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Mindfulness includes mindfulness of the chaotic mind (not only of the pretty flowers)

In the book, Mindful Compassionyou will find an important sub-heading: Mindfulness of the Chaotic Mind, Not Just the Still Mind” (see chapter five). The book is written by psychologist, Paul Gilbert, and mindfulness and compassion meditation instructor, Choden. The 10-word sub-heading is so important, containing a key concept, practice, and lesson in and of itself.

As Paul Gilbert and Choden noted in their book, mindfulness is not without controversy and there are differing definitions and approaches (see chapter five, including for samples of definitions). For this article, I will define mindfulness as intentional moment-to-moment awareness of experience without evaluation or judgment of it. Further, I will anchor this definition into the wider context of a motive of compassion and care so that mindfulness is a process and practice we are utilizing in order to help us live, as best we can, with wisdom and with a caring orientation.

It is common for people to equate mindfulness meditation practices or mindfulness itself with goals such as stilling the mind, attaining a state of deep peace, relaxation, having perfect concentration, and/or  having “no thoughts”. When people try meditation and cannot achieve one of these things, they sometimes end up reporting that mindfulness “doesn’t work” or they “can’t do it” or “it’s too hard”. A reason they give for this is that their “minds wander all over the place” and, additionally, some of the places their minds wander to can be stressful, chaoticpainful, or distressing. An assumption they are making is that their experience is supposed to be different than this. However…

The observation of chaos is not a failure.

The observation of chaos is not reflective of doing meditation improperly, or of being inadequate, or of doing something wrong. If there is any mistake made in this, it is the mistake of letting judgment have such a strong hold—the judgment that tells you that the chaotic, wandering mind is a failed attempt at mindfulness or at meditation.

Mindfulness is a process of observing in a nonjudgmental way what is happening moment-by-moment, being aware of what is happening, making contact with what is happening, and also, in a sense, being able to step back, too. Let’s suppose you are using your breath as an anchor. You are following the sensation and movement of your breath (the experience of your breath, and of your body breathing) as best you can. When you notice you are no longer connected to your breath and that you are thinking about other things, noticing other things, you make note of what is happening in that moment, where you are, where your mind is. You then, intentionally bring the focus of your attention back to the anchor of you breath…

Doing just that is a process of mindfulness. You are paying attention, noticing where your attention is, what you are aware of, returning to “paying attention” when you realize your mind has wandered — without judgment of yourself or what is happening — and doing this again and again and again. Doing just that = you “successfully” practicing mindfulness, with your chaotic mind and all.

Mindfulness is not just about the stillness and the pretty flowers and the pleasant feelings. It is also about the chaos and the mud and pain and pounding rain too. (A summary that is strongly influenced by the poetry of Mary Oliver.)



Photo by Gavin Mills of Toronto, ON. Source: Thanks Gavin.