We’ve all been there. You’re exhausted, overwhelmed, irritable, and faced with yet another crisis. How do you screw up your energy and courage to respond, when it seems like you have nothing left to give?
One of the reasons meditation and mindfulness have been getting so much attention recently is that they seem to help people meet those difficult moments with more grace and ease. That’s because mindfulness is all about being completely present with what’s happening now, and letting go of both our judgment of the situation, and all the stories we have about what happened before and what might happen next. That complete focus on the present clears the way for ease and compassionate action.
But meditation isn’t a magic pill: you don’t start meditating one day, and then the next face every situation with total calm, relaxation, and equanimity. It’s more of an evolution than a sudden shift. It takes both time “on the cushion” - practicing meditation - and time “off the cushion” - practicing mindfulness in your day-to-day life - to evolve your mindset.
The Theory Behind A More Helpful Mindset
Of course, we all would prefer a magic pill – and if you want to accelerate that evolution, try marinating on this key concept:
Nothing that happens in your life is either good, or bad. Your thoughts about what you’re experiencing determine how you react to it.
If you think about it, you already know this to be true. How many times has an event seemed awful, and then turned out to be a tremendous gift? (The classic example is getting laid off or fired, which seems tragic and humiliating, but often enables you to make great leaps in your professional life.)
Or you went through an experience that was simultaneously incredibly painful and joyful, like giving birth?
Let’s take that idea one step further. If nothing that happens in your life is either good, or bad, then why live your life trying to optimize for more good, and less bad? Granted, this seems to be how we’re all wired to function: give me more pleasure, and less pain!
But step back for a moment, and it becomes clear that many of the things you think will be pleasurable, are fleeting or end up not actually giving you pleasure, and that many of the things you avoid because you think they’ll be painful, teach you incredible lessons.
I’ll give you an example. I love cooking; it gives me a lot of pleasure. Some of that is purely about enjoying the act of preparing food. But some of the pleasure is wrapped up in my desire to please my family – to have them approve of the food I put on the table.
Sometimes, I’ll put a lot of effort into cooking something, and one (if not both) of my kids will take one look and say he’s not eating it. It’s painful when that happens, but only because I’m attached to having the situation work out a particular way: I want them to love what I’m feeding them. On some level, I’m afraid they won’t love me if they don’t love what I’m feeding them, ridiculous as that may sound.
If I let my fear that they won’t like what I feed them stop me from cooking at all, I’ve lost out on enjoying the experience of cooking, as well as learning something about my own need for approval, and, on a practical level, what my kids like and don’t like. I’ve also missed out on the opportunity to help them stretch beyond what they feel comfortable with, by introducing new foods.
In other words, I can see that it’s worth it to risk the possibility of pain, for the joy of the experience itself and the learning I’ll get from it.
You’ve probably heard of this perspective: it’s also known as having a growth mindset.
What if, instead of chasing pleasure and avoiding pain, you paid keen attention to what was actually happening in any given moment? You would still experience all of the physical and emotional responses you have as a human being – you might even experience them more! – but you would be constantly in a growth mindset. Everything that happened to you would become a teachable moment, something to learn from and respond to creatively.
In other words, you would be truly living your life.
So Where Does Meditation Come In?
Mindfulness meditation is a great way to build your ability to be present and aware, putting yourself in a better position to really live each moment of your life and cultivate that growth mindset.
When you practice mindfulness meditation, all you’re doing is noticing. You’re being fully aware of what’s happening, right now, without judgment. Maybe one minute that experience is pleasurable – you have a moment of non-thinking bliss – and then another minute you’re seizing up with pain from a leg cramp. Either way, you’re practicing just noticing your experience, without getting tangled up in your interpretation of it as good, or bad.
As you practice mindfulness meditation over time, you develop your awareness muscle. It becomes less awkward and more natural to relate to the present moment with awareness, rather than chasing what you think will give you pleasure and avoiding what you think will be painful.
The good news is that you don’t have to become a monk and dedicate your life to meditation in order to shift your mindset. You can practice just a few minutes a day, and see a real difference.
Try meditating for just three breaths. Breathe in, and then put your awareness on your out-breath, three times. Focus completely on the out-breath, noticing everything about it and redirecting your attention back to that out-breath when you wander into thought.
Do this periodically throughout your day, and see how it affects the way you relate to what happens to you and around you. I’d love to hear how it goes. Tell me what you notice in the comments below!