A few weeks ago I led a short retreat for a group of people in our Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program along with my teaching partner, Shannon Ayres. It was a gorgeous November day, a bit blustery and cold but fueled by the inner warmth of our shared spiritual journeys. We were joined by our current students and by old friends as well, which made the day very special.
During the course of the day one of the current MBSR students described her version of “monkey mind,” an affliction we’ve all experienced. She said that when her mind wandered repeatedly she discovered a scolding voice that told her “you should stay focused, you should stay focused” over and over again. With a small smile she described it as “shoulding on myself,” and we all agreed that we’ve done some “shoulding” too. Then one of our veteran meditators in attendance, Kristen, offered sage advice. She told us that when she finds her mind wandering she discovers her voice that states “a kinder phrase such as “oh, what an opportunity to be mindful,” turning the criticism into an attitude of curiosity and acceptance and maybe being more likely to to notice that opportunity in the future.”
To me this seemed like such a simple intervention but also a very powerful one. In our mindfulness training we learn to be focused, and there are tremendous benefits to this focus. But of equal importance, and maybe even more important, is that we train the mind to be gentle, forgiving, and accepting. Kristen’s remark reminded me that having monkey mind is actually a benefit, in that we get to be gentle, forgiving, and accepting over and over again, each time our minds wander away from the simple breath that keeps us alive. By noticing and responding to the wandering mind with Kristen’s gentle voice we become skilled at being gentle, forgiving, and accepting. Living in a world consumed with being dominant rather than gentle, punitive rather than forgiving, and judgmental rather than accepting, Kristen’s gentle voice is a true antidote to our suffering.
Another simple intervention for our wandering minds is to find your voice that can say “that’s OK, that’s OK” whenever focus is lost. In the moment we notice our minds are adrift a simple reassurance like this helps us to regain our mindful state and to cultivate a deep state of compassion and caring for ourselves, and ultimately for each other.
By the way, isn’t it wonderful to teach! My students become my teachers, and leave me in a state of awe when I witness their wisdom. In an email exchange with Kristen about our recent retreat she went on to share with me her point of view about the phenomenon of shared mindfulness practice in a group setting. She told me that mindfulness “provides a sense of connectedness, not only to humans but spiritually as well. Which, for me, provides a sense of hope. In times of stress or struggle I am able to sit and reconnect with the greatness we are all born from and know that this greatness is bigger than any challenge I am facing.”
There’s nothing I can add to Kristen’s wisdom except to consider how blessed I am to have students who become my teachers.