Around the time I turned 5, my father would announce “quiet time” in the mid-day.
My older siblings read books and tackled homework, but I was placed underneath the dining room table, at his feet, and wait for the torturous silence to end. In-between the bursts of boredom, something would happen. Sometimes I would get caught up in the wonderful task of being a spider, crawling along the woodgrain of the table. Sometimes I would tackle the precision work of organizing crumbs and pet hairs, making ready a whole new civilization in the purple patterns of the oriental rug.
One day, I remember him touching my shoulder and saying my name.
I startled a bit. Huh? What? It was like I had just woken up, only I wasn’t sleeping and I wasn’t daydreaming. Things seemed out of place – different than they had been just seconds before. I couldn’t tell what was different, but textures and light and the sensations in my body had all been spun around. I looked up and realized that he had said my name a few times. This experience created a container for a kind of self-aware wonderment which persists today.
At 12 years old, a group of bullies at Boy Scout camp thought it would be amusing to carry my cot out of my tent, with me sleeping in it, and gently deposit me in the middle of a vast field. The idea was that I would wake up and be upset. But I wasn’t asleep. I kept my eyes closed and played the part as best I could, waiting until all of their whispers and footsteps were far away before I opened my eyes.
I looked up at one of the clearest night skies I have ever seen, with the fuzz and glow of the Milky Way and an endless array of stars and planets. I laid there for over an hour, coming and going between internal dialogue and spacious, thoughtless, wordless liberation. A part of my consciousness lit up that entire field. All that existed beyond sky were the textures, colors, the shape of the field, even the swaying of nearby trees around its border and subtle lapping of water against the banked canoes on the nearby lake.
These moments weren’t what one would call mindfulness per say, but they are a rich part of what makes intentional living worth the effort. These and many other experiences were instrumental in that they gave me a magical option: a destination far greater than the mere endurance of suffering. Today I’ve settled on a series of “good ideas” and example practices which carry me, day by day and hopefully, to a life of greater and greater present awareness. The aim is not to find an ideal meditation technique, or to live just for transcendental moments of existential bliss, but to LIVE mindfully as much as possible.
No matter how long I spend in this journey, every day feels like the first.
To follow are what I believe to be the most common stumbling blocks to living intentionally – specifically obstacles to living mindfully.
1. Ongoing Effort
The longer you practice mindfulness consistently, the easier it gets, and the more joyful life becomes. When I lose myself for more than a few days, however, I typically must start back at the beginning. First, thoughts are in chaos: everything seems out of control. Yet the more focus (on being fully where you are in the moment), the more peace and stillness there is to be found in each moment.
Mindfulness must be practiced throughout the day, not just during easy silent times and meditation. The best way to transition back towards peace, or to begin the practice for the first time, is through sadhana.
2. Liberation From Blame.
I find that the more effort I place on becoming mindful throughout my day, the more life can become complicated. Problems, dramas, car crashes, travel delays, you name it – suddenly the world seems acutely problematic.
The first truth to conquer (it tooke me years to discover this) is that life has not changed as some quirky divine trick by the “universe” or any other higher power. What has changed is my focus, because mindfulness takes effort and lazy minds thrive on blame. My mind will “make” my life more chaotic (at least in perception and emotion) as a tactic to avoid present awareness. Then “I” am not to blame for failing to practice mindfulness. It was the boogie man whodunnit.
“I tried to be mindful but traffic was bad.”
“I wanted to be in the present moment but my child was having a tantrum.”
Fast forward: complications, drama, stress and other excuses are actually the best opportunities to practice present moment awareness. In the end they help me become stronger and better aware of my emotional processes which take me away from mindfulness.
They are there to help you grow and to realize who you truly are. I find this book helpful.
3. Progress = Patience.
Progress may seem slow. Ego wants results and is quick to throw up his hands in exasperation. When I attach to things and situations that I want, it becomes difficult to be fully present. It’s impossible to be mindful when dwelling on the past or the future.
True progress is the practice of ongoing release and acceptance. Once I release the attachment and focus on being grateful for what I have in the moment, my life seems to shift, and progress seems to happen naturally.
This doesn’t mean we don’t have goals. It means we remember what they are: GOALS. They are not necessary conditions for living joyfully, but the practice of mindfulness is.
4. You Will Never Arrive.
You’ve heard it plenty: the reward is in the journey.
And yet humans need goals so they can have a sense of purpose and fulfillment. It is in the journey that we learn, grow, and become better. When practicing mindfulness, there is a destination, and that attainment is the present moment. Otherwise there is nowhere to arrive at. Focus on what is going on right now, and your goal is met. Try to become a “mindful person” or criticise your success at the end of the day and the entire purpose is lost.
This obstacle has a very close cousin: boredom. Find mindfulness boring? Depending on where I am coming from, IT IS! The part of me that is always busy, always chasing, always self-advocating and enlarging… he HATES mindfulness! But he also makes me and those around me miserable. This is the side of ego I have to face down the most. I find truth in accepting that drama is more stimulating to a fearful mind than the beautiful textures of that pebble sitting on the ground in front of me.
But choose the pebble and as soon as ego forgets to hold its grip, mindfulness wins over drama every time.
5. Anywhere But Now.
Life is filled with difficult situations and chaotic thoughts. Accepting the moment for what it is is a lifelong practice. But if the now is intolerable, the only true liberation is present awareness.
Our world is designed for escaping the present moment and there are infinite devices and experiences to accomplish this. During my divorce I would sometimes watch 2 or 3 movies in a row just to escape my thoughts and feelings. But if I spent just 30 minutes on a meditation cushion I found infinite degrees of relief. For me this is the biggest challenge in living intentionally. Sometimes life roars up and attacks, and the only true solution is to simply observe what roars up within me. Usually life isn’t up to squat. The attacker is on the inside. And like Mr. Smith says, how I interpret the moment boils down to a choice (which takes mindfulness to recognize in the moment and in that space, make the choice of peace).