It's late April in the high country of Colorado, where the landscape looks like January and we're all dizzy in the midst of the blizzard. Seriously, it snowed 10" last night even though yesterday people wore shorts. And everywhere I go today, I hear the question that isn't quite a question. "Can you believe it?" So, here's my answer.
Yes, obviously it snowed (even though I blinked a lot first thing this morning to see if the white stuff outside was an illusion thanks to sleepy eyes). And, yes, people are astonished, celebratory and/or annoyed about it. What's really interesting is that the intensity of our reactions speaks to a deeper matter than what's now melting outside.
Why do we expect that snow won't fall in April? Or, more generally, why do we assume that people play by "the rules" and/or "life is fair?" Weather happens. People behave unpredictably and often inexplicably. And, life is rarely fair. The point is that while we can (and do) make predictions and try to promote certain outcomes, we can't control all that much of what happens "out there." But we can affect our inner experience of outer events.
I'm talking about recognizing reality, as simply as possible, and then responding, as constructively as we can. Mindfulness helps us do this by fine tuning our perception of present-moment experience. Focus is another key factor, as is self-awareness. Paying attention to our own inner experience, as well as noticing how we perceive external events, nurtures our personal growth.
Mindfulness is the key to understanding how the mind moves from recognizing that something is happening ("Oh, there's weather outside"), to interpreting it ("Ugh, I can't believe it's such a big spring storm") and responding accordingly ("I'll need to rush so I can leave for work early"). This is important, because focusing on the inner sequence of awareness, thought, emotion and action enables us stay present as we move through the steps. This, in turn, primes us to formulate more constructive responses and most likely, feel more comfortable -- or centered -- along the way.
Since it's still coming down outside, let's consider snow instead of examining how we experience and respond to other people's behaviors or life's ups and downs. After all, snow is simple and, as I keep reminding myself, it melts fast in April. And, practicing with something simple is the best way to begin. But, make no mistake, exploring our experience of something as basic as snow provides essential practice and builds the skills that let us apply the same processes in the most complex situations.
Imagine that you woke up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado (as I did), and looked outside into the blizzard early this morning. Most likely, you would have had a similar sort of experience as mine, marked by a succession of mental activity from realizing "there's snow outside" to thinking something about it. You might have thought, "OMG how am I going to get to work in this weather" or "Why does this happen when the ski areas are closed?" At a subtler level, you might also have noticed the first steps in that progression -- the fleeting experience of seeing dense whiteness, feeling coldness, noticing wetness before your mind labeled all that white, cold and wet stuff as "snow."
If you look even more closely, you'll see there's a split second gap between perception and synthesis, between having a direct experience and intellectually making sense of that experience based on knowledge, memory and skill. In addition, there is another tiny gap between making sense of experience and reacting, or responding, to it. In other words, this gap spans the distance between knowing that "it's snowing" and swearing (or celebrating) because "I can't believe it's snowing!"
These tiny transitions, or gaps, are always present in the sequence that begins with having a direct experience and leads to making sense of the experience before finally taking some type of action. But most of the time, we pass through the gaps so fast that we don't notice them. But, once you can feel (and I do mean, "feel," in the sense of having an experiential awareness) the sequence, you'll know (and I do mean, "know," with a sense of confidence) that the gaps are there. And, slowly, over time, the gaps will feel larger and the sequence slower.
When you recognize these transitions, you have an opportunity to decide whether to make the jump from understanding to reacting, or divert your momentum, and move from understanding to responding. Consciously having experiences and simultaneously witnessing the experience of having experiences is central to skillfully managing emotions. It is also the process and outcome of mindfulness.
Consider the tiny knots of string that mark the spaces between the pearls on a graceful necklace. These little points of separation make all the difference when the necklace breaks unexpectedly and, despite the fear that the pearls will scatter uncontrollably, they don't. The little knots are protective. Just so, when something happens "out there," whether it's bad news or bad weather, recognizing the little mental gaps gives you the chance to intervene before strong emotions and reactions spill uncontrollably onto the scene.
Pearl necklaces break without warning, just like surprise snowstorms come in April. We can't stop them. But watching how we experience these events informs our responses and builds mental skill. This takes practice, for sure, and I find that it's best to begin with the little things, such as how my mind moved this morning when I looked outside. After that inevitable sequence of mental actions and gaps, I found myself smiling as snowflakes frosted the early blossoms of the trees outside my window.