Mindfulness Has an Edge

(originally on the Huffington Post 10/10/11)


When we practice mindfulness meditation, one of the first things we notice is how un-mindful we are. It is like going back to the gym and realizing how out of shape we have become. It can actually be a little irritating. We might think, “I don’t know about this meditation thing” because at first we mostly notice how out of sync we are.

Some people get frustrated right away, but this is actually a great place to start — just like going to the gym with our little pot belly and oxygen-deprived body is also a great place to start. We just have to be patient, kind to ourselves and willing to try.

To practice mindfulness properly, we have to cut through a kind of daydream quality in our mind. Often we are engaging in some activity — riding the subway, driving a car, having a business meeting — but our mind is somewhere else, lost in a daydream. If you look at people sitting on a bus or on a train you can often see this quality in their eyes. Whether we’re having a pleasant or unpleasant daydream, we are cutting through all of that with mindfulness practice.

The awakened mind is sharp and clear. Sometimes the gateway to it can be an experience of irritation, or even shock — not entirely unlike waking up suddenly from a dream. “My goodness, I’m on the subway here. That’s a human being walking by with one leg and a cup … and a strong smell”. Suddenly we become completely present with whatever is actually around us — whether it is pleasant or not. At these times, it’s as if our world is shaking us and waking us up with a kind of sharp edge.

Our world can also wake us up in a peaceful and beguiling way. We might notice the details of a beautiful flower, or the delicious smell of a bakery as we walk by daydreaming about our troubled economy.

In either case, there is a regular and recurring invitation to bring our attention back to the present moment and relate to what is right in front of us. Practicing mindfulness is simply recognizing this invitation to be present, and being willing to accept the invitation when it comes.

In the Buddhist tradition, one recommendation for practicing mindfulness is to lean into its sharp edge — so that we’re not seduced into going back to sleep, back into our daydream. It’s like the movie “The Matrix” — the red pill or the blue pill — one will wake us up and the other will let us continue in the dream world. Do we want to go back into that daydream, or do we want to wake up? When we become aware it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re waking up into a paradise.

Is this world a paradise? Well, yes and no, right? It depends on our attitude. But the point is, it’s not a dull paradise where everything is perfect and comes easily. It’s a sharp paradise, with edges and clarity. It’s vivid and poignant.

When looking to see if somebody is trained in mindfulness, sharpness and wakefulness are the mark to look for — more so than a blissful, spaced-out quality in which they love everybody, but don’t remember exactly why. Mindfulness is the core practice of the Buddhist teachings, but it can be practiced by anybody — and it has an edge.

To explore this practice further, here are basic instructions from an article I posted a while back.

As usual all comments are welcome.

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5 Responses to “Mindfulness Has an Edge”

  1. Brenda Patoine says:

    Thanks for this excellent — and motivating — article David! As someone who keeps trying to live a more mindful life, but then find myself doing something that convinces me I’m still in the “spaced-ou­t” camp, your advice to “be patient, be kind to yourself and be willing to try” (or keep trying!) offers some hope and reassuranc­e.

    For anyone interested in the neuroscien­ce aspects of mindfulnes­s, there was a great conference in NYC Oct 1 called “Creating a Mindful Society.” Richard Davidson, a neuroscien­tist at University of Wisconsin-­Madison, gave a keynote that beautifull­y summarized the state of the science of meditation­. You can view his talk and others from the event free through October here: http://liv­e.soundstr­ue.com/eve­nt/event.p­hp

    Thanks for the article!

  2. maab76 says:

    Wonder why the medical applicatio­ns of mindfulnes­s were not included in this article. Might want to check out what Rush University Medical Center is goind with it both in the University and in practice.

    • David Nichtern says:

      @maab76 – Greetings.­.. I actually was presenting this more from the Buddhist traditiona­l approach (which has obviously been adopted wonderfull­y by medical and health care profession­als). Whereas I am certainly aware of this aspect of applied mindfulnes­s, I am by no means an expert in it, so I will leave it to others like yourself to steer the conversati­on in that direction. It is fascinatin­g that so much medical data seems to back up the benefits of mindfulnes­s practice. BTW I actually never mentioned “brain” in my article but HuffPost put that in the title…. In Buddhism, we would more often refer to “mind” as the center of cognition. In some sense it is a much broader definition of the seat of “conscious­ness”. Please feel free to write back in and fill us all in with any good points you might have in relation to the medical aspect… thanks and best, DN

  3. Rea Wilke says:

    Great article! Being mindful takes practice, but we must be patient with ourselves. Practice makes perfect.
    Thank you for your post.
    Rea Wilke

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