I practice mindfulness because I can’t afford not to.
At my age, not being present in the here and now is an accident in the making. Life in Asia comes with all sorts of daily dangers one must negotiate with mindfulness to survive. Motorbikes shoot out of nowhere into your path. Potholes, especially in the rainy season, are open invitations for broken ankles. Traffic lights are always a gamble. A moment of distraction can have very nasty consequences.
Being aware of every step I take, alert in every moment to what is around me as I dodge scooters running a red light, is a practice in mindfulness. I think of it as a form of complimentary health insurance.
Mindfulness is hard work.
Mindfulness demands that every action be performed with awareness. Even a banal act like placing your water glass near your work station needs presence of mind.
I am pretty good at practicing mindfulness in the crazy Vietnamese traffic, but at home I forget to be present in every moment.
Where did I place that glass of water again?
Yesterday had looked like a good day. I’d started at 5:30 am with a 25 minute meditation. But by lunch time, I was juggling four things at once, as you do when you have a long to-do list. I had no more time for mindfulness, I was too busy working.
I didn’t even remember placing the water glass on the floor.
How many times had I told myself that glass on a tiled floor is a really bad idea in a barefoot office.
10 stitches later, I am forced to be horizontal for a week. It was a deep cut. No activity for at least a week. Including yoga and preparing my first online video.
Clearly I needed to learn a profound lesson about mindfulness.
Mindfulness needs to be practiced 24 hours a day, not just on the meditation cushion
25 minutes of meditation in the morning wasn’t enough to teach me what I needed to learn at on this day. It took a trip to a Vietnamese hospital to hammer home the point that mindfulness must be be practiced in every moment of the day, not just on the meditation cushion.
The irony is that after my morning meditation I’d read a few chapters of Thich Nhat Hahn’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness. Mindfulness, the Vietnamese zen monk reminds us, begins with the banal acts we perform every day.
“While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”
The same goes for how you place a glass of water, twirl a bite of spaghetti on your plate or tie up your shoe laces.
“The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality,” Thich Nhat Hahn says. “I‘m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves. “
Well, that wasn’t me yesterday morning. I stepped on my glass of water with utter mindlessness and it sliced deep into my foot.
Being mindful whilst seated on the meditation cushion is the easy part. Remembering to be mindful when we perform everyday actions, is the hard part.
So, how can we be present every moment of the day?
How can we, in Thich Nhat Hahn’s words, keep our consciousness alive to the present reality? According to the master it all starts by focusing on the breath.
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as a means to take hold of your mind again.”
To learn how to follow your breath, to make it calm and even, Thich Nhat Hahn suggests to start by counting the breath.
As you breath in count to 1 in your head, as you breath out count 1, as you breath in count to 2, as you breath out count to 2, all the way to 10, then start again. “This counting,” he says, “is like a string that attaches your mindfulness to your breath. This exercise is the beginning point in the process of becoming continuously conscious of your breath.”
I had ample opportunity to practice this as I lay on a stretcher yesterday afternoon, while a Vietnamese nurse with very little English expertly and efficiently sowed up my bleeding foot. I screamed like a mother giving birth, it hurt so much. Once I remembered to simply concentrate on by my breath, I was able to endure the pain silently (or maybe the anesthetic just kicked in).
Every act is a rite
Convalescing on my daybed, sedated by painkillers, I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn.
“Each act must be carried out with mindfulness. Each act is a rite, a ceremony. Raising your cup of tea to your mouth is a rite,” he teaches.
I’ve been drinking my tea as if the world depended on it and I’ve been placing my glass of water on a small table beside me as if it were a sacred rite.
In the scheme of things, my little accident was nothing but a scratch, but it was a powerful wake-up call that mindfulness can’t be confined to a timed exercise on the meditation cushion. It’s a full time commitment.
“Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves”
My injured foot reminded me that it’s high time for a hands-on refresher in mindfulness. I’ve just booked myself in for a week of living with Vietnamese zen monks at Plumvillage Thailand next month. I look forward to sharing with you what I learn. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, please share your experience with mindfulness or ask me any questions that you’d like me to take to the monks at Plumvillage Thailand.
What is your experience with mindfulness?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Writing for Wellbeing in Bali: Find Your Voice, Release Your Stories, Unleash Your Creativity with yoga & sound bowl balancing
October 30 – November 6, 2017
(retreat starts the day after the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival)