Monday, February 25, 2013

Nowhere To Go But Here: Building the Mindfulness Muscle

Waiting for the light to change, I stand at a busy intersection. My eyes take in the moving vehicles, but not with any great detail. The wind blows and I notice my right eye waters as I see a person crossing the other street. My backpack is empty on my back and my grocery list is tucked in my wallet. I am on my way to get fresh vegetables and walk a little.  Where am I? Nowhere. My attention drifts to whatever caught it, my mind runs a disjoint movie without even bothering with subtitles. My body sends messages like, "wind on spot of neck by left ear" and "right eye running," provoking little habitual behaviors of scarf tucking and cheek wiping.   Is this the way I am to live my life?

Can I be fully present in the world without adding more stress and assignments, more to-do lists and self recriminations? Can I shift my way of operating out of automatic without wearing myself out? Can I cultivate awareness even in the middle of  the patterns and routines that naturally fill a good bit of my time? Can I be here without being swept away in mindless flow of reactivity?

Definitely. I may be nowhere, but I can still exist fully.  This includes finding that level equality in my hips, or allowing the weight to fall on the outer and inner heel more evenly. This may mean returning again and again to the sensation of my breath to remind me that I am exchanging energy with a much larger universe every second of my life. It involves building the muscles in my mind as well as enabling the body to find its balance. Emotional equilibrium can grow naturally out of accepting the ever present continuous support for being who we actually are, once we let go of judging and manipulating our ideas of who we are supposed to be, based on some fixed experience in the past or anxiety over some potential hypothetical outcome.

How much of my time I will spend in this suspended reactive condition is directly related to how much attention I give to cultivating my awareness.  It can so easily begin with noticing my breath as I wake up, even before I open my eyes, allowing the breath to shape the inner spaces of my rib cage, and sensing that this energy moves into my hips and legs, before I begin moving. I can savor the resistant texture of the strawberry as I cut it into bits that drop into my morning oatmeal.

What purpose is there in losing this moment and the next moment until I stumble on something and wake up to the fact that I've walked half a block without seeing anything or being anywhere? I'm not seeking a hyper-vigilance, or high intensity. Gradually, over time, this cultivating of awareness brings more and more of life into the normal routine, so that I can accommodate loss and exhilaration with the same foundation under me,  landmarks to orient me, and an attitude of acceptance and openness.

This is where the practice takes us when we commit to building the muscles of mindfulness. Just like in  a physical asana practice, the stronger we become, the deeper we can go -- holding an asana longer and allowing the strength and stretch, the energy movement to flow more openly and inner spaces to accommodate more freedom with less effort.  If we set the goal to get to a certain shape or heal a certain wounded place, we can work up to that and then get stuck all over again in judgment and mindlessness.  We have no choice but to deal with the moment. This one. There is nothing to wait for, nowhere to go but here. Getting here is the journey, being here is the deepest benefit.

It's fairly easy to feel the shaking of the soles of your feet as you struggle to resist falling out of balance and be filled with anxiety about falling, judging yourself, clenching the breath, tightening myriad muscles of neck, shoulder, and throat in fear. It is just as easy to feel that same shaking as finding your balance, liberating your breath, softening your shoulders, stacking your bones to more efficiently transfer weight and explore how to let go of judgment in order to lessen your load and feel weightless and free. Whether making the routine motions of daily life, crossing streets, making oatmeal, sitting at work, interacting with others, or sitting on a meditation cushion or shaking in a balancing pose on a yoga mat, you can gently encourage your mindfulness muscle, when you remember it. That's why the breath is so useful... it is always there to remind you that you are right here, already.

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