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From Mindlessness to Mindfulness: Meditation in Action

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"Have you ever noticed, when you're driving, that anyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac?" -- George Carlin

So I'm driving through my neighborhood, and this idiot in a big pickup is going 20 miles per hour where everybody knows that the rule is to go 30, no matter what the stupid sign says. I get frustrated. My mind contracts to a little laser beam of hurry. I want to tailgate and I want to honk. Then it occurs to me that if I do that, he might just get out of his big truck and teach me some manners. I decide I might be better off just feeling how I feel. I shift my attention from my hurrying mind to my body and the anxiety churning in my stomach. Feeling it, rather than trying to escape it, I relax a little bit. I notice the beautiful blue sky and the green trees, and then going 20 is fun, a lot more fun than going nuts and getting in a fight.

I find myself doing an unpleasant yard chore while simultaneously fretting about climate change. I despair about global warming and I hate the job. I start getting mad because our environmentally-friendly tools aren't getting me through this misery quickly enough. Then I come up with a great plan, to go into the house and start yelling at my wife about our crummy tools. I realize that won't work. She'll get mad and tell me I'm an idiot and she'll be right. Crap! I just feel how I feel and calm down. I finish the job and go inside for a pleasant conversation instead of a nasty one.

I want to go for a bike ride before the day gets too hot, but my wife wants me to water the garden. I want to say "Do it yourself!" but I know what that will get me, so I get out there and start rushing through it so I can do what I want. Then I begin to notice the beauty -- the hum of the insects, the flowers, our cat companionably following me about the yard, the deep blue of the sky. Then I take my ride. It's a bit warm but still wonderful.

I used to think that meditation was like an inoculation, but I also used to think that other people were stressing me out. I've been meditating for about 25 years. Years of learning and relearning that I, and only I, stress myself out. The examples I gave are the common self-created aggravations that just don't feel very good. When I start piling them up, one on top of the other, pretty soon I am just mad and in a big fight. I am by no means inoculated from stress, but I have learned, most of the time, to just stop.

Every human brain makes the mistake of believing its thoughts are real. The most important thing to learn from meditation is that thoughts are mirages that look real from a distance but vanish under the light of awareness. Awareness is the medium from which thought arises and as such, is a meditative tool. Awareness is plain and so lacking in substance that we fail to notice it, even though it is who we are. The thoughts we think are manifestly not who we are, but thinking is seductive. We believe thinking will get us what we want, and we follow it down some pretty dark alleyways.

Sitting meditation is simple. We sit with the breath as an anchor, while witnessing the fevered little brain as it thinks, thinks, thinks -- often painfully and obsessively. With patience, the thoughts just drop away, leaving nothing but this very quiet moment, which is ever eternal, ever fresh and so much more vast than the chattering little mind.

You couldn't stop thinking if you wanted to. But you can watch your mind conniving to get what it wants. You can watch yourself and you can allow yourself to feel everything that your mind does, without trying to satisfy it or make the discomfort go away. This is when you begin to learn. You learn how much it hurts to be in a hurry. You learn how much it hurts to be angry. You learn how bad it feels to have mean thoughts about other people and how bad it feels to be mean to other people. And you learn how good it feels to slow down and be kind.

The great Dipa Ma, considered the patron saint of householders, encouraged her students to practice mindfulness all times. When you aren't mindful, you're right back into your default setting before you know it. My default setting is trying to hurry from the moment, however pleasant it is, to the next moment, however unpleasant. I'll be walking along, not hurrying, taking it easy, feeling my heels touch the ground, feeling light and free. Then I think how well I'm doing at this mindfulness business -- nothing to it. The next thing I know, I've banged into a light pole and I'm on the ground with a bloody nose. People -- we're funny that way.

For more by Mack Paul, click here.

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