Mindfulness has always come easily to me, or I should say I’ve been drawn to it for a long time. The concept of “what is” made sense to me in my early 20’s when having a discussion with my father about goals in life. We were having some conversation at my grandparent’s house, about what I do not recall, or perhaps there was some newspaper article we were talking about where the subject matter was regarding goals in life. In any case I can still remember him saying something like, “…but more is always better right?” or “The goal is to get more isn’t it?” or “Isn’t more better than less?” I don’t know why these words remain in my memory 35 years later, but I responded with, “No.” And somehow that lives as a landmark of my recognition that I am wired to be more attracted to quality over quantity, and acceptance of how things are over how we think they should be.
I’m not sure this is a perfect line-up but the essence that remains with me is my draw to Eastern principles of acceptance and non-grasping. I was different than my parents and community in this way and it is no surprise I ended up in much of the work I do (a modern dancer, Alexander Technique teacher and mindfulness writer). My response to my father probably startled me as much as it did him, falling outside the American mainstream mentality, or at least his norm that he assumed was mine. When I became exposed to various Eastern practices some years later, the concepts always made sense to me, specifically acceptance, non-doing and non-attachment.
While in graduate school, right after college, I was introduced to Transcendental Meditation by a close friend who believed it would quell my anxiety. I loved it and it became a regular practice twice each day for two years. I was currently living in Boston and would do it anywhere I needed to if I were not at home: city park benches, subways, wherever I could close my eyes and invoke my designated mantra, allowing thoughts to come and go without clinging to them or pushing them away. This calmed my system tremendously. In addition to self-help books I was reading, many with an Eastern bent, I would have to say meditation was the beginning of my life-long status of recognizing thoughts as something extraneous to happiness and balance. Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Thich Nhat Hahn’s Miracle of Mindfulness and Steven Levine’s book, A Gradual Awakening (presenting vipassana) all later expanded my skill of watching thoughts in an isolated exercise of sitting (my education from TM), into a realization that not taking thoughts seriously could be extended to an all-day affair. I mean that these awareness techniques were becoming internalized as a full-time self-inquiry, i.e., not indulging information in my mental chatter as it habitually floated through my head, as well as not emotionally attaching to events in my life as they were represented in my thought process.
So, am I talking about meditation and self-inquiry or am I talking about mindfulness? Are they the same? Being that there are many types of meditation, and the word mindfulness is used in many different forms, for me I guess the merging point is that they are the opposite sides of the same coin. When I disregard thoughts, it is a process of devaluing their content as something to identify with regarding my life. They are background noise; though something that must be there (and dealt with), they are not the main attraction of what’s happening in my life. I think I sensed early on that there was something more real going on that was not about this inner dialogue. The fact that I could close my eyes, focus on my mantra and feel so good having thoughts move to the backdrop was powerful. Though throughout my 20’s and 30’s I was periodically engaged in psychotherapy (which naturally encouraged paying attention to certain messages), the pull toward self-inquiry and meditation was very strong for me.
So, what is the opposite side of the coin of meditation and self-inquiry (in the way I am referring to them)? Initially, I would have just said presence, or being, or being in the present moment, or being in the now. That is how it was portrayed in most of my readings and awareness educations. When I began my 3-year certification process to be an Alexander Technique teacher at age 32, there was a lot of consideration of mindfulness. Being familiar with meditation was the perfect lead up to this training since I was already comfortable ignoring/dismissing the muck in my mind, a technical mode that supports being aware of one’s body in the present moment. Someone like Thich Nhat Hahn presents this beautifully in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. I mostly remember his description of doing the dishes. Perhaps because I was a long-time dancer and heavily steeped in the Alexander Technique it was easy for me to notice my body’s activity in the moment; I can’t know the effect his book would have on others, but for me it made the sensory experience (of doing the dishes) very accessible and pleasant. Though I am attempting in this article to point out which education and personal practices led to the particular body of work I developed and write books on (Mindful Reality), of course nothing in life is a direct line.
Since around 2009, I have been intensely embedded in a constant mindful awareness where I notice my body in its activities almost as much as I notice my thoughts. For me, mindfulness has become about recognizing the body as the initiator, the decider, the mover, the doer, the physical actor in the space it is occupying, and acknowledging that what we call action is simply this physical behavior in real time, not our thoughts about our actions. The fact that our whole body is always here (if we’re alive), continually coordinating with the flow of time in all its doings whether or not we are aware of it, feeling mentally present, or paying attention to the now, is what fascinates me and what I like to share with others. One doesn’t need to be present to be present. Though we may space out of conscious presence, we can never drop out of occupying space or our physical existence and movement/activity/action. The real story of our life (how we spend our time) occurs automatically. We can find out what that is if we happen to notice what we are doing, but our actions are not dependent on that observation. Just knowing that thoughts are only predictive, speculative comments and not a person’s real-life physical behavior makes them less interesting to me. Though what we see may not be to our liking, it is a more truthful account than our mental stories.
I suspect my form of mindfulness is a bit different than most, which tends to strictly be about a mental or sensory awareness of what one is doing, or an experience of what is going on around one (the sights, sounds, smells, touch, etc.). But I adore knowing that regardless of what my mental or sensorial state is, my physical body (which is the only me that exists) is always present in the space in a continuous state of involuntary action. That is the main attraction of my life. Being present in the usual way it is considered doesn’t make one more present in reality. This is funny to think about, but we can relax into knowing there is nothing to do to make ourself be or act correctly. Existence and right action are one and the same.