02/19/2014 06:16 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2014

When Life Drags You Up a Hill

Have you ever felt like a horse being pulled along by a moving motorcycle? Okay, so maybe the image isn't familiar, but how about the feeling? You know, of the forces of life dragging you, unenthusiastically, into the future?

This past weekend, I watched a motorcycle, with horse in tow, charge up a hill in rural Latin America. Two guys wearing full motorcycle gear were in the lead. The horse, in full tack (saddle, bridle, etc.), followed along behind. The guys were perfectly content, but the horse vocalized her discontent. Clearly, being hauled into sunset with a nose full of diesel fumes did not jive with her version of a leisurely Sunday afternoon.

The image was so bizarre, so incongruous, that it stuck in my mind and got me thinking. After all, it was a marvelously complete picture of the inconsistency of modern life: The horse didn't carry the men; rather, the men pulled the horse. Amazing, humorous and profound, the situation birthed a question in my mind: What can we do to make life easier, even when we are led someplace we don't want to go?

It happens all the time; I mean, kids go to school in the early hours of the morning because they have to. Employees go to work day after day, even when they don't want to. There are social events that people attend out of obligation, not preference. And, of course, there are the calamities and lesser challenges of life that drag us powerfully into suffering.

The reality of these situations is irrefutable, and, at least somewhat (if not completely) beyond our control. Stuff happens, and we have to manage change. But how we manage, literally how we survive, offers us a measure of inner control. This is where mindfulness fits in.

If you know what's happening when it's happening you can exert greater control over your response. If you don't know, then you have no choice. Just think of all the times people explain their poor choices by saying, "Well, it just happened." The key question is, where were you when "it" happened?

The challenge is training the mind to pay attention to what's happening in the current moment. If we aren't familiar with this experience under normal circumstances, it's incredibly hard to be mindful when crises occur. Like, when the we find ourselves with a figurative rope around the neck, being pulled up a hill by a couple of guys on a motorcycle.

Mindfulness practice involves three essential steps: Focus, Observe and Refocus. Many mindfulness techniques apply these three steps to paying attention to the experience of breathing and developing awareness of paying attention. Whereas some techniques require lengthy practice, the strategy described below is quick, simple and feasible even for busy people.

  • Focus on the sensation of breathing in and out.
  • Observe whether you can (continue to) pay attention to breathing.
  • Refocus your attention on breathing should you become distracted.

If you practice this technique, and become familiar and skilled with using it over time, the process will become engrained in your mind-stream, and it will support you when stuff happens.

Now, I'm not saying that mindfulness could have helped that poor horse trotting unhappily up the dirt road on Sunday. But, maybe, indirectly, mindfulness might have improved the situation. If the guys had been more mindful, they could have treated that living, breathing, noble beast with greater dignity and care.

We all have the potential to act like those motorcyclists and suffer like that horse. If we're mindful, we won't become either. Improved mindfulness parlays into greater capacity for clear choices and constructive actions. Life drives us up obstacles, time and time again. But, sometimes, applying mindfulness to experience makes all the difference.