How often do you slow down and exist in present-moment awareness? Not planning or remembering but just being, observing, right here and now? Maybe fairly often if you’re a yoga teacher or an artist or a meditator. Maybe not so often if you’re caught up in the demands of a busy life. In an era that glorifies multitasking and overachieving, most of us could use a little more mindfulness—for our own health and sanity and the sake of those around us.
Beyond The Trend
Recently I saw the word “mindfulness” on the covers of three magazines at the grocery checkout. “Mindfulness is having a moment,” says a special issue of Time. Well, let’s hope it’s more than a moment. This ancient practice is as needed and transformative as anything in modern life. It’s one of the major themes at Miraval, where I recently visited. And it’s really pretty simple: mindfulness is paying attention on purpose, non-judgmentally, in the present. (As defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Wherever You Go, There You Are.) But it takes practice.
Meditation is the best way to cultivate it. But it can also be part of daily life. The more we meditate, the more naturally mindfulness comes to us in the midst of our experiences. We can practice mindfulness while washing dishes or walking in nature—or during a heated conversation, so that we can respond thoughtfully rather than reacting out of habit. Anything can serve as a mindfulness reminder: a favorite song on the radio, a bird landing on a fence, a beautiful angle of sun—even a ringing telephone or a red traffic light, suggests Thich Nhat Hahn, in Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. All of these can be cues to slow down, breathe, notice, and be present without judgment. The red light is not inherently bad; we can be grateful for it, when it reminds us to come back to ourselves and quiet our minds.
An example from my own life: our dogs are wonderful mindfulness reminders. Luigi will literally nudge my iPhone aside and burrow into my chest, making his sweet little heavy-breathing sound and blinking his protuberant eyes. Emmylou notices my every mood and comes over to lick my foot and wag her tail if I get too intense. The other night I was worrying over a health-related thing, hunched over my laptop in the living room, researching and twirling my hair. After a while, Emmylou looked up from chewing her Nylabone, jumped onto my chair, climbed my back, licked my ear, and waited expectantly for my response. “Thank you, Bunny,” I said, taking the soft weight of her into my arms and burying my face against her—she still has that puppy smell—and a sense of relief surged through me. “You’re right,” I told her. “It’s bedtime.”
Mindfulness takes practice. Our minds are strongly conditioned to time-travel, as psychologist and teacher Tara Brach says. Her guided meditations are available online and through the Insight Timer app. She is a wonderful teacher of mindfulness meditation, which is simpler than you might imagine if you’re new to it.
Sit comfortably with your spine straight, become aware of your breath, the sensations in your body, the sounds in your environment; and then come back, again and again, to the present moment.
A few tips:
- Notice thoughts without judgment, without getting caught up in them. Let them drift away as if they are distant clouds, leaving the vast expanse of open sky.
- Hear sounds without attaching stories to them.
- Feel sensations in your body without reacting to them. Notice how they change.
- If you catch your mind wandering, simply say to yourself, “Come back,” and return your attention to your breath.
- Allow your breath to flow naturally, without forcing or controlling it. Let its rhythm relax you.
And here’s something important: let go of judgment about how well you are meditating. When your mind wanders, don’t chastise yourself. Celebrate the fact that you noticed; this is a moment of awakening.
Studies show that meditation can be extraordinarily effective for anxiety, depression, stress, chronic pain, and overall wellness. Researchers at Harvard found that people who practiced mindfulness meditation every day for just eight weeks showed significant changes in their brains: grey matter increased in areas associated with learning and memory, self-awareness, compassion and introspection; grey matter decreased in a structure associated with anxiety and stress. “It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life,” says lead author Britta Hölzel.
Participants in this study practiced for an average of twenty-seven minutes a day. Does this seem impossibly long? Then start anywhere. Even ten minutes a day can help. Brach says, “Rather than adding another ‘should’ to your list, choose to practice because you care about connecting with your innate capacity for love, clarity and inner peace. Let this sincerity be the atmosphere that nurtures whatever form your practice takes.”
Meditation helps us become more self-aware, which in turn allows us to improve our lives. Awareness is necessary if we want to benefit from the wisdom of western psychology or eastern psycho-spiritual traditions. We must be able to notice our habitual patterns in order to release them, in order to learn and evolve. This is a life path we can choose: noticing, learning, evolving.
