There is so much talk about being mindful these days. From mindful eating to mindful parenting to mindful shopping. What, exactly, is mindfulness? Definitions abound, but I like one I heard from Dan Harris, the author of 10% Happier, the founder and host of the 10% Happier podcast, and the founder of the 10% Happier app, all of which I highly recommend. Especially the podcast, where Harris talks to the who’s who of the meditation world. He’s always engaging, curious, interesting and, best of all, self-deprecating and funny. Good news: the podcast is free. Harris is one of the most influential people in the world of mindfulness meditation today, as he’s bringing the topic to the forefront with his relentless thirst to know and experience more about mindfulness-based meditation and to share what he learns with his public.
Harris literally draws an illustration on the 10% Happier app: picture a waterfall. Our thoughts, emotions, and reactions comprise the waterfall. Mindfulness, per Harris, is what exists behind the waterfall. Seeing it and observing it, yet somehow separate from it. Many of my students and I find this visualization extremely helpful when it comes to understanding what we are trying to do when we engage in mindfulness meditation, or really being mindful in anything we are doing. We see the waterfall and yet at the same time we know that we are not the waterfall. Rather, we stand behind it and observe.
If you think about bringing mindfulness to the breath, it works like this. Obviously we are always breathing. From our first moment on this earth until our last. For the vast majority of the time, though, we are completely unaware of our breath. When we attend to the breath with mindfulness, we breathe in and know that we are breathing in. And we breathe out and know that we are breathing out. See, it’s the knowing that turns the act of breathing from an automatic and stealth bodily function to one infused with presence and mindfulness.
Why is this shift important? When we stand behind the waterfall, instead of believing we are the waterfall, we can make more conscious choices about how we respond to life’s stimuli. Have a craving for another cookie? Without mindfulness, we are certain to indulge now and think (and most likely regret) later. With mindfulness, though, we can stop to pause and consider whether it will serve us to have cookie number 2 (or 4 or 5). If the well-reasoned answer is yes, we proceed and enjoy. If it is no, perhaps we can make a better choice for ourselves. Small example, large implications.
How do you find mindfulness in your life?