I had a client who found the concept of mindfulness to be stressful. He felt that he not only had to handle the fast-paced, ever-changing, and increasingly-demanding life he already had, but he then felt the additional expectation that he had to do all these things effortlessly and calmly.
This is a misconception of mindfulness. It’s not about the result. It’s about the process. It’s not a pill to take after feeling overwhelmed. It’s a tool that helps deal with the sometimes overwhelming nature of life these days. And you don’t have to appear calm while going through the process of being mindful.
In fact, the deeper I meditate, and the longer I’ve had my meditation practice, it’s made me more aware of how I feel, not less. Meditation is not a pathway to stoicism. It’s not the suppression of emotions. It’s the uncovering of illusions. It’s a way to see our lives more clearly than ever, and it can also give us the perspective to handle what we see. Sometimes it’s hard to handle, but like everything new, we can learn and change and grow into it.
My purpose of having a meditation practice is not to pretend to be in a meditative state, hovering over non-meditative beings. It is to stay mindful in each moment. And when I get distracted, to become aware of it, and return to the present moment.
One way to do this is a method I call Mindfulness Reminders.
We can think of beautiful, calming things as mindfulness reminders, such as a temple bell, incense, candles, a manicured garden, a walk in nature, or the embrace of a loved one. But sometimes we can get caught in negative spirals that make us feel that we don’t deserve happiness, peace, compassion, kindness, or forgiveness. These moments are so challenging because we don’t allow ourselves the self-care we need to live a calm, balanced life in a world that often seems anything but calm and balanced.
So, I’ve expanded my definition of mindfulness reminders. In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, I also think of feelings of anger, frustration, and sadness as reminders to be mindful rather than obstacles to mindfulness.
I’ll use frustration as an example. When frustrations come up, I try and remind myself that they can also be opportunities to look below the surface in my life. I like to compare my frustrations to the glaciers during the Ice Age. They ripped through North America, passing right through my present neighborhood.
The result today is an area in southern Ontario known as the Golden Horseshoe. When the glaciers made their slow journey through this region, they left behind – among other things – the Great Lakes, an extensive ravine system of interconnected rivers and creeks, Niagara Falls, and fertile soil.
So when I get frustrated, I eventually remind myself of the glaciers, and then frustration becomes a mindfulness tool. Even while I’m dealing with the source of the frustration at a personality, relationship, or society level, I can also use frustration as an opportunity to see what it brings up, whenever it does come up.
Just like the glaciers can surface nutrient-rich soil, frustration can surface nutrient-rich feelings. It’s an opportunity to see what I’m resisting, putting off for later, or just plain in denial of.
Now, do I take this opportunity every time I’m frustrated? Haha! No. But, it is something that helps me move out of frustration and into framing a situation in a healthier way, so I can take meaningful action on it.
Mindfulness is not magic. It’s a tool, just like my pen is a tool that allows me to write. There are many tools that allow me to be mindful.
How I use each tool is up to me.