A Beautiful Little Book
In Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön describes the essential human dilemma: the very nature of life is that things are always changing, in ways subtle or profound; but we keep looking for certainty. Chödrön writes, “We think that if only we did this or didn’t do that, somehow we could achieve a secure, dependable, controllable life. How disappointed we are when things don’t work out quite the way we planned.” We suffer because we grasp for a level of certainty we can never truly attain.
How can we live wholeheartedly in the face of impermanence, knowing that one day we’re going to die? What is it like to realize we can never completely and finally get it all together? Is it possible to increase our tolerance for instability and change? How can we make friends with unpredictability and uncertainty—and embrace them as vehicles to transform our lives?
Drawing from Buddhist wisdom, she offers another path: if we learn to embrace the changing flow of life, we can see every experience as a chance to awaken. For most of us, this is a big idea—a major shift in consciousness, in how we relate to the world.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the Three Vows, or Three Commitments, are methods in the path of awakening. They cultivate mindfulness, kindness, and acceptance of the changeable nature of life. The vows are these:
- Pratimoksha Vow: “The foundation for personal liberation. This is a commitment to doing our best to not cause harm with our actions or words or thoughts… It provides a structure within which we learn to work with our thoughts and emotions and refrain from speaking or acting out of confusion.”
- Bodhisattva Vow: “A commitment to dedicate our lives to keeping our hearts and minds open and to nurturing our compassion with the longing to ease the suffering of the world.”
- Samaya Vow: “A resolve to embrace the world just as it is, without bias. It is a commitment to see everything we encounter, good and bad, pleasant and painful, as manifestations of awakened energy. It is a commitment to see anything and everything as a means by which we can awaken further.”
In other words, refrain from harm, help others, and have an open mind. Not for moralistic reasons—though morals matter—but because of how these practices nourish our lives, bringing a wealth of good things to ourselves and those around us.
I’ll say a little more about each of these vows. They are powerful tools, whether we live by them forever or try them for a day.
The first commitment
This vow is about noticing and changing habits. Chödrön asks, “What are you doing just to fill up time and space, to avoid being present?” Examples include “zoning out in front of the TV, compulsively checking email, coming home at night and having three or four or six drinks, overeating, overworking. Sometimes our exit is just chatter, chatter, chatter.” We all have escapes. Relaxing is one thing, but we often use our escapes reflexively—mindlessly—in order to avoid feelings of discomfort or boredom.
But it’s these moments of discomfort, when we contact the fundamental uncertainty of life, that offer real opportunities. If we learn to pause and sit with the feeling, we can make a choice. We see our escape routes, but we don’t have to take them. From this place, we can notice if our habits cause harm to ourselves or others, or if they contain the seeds of harm.
For example, the first vow works with speech—what we say aloud and to ourselves. Many kinds of conversation, such as gossiping, criticizing, or lashing out at someone, create a ripple of bad feeling. They hurt others and don’t make us feel good. They feed the mean and fearful parts of us, rather than the generous and confident parts. Instead of talking in these ways, we can be silent, observe, and consider what we’d like to say. We can speak in a spirit of connection and curiosity, with respect for ourselves and others.
And to be clear, this is not about being a withering flower or repressing our needs or emotions. This path cultivates a position of much greater strength. The commitment to not cause harm builds a foundation of awareness and conscious choice. “Without self-awareness,” Chödrön says, “we’re almost sure to create confusion and pain.” Awareness is where all improvement begins.
The second commitment
Known also as the warrior vow, this commitment is about taking care of one another. It is “the path of the spiritual warrior, whose weapons are gentleness, clarity of mind, and an open heart.” It requires tremendous bravery to open ourselves in this way: caring for all others, even those we don’t like, those we fear, those who’ve hurt us. The idea is not to put ourselves in harm’s way or invite toxic influences into our lives. Rather, it’s about striving to see the essential humanness of others, so that we might help ease their suffering. It’s about the power of this intention.
