moment, and ourselves it’s as if “we are capturing the elusive health human in its natural habitat.” One we slow down, pay attention, are kind to ourselves, relax and are able to enjoy the simplicity of life and the joy in the little things.
Meanwhile…. back to our regularly scheduled programming. And we are in charge of that programming through our habits. And, more often than not, we don’t practice or do the work that it takes to be healthy, to be self aware, so we look for more escapes, distractions and quick fixes. Press repeat ad nauseam.
When we are able to drop below this a little bit, that just being, just breathing, noticing and exploring our experience of the 5 senses can be profoundly healing. Thus the 3rd Wave of mindfulness-based therapies and practices. They are standing on the shoulders of their predecessors, of behaviorism and cognitive behavioral therapies. They are helping us start with self-acceptance, with just being, with observing and seeing our wisdom and neurosis, and being ok with that as the entry onto the path of any changes we want to make. “The path of waking up starts with waking up” some have said.
Instead of it just being the next self-improvement project, mindfulness IS an opportunity to “catch ourselves being sane.” So please, for yourself and for all of us, take a minute and follow along with me. Because reading this is one thing, doing it is another. Do this with me – it’s the most important thing, or all of means nothing on the level where it really counts.
Find somewhere relatively quiet. Sit up straight (a chair is fine). Rest your hands gently on your lap. Now take three deep belly breaths. In and oouuuutt… In and oouuuutt … In and oouuuutt… Notice your posture. Notice the weight of your butt in the seat. Notice your feet on the floor. Notice any sounds. Any smells. Notice your mental state. Are you calm? Are you judging yourself? This practice. Your ability or inability. Notice your emotional state. Then take three more breaths. In and oouuuutt… In and oouuuutt … In and oouuuutt… Notice your environment. The space between thoughts. The sounds. The simplicity. Keep noticing your breath. In… out….. in… out…… Notice you. Being ok. Being. Doing something simple.
Lastly, as you keep being aware of your in and out breath, find one thing in your immediate environment that you are grateful for. Take a few breaths and allow yourself to appreciate that. Now give yourself a small bow of gratitude for taking a few moments to slow down and take a few conscious breaths and to appreciate the experience of being you. I hope it was a pleasant experience. And I hope you keep coming back from time to time. To you. You’ll be waiting. 😉