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Mindful : June 2016
It’s 5:30 on a Sunday morning and you wake from your slumber to hear the kids stirring in their bedrooms down the hall. “ Your turn to get up,” you say, nudging your partner. So he does, drowsily leaving the room only to return a few minutes later—followed, not surprisingly, by your two kids. As they happily bounce on the bed, you grump- ily try to convince them to go play on their own. It’s no use. While your partner snuggles back under the covers, you drag yourself out of bed. Later that morning you find a moment to talk with your partner. “ What happened? I thought it was your turn to get up with the kids today.” He shrugs. “They really should be able to enter- tain themselves at their age, shouldn’t they?” You feel yourself bristle. “Maybe they should, but they never have. Why did you expect anything different today?” The concept of mindfulness often brings up images of relaxation, stillness, or acting in some beatific, staid manner. Indeed, there’s a widely held assumption that being mindful means you’re always calm and in control. And because of this perception, mindfulness itself is some- times miscast as a set-up for personal failure. “Life’s hard enough without aiming for being mindful all the time.” Yet the notion that mindfulness imparts some unrealistic state of human perfection misses the point. Not only does it not equal perfection, it encourages quite the opposite view of our lives. For as much as you’d like to think you could be cheerful and understanding about—maybe even grateful for—your children’s abundant early Mindfulness does not impart a magical state of perfection. Life is unendingly unpredictable, and imperfection is the norm. How we live with these facts determines our moment-to-moment well-being. morning energ y and generous about your part- ner’s need to catch up on sleep, too, you’re tired, and yes, annoyed. The reality is that living peace- fully with our families, friends, and colleagues requires patience with an awful lot of things. Most anywhere in life, being mindful starts in part with accepting the fact that we cannot ever be fully mindful in the first place. Our brains just aren’t wired that way. And life itself is unendingly unpredictable; imperfection is the norm. It’s how we live with these facts that influences our moment-to-moment well-being. So, sure, one aspect of mindfulness is aiming to be more focused. That’s because otherwise most of us spend much of our time doing one thing while paying attention to something else. We’re not aware in any useful way about what we’re doing, saying, or thinking. Not only do we miss out on many meaningful moments when we do this, we also fail to notice the assumptions and choices we’re making throughout the day. Yet even when we actively practice mindful- ness, we can’t sustain focused attention for long. Over and over again we get distracted by our own minds. Sure, when we notice ourselves lost in thought, we bring ourselves back to present awareness—until the next time our minds wander. Mindfulness practice has distinct benefits— otherwise it would be pretty silly to bother—but there’s no particular end point where anything becomes “perfect.” Rather than getting caught up in being sol- emn and serious about that paradox, it’s useful to bring along a sense of humor: Consider how earnestly we aim our attention, only to have a chorus of concerns, pain, or excitement take over. We aim to be less reactive and driven by habit but become derailed by both again and again. Clearly, when it comes to mindfulness, we spend an awful lot of effort striving for some- thing not ever fully attainable. The mind often does what it wants without our knowing consent and not always to its own benefit—a somewhat twisted and at times outright silly state in which we live. We rely on the mind to figure things out, but it doesn’t even know what’s good for it! Mindfulness, however, also does not mean I’m perfect just the way I am. It’s not that life’s “All good,” as the common maxim indicates. Those kinds of clichés don’t mean much—we all could use some improvement, and sometimes life isn’t particularly good. Instead, when we recognize that we’re lost once again in feeling we “should” be perfect at being mindful, we practice letting that thought go, and get back to doing our best without the extra layers of exhausting self-judgment. → 46 mindful June 2016 well-being