Chödrön says, “Given the vast scope of this second commitment, keeping it is like mission impossible.” We need to know how much we can tolerate and then practice this commitment in small steps, gradually building our inner strength. And we will break this vow repeatedly. We might break it by “closing our heart or mind to someone for even a few seconds.” Or through self-denigration. Or by “denigrat[ing] others, criticizing their culture or customs or traditions or beliefs. Bias or bigotry of any sort breaks the vow.”
But the good news is we can simply acknowledge when we break it, then take the vow again. This is “the training of cultivating courage and empathy, the training of cultivating love.” The training helps us build curiosity, flexibility, forgiveness, resilience, and connection with the best in ourselves and others.
And what about the difficult people we encounter?
Be grateful to them: they’re your own special gurus, showing up right on time to keep you honest. It’s the troublemakers in your life who cause you to see that you’ve shut down, that you’ve armored yourself, that you’ve hidden your head in the sand. If you didn’t get angry at them, if you didn’t get fed up with them, you would never be able to cultivate patience. If you didn’t envy them, if you weren’t jealous of them, you would never think to stretch beyond your mean-spiritedness and try to rejoice in their good fortune. If you never met your match, you might think you were better than everybody else and arrogantly criticize their neurotic behavior rather than do something about your own.
This practice is not about who did what or who deserves what; it’s about what kind of feeling we want to hold in our own heart. Challenge becomes opportunity: everything is a chance to awaken.
So we try to make things better, and we learn a lot by failing as well as succeeding. We resolve not to escalate aggression. Even if we need to move on from a difficult relationship, even if we’ve been hurt, we let go of blame and send the person caring and forgiveness. In this way, we nourish our own happiness and strength, our ability to connect with others.
The third commitment
This vow is about appreciating the world just as it is, embracing “the groundlessness of being human as a source of inspiration and joy.” Buddhism teaches that nothing is inherently good or bad. Our minds create our experience of a positive or negative quality. My stepfather, John, has been subtly modeling this view for a while. For example, in the midst of a sleet storm, while everyone else is complaining, he’ll say, “I think it’s fabulous!”
Of course, appreciating all things is a tall order. But we vow to turn toward our experiences with openness to what they contain. We can still have opinions and views, but we don’t need to cling to them. We can try them on, experiment, and be open to other ways of seeing. Chödrön writes, “All the wars, all the hatred, all the ignorance in the world come out of being so invested in our opinions.” Imagine the freedom of releasing this kind of clinging.
Intertwined with our opinions is our fixed identity—our ego, our rigid ideas about who we are and what we’re capable of. We can become preoccupied with creating and defending our image, the way we see ourselves and the way others see us. These concerns make us anxiously self-absorbed. The third commitment asks us to release these fixed ideas and preoccupations. Chödrön says, “it’s only when the fearful ‘I’ is not pushing and pulling at life, freaking out and grasping at it, that full engagement is possible.”
It takes a lot of practice to stop grasping and clinging. We have to be willing to face our non-helpful tendencies in order to release them. “We have to be willing,” she says, “to overcome the laziness that keeps us biting the same hooks again and again as if it didn’t matter.” We have to be ready to tolerate discomfort, with the faith that we’re capable of moving through it and becoming more evolved.
“The path to unshakable well-being,” Chödrön says, “lies in being completely present and open to all sights, all sounds, all thoughts—never withdrawing, never hiding, never needing to jazz them up or tone them down.” With the third commitment, we can begin to see the world through a clearer lens: without judgment, without reactivity, just sensing into the immediacy and mystery of our experiences. We can find beauty where we least expect it.
The heart of the teaching
“Each of us has to take responsibility for our own state of mind,” Chödrön says. “Even the most brilliant political system can’t save the world if the people are still committed to a fear-based way of living.” How needed this advice feels now.
Moving from fear to curiosity, from judgment to openness, from suffering to freedom—this is the path of the Three Commitments. “Underlying them all,” Chödrön writes, “is the basic instruction to make friends with yourself—to be honest with yourself and kind.” Her clear and graceful prose brings these ancient teachings into the realm of modern life, at a time when we may need them more than ever. She offers meditation practices to support us on the path.
The teachings rest on a deeply reassuring philosophy: “Sanity and goodness are always present and can be uncovered right here, right now.”
Watch highlights from Pema Chödrön’s interview with Bill Moyers here.