Mindfulness is often thought of as something we can acquire, like more money or a nicer car. One more road block on the way to becoming the best version of ourselves. Throughout my life I’ve found that, when I chase after it as a means to a more comfortable end, mindfulness slips through my grasp. What I once thought mindfulness was looks very different than the mindfulness I have found. Rarely is it the blissed out state of serenity I had hoped for, but more like the unwilling acceptance of a harsh, but altogether larger, truth.
Take up a personal mindfulness practice for long enough and you will find it is anything but personal. Sitting quietly and opening to ourselves in the present paradoxically connects us to all other living beings. Consequently, it makes it harder to see ourselves as separate. Opening to compassion, for ourselves and life around us, makes hating harder to do.
The times I have felt most at home in the moment were times when I’ve had no other choice. A slap in the face from life that shocked me into the present. An exhaustion so great that I had to release the controls. It takes a lot to get to that place, especially with a neurotic, grasping mind. This is where meditation comes in. Learning to get curious about our uneasiness, instead of thoughtlessly reacting to it, is a helpful tool to have when life spirals out of control. I didn’t think much about the deeper benefits of having a mindfulness practice until my daughter died. Laboring in the hospital where Eve was silently “born” was a perfect storm of physical and emotional discomfort. In a situation like that there isn’t much one can do except breathe. Being present to the worst of life is never an easy choice, but often it’s the most useful one.
Another opportunity to open to heartache presented itself this past weekend. Hate descended upon the small town I live in, the one that 3 short years ago was voted America’s Happiest Place. It was peaceful in my neighborhood on Saturday afternoon and less than a mile down the road violence was erupting. One moment I was walking Dee, playing with T at the park, and the next my town was declared a state of emergency,
T excitedly announced the helicopters overhead while my heart broke into a million tiny pieces over his innocence. We were all that innocent once. Even those abhorrently marching through the streets with false beliefs of superiority suffer from an underlying fear of the truth: that we are all mere mortals, no matter the color of our skin or the content of our bank account. It’s easier to get mixed up in a whirlwind of meaningless, inflated identity. The vulnerability, our sameness, is too much to take.
What has always surprised me about mindfulness is its complexity. Just being in the moment seems simple enough, but it is anything but. Truly taking everything in, as it is, can make your brain feel like it wants to short circuit. The news of a car driving through a crowd of pedestrians on the same block where J gave me a peck on the cheek en route to date night last week seems absurd. Racial epithets being chanted in the same area where a troubadour is usually singing, Gilmore Girls style, is unthinkable.
This week we are moving…across the cul de sac from where we currently live. That’s how much we love our neighborhood and town. In fact, J and I built our relationship on the shared wish of making a good life. After living together in New York and Chicago, we chose our town based on its merits and the central location required for J’s job. It seemed like the perfect respite from years of scraping-by-city-living. And it has been very good to us, so good that sometimes the planet’s troubles get momentarily drowned out by singing birds. But never for long and never for good.
I once imagined I would get sleepy in my sleepy town, but life keeps shaking me awake. Just when my gaze starts to soften, I get jolted back into stark focus and there it is. The peacefulness of my little backyard. A helicopter flying overhead (was it the one that later crashed?). My son’s sweet laughter. The inconvenient truth that our country was created by people fighting for their own freedom while simultaneously denying the freedoms of others. Hate. Love. And everything in between. You can’t hide from the realities of life by moving out of the big city. We are always connected to everything and everyone, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.
The unfortunate thing about mindfulness is that you have to be mindful of it all, even when it hurts. Especially when it hurts. Why would you want such a thing? It is impossible to fully feel joy without fully feeling pain. And it is impossible to feel whole without fully feeling. And until we feel whole we’ll be searching outside of ourselves for acceptance. And that is when the unrest becomes dangerous, rippling outward.
I wish it were easier. Like I could watch T sleeping without worrying about losing him like I lost Eve. Like I could be excited about our new home without wondering if more senseless violence will occur down the street. The truth is, there is no one without the other. Joy and pain are a package deal. Even when all of me doesn’t want to be awake, the deepest part of me does. It’s that part that keeps me honest. And so I’ll keep practicing. For my own sake and the sake of the world around me. In search of a peace to ripple outward.
A peaceful stroll on the downtown mall