When you speak to people about mindfulness they often say, ‘Oh, I do that already.’ And this can be true. The Buddha wasn’t inventing something new when he taught mindfulness, he was summarising and sharing a practice that had supported him and had the potential to support others. It might be seen as a system when we describe the four foundations of mindfulness, but it’s really made up of things most of us do anyway to some degree. What we may not realise is how developing mindfulness more fully can support our sense of wellbeing.
When we look at our sensations, our reactions, our mind states, and our thoughts, in a fundamental sense we’re looking at our energy system. We may tend to relate to these experiences in terms of the form they take but on another, deeper level it’s all about energy. For example, when we feel threatened our response to that is to bring more energy into this form; to really energise ourselves. On an emotional level we might experience that as anger or a fear/anger response but we’re really just building the energy within to deal with a perceived threat.
If we spend our lives feeling insecure and threatened then we can have a lower level, background sense of fear or anxiety. Through mindfulness we can with practice start to notice these feelings more clearly and at first this can be an unsettling discovery; they aren’t always pleasant. But they are based on a natural response if we’re feeling insecure or threatened.
We do tend to spend a lot of time in thought and by ‘perceived threat’ what we’re often referring to is a story in thought about something that might happen in the future. As someone pointed out to me, thoughts of the future are like playing a slot machine. Most often we lose our coin but occasionally they pay out. In terms of our thoughts of the future we have a similar strike rate, but just one occasional lucky guess can reaffirm our belief that these stories we make in our heads are worth all of the time we invest in them. We seem to forget all of the thoughts we had about possible outcomes that never happened, even though we might have been so bought into these we spent a lot of time worrying over them.
What mindfulness enables us to do is to bring our attention right back to this; this moment right here in the real world. It helps us to see that all of the stories in thought are not real, they’re just the mind churning out stories, which is what minds do. Freeing ourselves from our voluntary enslavement to thoughts as real, we can start to look at the experience happening right now in the moment. And that’s where we see these energies playing out; building up through fear or anger, stored away as anxiety or released as we let go of a negative belief.
But there is a natural state for a human being to be in that doesn’t involve all of this constant drama and fear and anxiety. When the heart is in an open and relaxed state then the energy that is all around us flows in and out easily. It’s a bit like the energy system in a house. If you look outside and it’s a nice day you might open a few windows. You might even open the front and back door. When you do the warmth and the fresh air circulates and it’s pleasant. You wouldn’t dream of closing all the windows and doors and putting the heating on, on a warm sunny day, but that’s exactly our response if all we see is based on thoughts of worrying possible futures rather than on what’s real right now.
When we’re not believing thought stories about the potential threat in every situation and around every corner, we can relax and allow the heart to be open. When it’s in this state a natural energy flows and circulates. But when we perceive a threat, the heart closes and we bring in energy in other ways such as fear and anger, but these feel less stable and far less pleasant than the peaceful flow of the energy around us. In this sense, love is just the awakening to the oneness of all that we feel more easily when the heart is open. The heart is our biggest energy centre and so it’s the place where we can feel this most clearly and strongly.
So the trick is to notice when the heart naturally relaxes and opens and when it contracts – both can be painful in different ways if it happens quickly. Then we start to see how and where we’re investing time and energy in thoughts that generate fear, anger and anxiety and to break this cycle by bringing attention back to this moment; back to the body, back to the senses, back to the feelings; taking time to notice these and not get caught in the re-runs of old fears playing over and over in our heads. We often find when we do this that right now it’s actually okay. We can cope with this. And just this simple letting go can feel pleasant and freeing.
This moment is the only place that we can ever act, it’s the only thing that’s real. The more time we spend with this and not lost in thought then the easier and lighter our hearts become. It’s such a simple trick, it just requires practice. But it’s one worth investing some effort in. It takes a little time to break old habits and create new ones but once established, the habit of mindful presence in the moment, aware of the senses, reactions, thoughts and feelings brings a richness and a freedom to our lives that more than rewards the time we put into it.
We find a natural balance and a more steady and centred way to be, just letting this be as it is and responding naturally and in accordance with circumstances, rather than from our fears, our conditioning and our thought habits. All it takes is a little bit of time and effort.