Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Wanting Mindlessness

Mindfulness disciplines teach that the best way toward happiness is to be present with unhappiness in an open, accepting and curious way. For example, tonight when I’m feeling really worn out mindfulness suggests that I be open to this. That perhaps I could engage in a mindful body scan and notice what that tiredness feels like in different parts of my body, and what other feelings are associated with it, and then just quietly, calmly sit with them. The analogy is to sit with them the way a parent might sit with a child who has awoken from a nightmare; the feelings should be held tenderly and not pushed away. The goal of the practice is not to get rid of the feelings, although often this kind of gentle awareness does result in the feelings lessening and dissolving, but just to be present to and non-judgmental of our own experience.

This contrasts with our usual efforts to get rid of our negative feelings. Most of us, when feeling sad, fearful, angry or shamed, become alarmed on a biological as well as an emotional and cognitive level. We have modes that we activate to try to get rid of these unpleasant feelings, which are usually patterns of reaction that we have learned and practiced over and over again through our lives. Some of us try to think and analyze our feelings to death: “Why do I feel this way? What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with my life? What do I need to change?” Some of us try to ignore those feelings completely, pushing them out of awareness which usually results in the feelings going down into the body, creating headaches, backaches, nausea, and a host of other physical symptoms. Some of us just try to escape our feelings, using whatever means best suits our personalities and experiences: food, drugs, gambling, sex, exercise, television, books, work are all common tools people use to stay away from those yucky feelings. Many of us (including me) use a combination of strategies to do battle with our feelings. Mindfulness feels counter-intuitive; who wants to bring awareness and attention to things that don’t feel good?

I came home from work tonight completely wiped out. It was a rough week last week, I was on call and worked over the weekend, and it’s shaping up to be a busy week this week as well. I'm grumpy, I'm achy and I'm tired. What really sounds good to me is to sit on the couch downstairs, put my feet up, grab some snacks, watch television shows with happy endings, knit and not think about anything. Essentially, what I want is the opposite of mindfulness. I want to be mindless for a while. I know from experience that it will only make me feel better for a short while, while I’m in front of the TV. Then later I will feel more tired and even less enthusiastic about the work week. Also, if I follow through with the snack part of the plan, I will feel bad about eating when I wasn’t actually hungry. I know from many past experiences that mindlessness doesn’t really work, but that’s still what my brain defaults to wanting.

So I’m trying a hybrid plan tonight. I did lay down and do a body scan for about 15 minutes, bringing my kind attention to different parts of my body and my emotions. I invited my daughter to practice with me, which I remind myself gives me many more opportunities for my attention to wander and come back to the practice at hand as well as giving my daughter and I more time together. However, I am going to go downstairs and watch TV and work on my current knitting project next. I am trying to finish a hat and mittens for my daughter before it gets cold. I could knit mindfully (there are books about this, actually) but I’ll be honest. Even after my mindfulness practice, I’m just ready for an escape. I guess that’s what it means when you’re in transition and learning something new. You try out the new things but you aren't quite ready yet to let go of the old. And I guess that's something I can be open to and accepting of as well - mindful even in my mindlessness!