Written by Andrea Neal, PhD
Last month I visited the mountains and valleys surrounding Leavenworth, one of my favorite places in Washington State. Despite the beautiful landscape, I found myself engaged in the typical patter in my head: planning, fretting, stewing, judging. This quickly led to an adversarial conversation with myself. “But this is my personal retreat! This is ‘getting away from it all?!’ Why am I thinking about this petty stuff when I am surrounded by all of this beauty? Where are my mindfulness skills?!”
Maybe you can relate.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “wherever you go, there you are.” I have found this literally to be true. I can remember travelling in a stunning, ancient city in Croatia, and yet still fretting and planning about things that happened a month ago or may happen a month in the future. I typically bring these same habits of mind to any place I go, no matter how lovely and interesting it is.
Mindfulness practice provides techniques for how to respond in these moments, so that we are more present to who and what is around us, whether it is an awe-inspiring landscape or our loved ones seeking our attention. The concepts of awareness, non-judgmental stance and present-moment focus can be helpful.
A friend of mine attended a ten-day silent retreat. He started to notice patterns in his thinking as he sat on a cushion meditating for hours each day. He said that observing all of his typical worrying and self-criticisms led him to experience these thoughts as boring, like a song on repeat. Recognizing our typical patterns of thinking can help us to take the thoughts less seriously, and this is one step toward getting out of automatic pilot. You don’t need to go on a Buddhist retreat or to the mountains for ten days, or even two days, to notice where your mind goes. At this moment, you could bring your attention to what you are thinking: Where is my mind wandering? Am I judging? Worrying? Planning?
In mindfulness, we strive to bring a nonjudgmental awareness to our experience. Try developing an accepting, compassionate, curious attitude when you notice that your mind has wandered, without judgment and without tension. Getting nonjudgmental about our thinking is not easy, of course. What does seem to be easy is to direct that fretting and stewing toward oneself – “why can’t I just enjoy the mountains?! What is wrong with me?!”
Yes, what IS wrong with you (and me)? Well, you are human, and this is what our mind does. Our minds think like our hearts beat, so, yes, the mind is likely going to be busy trying to solve some problem, whether it is in the past or the future, whether it is real or imaginary, and whether it is important or completely trivial. Bringing acceptance and compassion when you become aware that you are engaging in one of these habits of thinking can help us to shift our attention back to the present moment. When we judge ourselves for our distracted (or self-critical, or judgmental, or worrying) mind, we have added another layer of tension and self-criticism to the moment, thus taking us out of the experience as it is.
Once we have brought nonjudgmental awareness to our experience, the next step is to try to gently shift our attention to the present moment. Oftentimes, the present moment is more pleasant and less stressful than what we had going on in our heads, although certainly not always. In another post, we will talk about how bringing mindfulness to unpleasant experiences is helpful too, but I am getting ahead of myself.
In formal mindful practice, taking a present-moment focus means that once you have become aware that you are distracted, you gently shift your attention back to whatever is your chosen focus of your attention. This might mean shifting your attention back to your breath in a traditional sitting meditation. However, one can do this throughout the day in an informal practice, when you have noticed that your mind has gone to some unpleasant, unhelpful place. You may choose to look up and observe the colors of the sky or the trees, listen to the sounds of the birds or the traffic, or feel the sensation of your feet on the ground. For, indeed, wherever you go, there you are.