“Simple, but not easy.” As anyone who’s ever practiced mindfulness knows, it’s simple to pay attention and feel our breath for a moment. Strengthening awareness into a more continuous habit is the true challenge.
Yet in this very process of getting lost, and connecting again with our present moment experience, the benefits of mindfulness take root. So if we’re interested in building our inner capacities, it’s essential that we understand how to practice patiently. There is a key to strengthening mindfulness that’s often overlooked: how to create a positive feedback loop in our practice.
When we first begin practicing mindfulness, we may have many expectations of what’s “supposed” to happen. After all, the instructions say to sit quietly and feel our breathing. We assume that this is the proper experience we should have. Yet as anyone who’s tried to follow their breath for more than a few moments knows, our minds have much more in store for us!
Often, it goes something like this. We sit down, settle ourselves, and begin feeling one breath. Within a matter of moments, our attention often gets captured by a thought about something we need to do, a conversation we’ve had, or anything other than simply feeling the breath. One thought leads to another, and the process of associative thinking continues for anywhere from a few seconds to many minutes.
At some point, we remember that we’re meditating. Mindfulness returns and we recognize that we’ve been lost in thought. This is the most important moment of mindfulness practice—and yet it is so easy to miss this moment’s value.
What’s your most common response in that moment of waking up from a daydream? If you’re like most folks, it’s some version of self-judgment, criticism, or frustration. It starts with, “Dang!” (or something slightly less benign…) and is often immediately followed by: “I can’t believe I…” or “I’ll never…” Sound familiar?
These kinds of habitual responses fail to take advantage of what’s just happened: mindfulness returned. In other words, the practice is working!
The first challenge we face here is the idea that we’re not supposed to have thoughts while meditating, much less to become preoccupied by or lost in them. The fact of the matter is that thinking is as natural to the mind as hearing is to our ears. What’s more, it’s normal for the attention to follow our thoughts, because that’s what the mind is used to doing. Mindfulness practice is about observing this process, and creating a new habit of awareness through patient re-application of attention.
A second common challenge is the sense that it’s somehow our fault that we have forgotten to be mindful; that it’s by choice our attention has wandered. Here again, we’re operating from a false assumption: that we have control over our minds. Mindfulness practice reveals how strongly the mind is conditioned by forces other than our own will. So, rather than taking the habit of a wandering mind personally (“it’s my fault”), we come to see it as just that: a habit, an ingrained program. It’s through seeing these habits of mind that we have the opportunity to slowly begin to lay down new programs.
The final, and most tragic pattern here is the belief that by reprimanding, chiding, blaming or punishing ourselves we will somehow improve at being mindful. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you had a cat or a dog, and every time she came home you shouted at her, you can imagine the negative impacts of this behavior. Yet this is precisely what we do to ourselves: we berate ourselves somehow believing that this will help us learn to be present.
Consider what the effect would be if instead you celebrated the moment of returning to the present. In welcoming the attention back, we create a positive feedback loop, where we’re encouraged to return and rest in the present moment.
For in that moment, the work of the practice is accomplished: you’re already back. We can try smiling softly and thinking, “Oh, good. The practice is working.” You may be surprised at how much more enjoyable mindfulness practice becomes, not to mention how much mindfulness starts to strengthen.