The first time I taught Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was during the summer of 2006. I had just completed my mindfulness teacher training at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness a month earlier. I was confident in my skills, having worked as a therapist for several years and become comfortable with discomfort. At the same time I was nervous about this first class, mostly driven by my concern to provide a helping experience. In addition, the only guided meditations I had led to that point were in my teacher training, and all of the “students” I was “teaching” were experienced meditators. So this first class was a leap into the unknown.
I had managed to recruit 15 attendees, and rented space at a local Catholic retreat center called Jesus House. The owners, Chris and Angie Malmgren, created a safe, quiet, pastoral setting that was clearly Catholic in culture but not overwhelmingly so. The room I used was a stand-alone small building facing an open field with lots of windows and light streaming in from the west. In the early afternoon the room was resplendent, truly a peaceful place to meditate and address stress related issues.
After introductions were concluded we started our first meditation, which was a sitting meditation lasting 15 minutes. None of the attendees had any experience with meditation; all expressed concern that they “wouldn’t be any good at it,” a pretty typical reaction from most non-meditators. After assuring them that all they had to do was sit and follow the sound of my voice as I directed their attention in a mindful way, we commenced that first meditation. The room became quiet; perhaps better to say the room was enveloped in stillness. Everything felt right.
Five minutes into that first meditation the landscaping crew arrived and began their work. Four large mowers, the kind that one rides standing on the back portion of the blade housing, were moving at a quick pace around the grounds immediately outside of our room, engines roaring in unison. The sound was deafening; I nearly had to shout to be heard above the din. I began to feel panic; this ruined everything! I took a breath, noticed my body’s reactivity, noticed the sounds, noticed my mind. With no application of reasoning power or logic, I heard myself say:
“Continuing to follow the rhythm of your breathing, seeing if you can also be aware of the sound from the mowers alongside the sensations of breathing.”
I let go of my need for silence in the room. I kept breathing, noticing. I heard myself say:
“Noticing if you’re having feelings about the mowers’ sounds. Perhaps being OK with those feelings. Then gently returning your mind’s attention to your breathing.”
I let go again. I was breathing, noticing, accepting. I heard my mind’s voice say “Noise is just noise, there is no ‘good meditation’ or ‘bad meditation.’ There is no ‘good noise’ or ‘bad noise.’ Are you awake right now? Are you breathing?” Then I heard myself say:
“In a few moments we’ll bring this meditation to a close. Using these remaining moments to be completely present with your body, your breath, your mind. Noticing whatever is present and seeing if you can be OK with all of it.”
I sensed how calm I felt. In control. I sensed how powerful this short meditation had been for me. I had let go of the “necessary” outcome. I had just let myself be present.”
After everyone returned their attention to the room, with the mowers still at work, I asked what it was like to use their minds that way. The summation of responses was clear:
“When the mowers arrived I thought “well that ruins everything!” But I learned to just notice what is happening in each moment; to be ok with whatever comes to my awareness. Every moment, it turns out, is worthwhile.”
At that moment I knew that I could teach this skill. I am so grateful to those landscapers!
When I tell people that I teach meditation the most common response I get is “Oh, I’ve tried to meditate. I can’t do it; I’m terrible at it.” This response makes sense in the context of how meditation is represented in the popular press and media, but it misses the point. There is no “good meditation” and “bad meditation.” Either you are meditating or you are not. Actually, I prefer to say either you are mindful or you are not. When I choose to meditate in a formal way my mind becomes focused and non-judgmental; in that moment I am meditating. A few seconds later my mind wanders into “story land,” or perhaps I may feel a judgment arise about myself or someone else or some thing that comes to my mind. In those moments I am not mindful; I am not meditating. Then I notice I am in story land and take a breath; I’ve begun to meditate again, and will continue until the next time my mind wanders back to story land. It can go on like that for quite a while, but the more intention I bring to my meditation session the longer the mindful periods persist and the more able I become to notice when I am not mindful. This is a skill that can be developed with intentionality and discipline. That’s up to you.
So you might want to try this simple way to introduce mindfulness to your day-to-day experience. At the beginning of your day commit to the intention to ask yourself this question from time to time:
“Am I breathing right now?”
It’s a pretty simple question to answer. If your answer is “no,” then you have bigger problems than meditation can resolve! Your answer, of course, will be “yes” most of the time.
When you stop to ask yourself this question, you’ve become mindful. “Yes, I”m breathing.” Now in that mindful moment look around, perhaps within your body/mind or perhaps around you. Notice something: a pleasant feeling or taste, a relaxed body, the breeze on your face, the feeling of sunshine, a friend or a friendly face, the laugh of a child….. The list of possibilities here is endless. In that moment that you’ve said “Yes, I am breathing” take another moment to notice something else, staying fully present with whatever it is. Maybe for a few seconds, maybe even a full minute. Or, if you’re feeling radical, just stop whatever you’re doing, put away your phone, push away the keyboard, lay your pen on the table. Stop and stay present with whatever you found when you noticed you were breathing. And when you’ve fully embraced that moment of wakefulness do something really radical: Smile! Now notice how that makes you feel. Then let go of the smile and return your attention to the events of the day, until the next time you notice your mind wondering “Am I breathing right now?”
Who knows, you may find the experience to be so pleasant, so helpful, that you begin to set aside time to do this simple exercise. And then your response to the next meditator you meet will be “Me too; I like to take time to be mindful as well!”