2021: A Year of Paying Attention, Mindfully
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
In 2007 I packed my bags for Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I had enrolled in a month-long silent mindfulness meditation retreat at the beautiful International Buddhist Center at Prathat Doi Suthep Temple. I had never heard of mindfulness, nor had I meditated before. All I really knew of the Buddha was through the literature of Hermann Hesse. But something called me there, so I went.
This was a minimalist retreat in a tropical climate, so packing was light. A kind nun welcomed me upon my arrival at the monastery and showed me to my room, which was equipped with a ground mat to sleep on and a meditation cushion. There were shared restrooms and showers down the hall. She gave me a tour of the grounds and a quick overview of the program:
5:00am - Wake up
7:00am - Breakfast
9:00am - Dharma Talk/Teaching
11:00am - Lunch (last solid food for the day)
2:00pm - Individual Meeting with Mentor
* Day times not listed are spent in meditation or reflection.
After giving me a tour of the grounds and an overview of the program, the nun introduced me to the basics of Vipassana meditation. I learned that Vipassana, otherwise known as “insight” or “mindfulness” meditation, teaches us to mentally note all arising phenomena. In the beginning, meditators are taught to focus on the rising and falling of the belly as the primary object of their mindfulness. With each inhale, the belly rises. With each exhale, it falls. By silently saying, "rising, falling" with each inhale and exhale, we gently encourage our minds and bodies to be with us, in the present moment.
Once we find grounding through the breath, we can begin to label everything that enters the mind or is felt by the body three times. For example, say after 10 minutes of meditation, a thought pops up in your mind and begins taking over your experience. You would be encouraged to follow that thought for a brief period and then, without judgement, acknowledge what’s going on by saying “thinking, thinking, thinking.”
Throughout the 21-day program, meditators progress from 10 minutes of walking meditation and 10 minutes of sitting meditation for many sessions per day, all the way to an hour of walking meditation and an hour of sitting meditation for many sessions per day. With so many opportunities to identify and label, the idea is that eventually we increase our levels of awareness to the point that we can live in harmony with these things without letting them take over our experience of living. Essentially, we become more aware and less distracted.
While my time meditating on that misty mountaintop has proven invaluable in my life, I’m here to reassure you that the parts I use most in my mindfulness practices today are the simple applications that we can all use, even during such a chaotic time such as now, while in the comfort of our own homes. In fact, you don’t need to be a meditator to become a mindful person (although it is quite helpful).
If you’re looking to integrate some mindfulness into your own life, I’d like to invite you to try some of the following practices as they fit into your days. Over the next several months I'll write more posts that expand upon some of these practices and introduce new ones. As with the practice of mindfulness itself, please treat yourself with kindness and compassion. Grant yourself grace when you drift away and gratitude when you make time for your practice.
1. Breathe."Rising, falling...rising, falling....rising, falling." Our breath helps us return to ourselves. Our breath is our anchor to the moment, and without it, we would cease to exist. Take time in your day to feel the magnitude of the breath and what it means to your very existence as you feel air fill up your belly and travel outward through the mouth. Even if it's just the three breaths you take when you're in need of a quick reset, the breath is everything.
2. Label, label, label. Whenever you can, try to remember to nonjudgmentally label what you’re doing. It can be when you’re driving the car – “driving, driving, driving.” It can be while you’re washing dishes, “washing, washing, washing.” It can be while you’re playing with your children, “playing, playing, playing.” While it might feel strange at first, this practice will raise your awareness levels so you begin to feel truly present in the moments that make up your life.
3. Free yourself and others of judgement. I remember asking my monk mentor several questions while I was in Thailand: “Why am I having so many nightmares,” “why are my legs falling asleep while meditating,” “why am I having such a difficult time freeing my mind of thoughts today?” His answer was always the same: “Because it’s in your nature.” What I realized is that this was his way of encouraging me to free myself of doubt or judgement. I learned that we can do this for each other as well. When we tie judgement to people (including ourselves), we deny them the opportunity to receive the fullest depth of our compassion.
I tell my Kindergarteners that mindfulness means to pay attention. Let’s make 2021 a year of paying attention, to ourselves and to each other ❤️