I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sustaining mindfulness practice throughout my daily life and in particular about those transition times, when it often all seems to fall apart.
I mean, those movements from one task or activity or situation or mood to another. Some examples that spring to mind for me are at the end of the working day, especially when it’s been a stressful or demanding one, going on holiday, moving from the working week to the weekend, and just generally changes of any kind – moving between tasks, from being with others to being on my own or vice versa, from being on retreat to normal home life, getting sick, experiencing a strong mental state like excitement or sadness. The list goes on.
So what happens to make me zone out and lose focus at these points of transition? I think there’s something about how I get into a particular groove – say, like now, I’m writing a blog post and I’m in that more creative flow. I’ll be very absorbed, but then it’s time to stop and make the dinner. I’ll notice that it’s like a wrench to unhitch myself from that mode of writing to a more practical task like cooking a meal. This manifests as a kind of uncomfortable feeling, perhaps felt in my guts and I might respond by eating a snack or putting off doing the task of cooking by checking Facebook or my email instead. It’s just as if sometimes I can’t handle the change. The shift from one thing to another becomes a problem.
Holidays are a good example too. I look forward to the holiday so much, envisioning what it will be like, how I’ll do lots of yoga and meditation, go running, swim in the sea, draw, paint, take lots of creative photographs, all without resorting to overeating or drinking wine as the temptation often is. But then when I’m there, it’s all wonderful and new and a little bit, well, overwhelming. I feel sort of lost in a way, cast out of my usual routine. So it takes some time, a few days, to let go into the flow, to relax – and then the kind of holiday I have is a different one to the one I’d envisaged, perhaps in a way more mindful, more in the being than the doing mode.
In mindfulness training, working with transitions is very much a part of the practice. During the mindful movement sessions, the guidance will often be to stay with our present experience in between different movements rather than leaping ahead mentally, standing up in our minds moments before we actually do that with our bodies.
I was listening to a wonderful, rich and warm-hearted dharma talk by the well-known insight meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein last night on “Waking Up In Every Moment.” The crux of it, she said, is that we’re always in a state of transition. We never actually fully arrive at the place we’re all secretly hoping for where we can feel in charge of our lives, comfortable and in control. From birth to death, we’re undergoing all kinds of minor to major transitions – in our minds, our bodies, our emotions, our relationships, our situations. She told of how once in the same week she’d heard from two people dear to her. One was her then 5 year old grand-daughter who was anxious about starting at kindergarten – “I’m really worried I won’t know what to do when I get there” and the other was a close friend who, aged 95, had just moved into an assisted living home. She’d said of herself and some of the others there, who were still mentally very able, “we’re all having trouble adjusting to our new situation.” Sylvia concluded that in fact “our whole life we’re having trouble adjusting to our new situation!”
When we break it right down, taking life moment by moment, we see that there is a constant state of flux and change. We’re always in transition. When we imagine we’ve found some kind of sense of stability, that’s usually arising out of a sense of familiarity or engagement and focus, which inevitably has to transform into the next set of thoughts, body sensations, reactions, feelings, emotions, tasks, surroundings or whatever combination of circumstances is arising. Within this ongoing transition process, there are of course more “settled” phases which we experience as easier, or more comfortable, but it’s still very dynamic – you can’t hold on to it.
Having said all this, lest it sounds like there’s nothing you can rely upon I would suggest that there are some underlying processes that sustain us. There are our intentions, the ones most important to us, keeping us going. The intention to wake up in time to get to work and the intention to apply our energies whilst we’re there. The intention to practise mindfulness, be a supportive and kind friend or family member, for self-development and growth, fitness, self-expression – whatever it may be. These are what propel us forwards, though obviously our intentions themselves wax and wane and change, in accord with our levels of motivation and energy. So is there something underlying those intentions, that’s deeper still? You could say that’s our heart wish, our deepest values and beliefs and desires for happiness, fulfilment and well-being. Getting in touch with that deeper heart wish can enable us to see what connects us with everyone else and kindness and compassion can arise towards ourselves and towards others. We’re all in this together.
So perhaps the key to working with transitions is to see them as something in themselves, not a kind of vague filling-in time between the more important, more focused parts of our day. They represent an opportunity actually, to step back, to take a mindful pause and honour the sense of passage from one activity to another, from one situation to another.
Although we can’t control the play of events in our lives, we could even out our relationship to our experience, by cultivating a playful, curious, warm interest in it all. The “extraordinariness of the ordinary” as Jon Kabat-Zinn terms it.
In her talk, Sylvia Boorstein suggested a short practice that I think meets this purpose very well. It’s one you can do anywhere at any time, that you don’t need to adopt a special meditation posture for, and where you can keep your eyes open or closed, your focus balanced between inner and outer experience as you say to yourself:
“May I meet this moment fully” as you breathe in
“May I meet it as a friend” as you breathe out.
So now I’ve finished writing this blog post, here’s an opportunity for me to put this into practice, pausing before I move on to the next thing…