This is a word you’ve probably seen pretty often lately, as it seems to be the latest technique for dealing with all sorts of ills: anxiety, eating disorders, stress management, addiction, emotional dysregulation, and depression just to name a few. Add meditation to the concept of mindfulness and you have just identified the hot, new trend for young, urban professionals.
There is nothing new about mindfulness or meditation. People have been practicing both for centuries. What has gained them both so much press is that medical professionals have come to recognize the power of both techniques for improving overall health (i.e. lowering blood pressure) and reducing pain; mental health professionals have long used these techniques to help their clients reduce impulsivity and act according to their values instead of the strong emotion of the moment, which is a powerful means of increasing self-esteem and the likelihood of choosing positive/effective actions.
All this to say, gee…this mindfulness and meditation thing sure is useful!
Despite the effectiveness of mindfulness and meditation, most of us are not using these techniques on a regular basis because they take time and effort to practice and master—and most of us don’t have enough time or energy to master even one more thing, so it Just. Isn’t. Happening.
My youngest daughter posted something on Facebook yesterday that really caught my attention. She said “If, when I was little, someone told me how much of life is going to work just so you can pay rent and taxes and be able to go to the doctor, I probably would have savored those years more.”
For just a moment I struggled with the urge to tell her that simple observation would have given her a clue if she had only bothered to pay attention to how much work her parents were doing!
I thought about accusing her of being bone-headedly stupid, but the truth is that I didn’t pay any more attention to the difficulties of adult life during my childhood than she did during hers. I decided that the problem is endemic to childhood and especially to being a teenager, and this reminded me of a specific morning when I was teaching Sunday School to a bunch of high school students.
That Sunday one of the boys in the class was complaining that his mother wanted him to help her clean the house just because he was on Spring Break. “If she wants to clean the house, then she should do it herself! Don’t make me something just because it’s what you want!” Then he repeated the mantra of children everywhere: “I can’t wait until I’m an adult. I’ll do whatever I want to do all the time!”
I kind of lost my composure for a moment and blurted out “Do you really think that your mother wants to clean the house?!” To my utter shock, he said yes. Still having no composure, I said “Are you on drugs?! NO ONE wants to clean the house! Ever!” He actually had the audacity to ask me why his mother cleaned the house if she didn’t want to do it, since she was an adult and therefore could do whatever she wanted to. So I explained to the class that adulthood is about doing the many things you have to do and need to do whether you want to do them or not…with occasional moments of ease when you get to do what you’d like to do. Then I pointed out that if their parents didn’t clean the house on a regular basis they would quickly be living in filth and unsafe conditions. Then I made it clear that neither their mothers nor their fathers particularly liked going to work every day, nor did they like paying bills, or doing yard work, or doing laundry. I told them that most parents would actually prefer to do the same things that their kids want to do all day: sleep in, play video games, hang out with friends, go shopping, watch a movie, and eat food that somebody else prepares. I made it clear that their parents were not getting to do what they wanted to do very often at all. I wish I could show you a picture of their crestfallen faces. I think I might be personally responsible for destroying their dreams of an adult life of ease, and I’m not sure that it was the kind thing to do since they had so little time left to indulge that dream.
I did post an answer to my daughter, admitting that her father and I tried to tell her how difficult adult life would be, and revealing that she was consistently unwilling to listen to that truth. I also let her know that she would say much the same thing once her children were born, except in reference to her life with her husband before children. I also told her that she would say the same thing again in reference to raising her children, once her nest became empty.
It’s that old adage: hindsight is 20/20. You only realize how good you had it after you no longer have it, whatever ‘it’ is. This is not news to anyone over the age of 20.
Except that I’m not sure that that this is how it’s supposed to be.
And this is where I return to the subject of mindfulness.
Our culture is so focused on productivity and problem-solving that our lives have become driven by our to-do lists. Each day becomes a marathon of trying to get it all done, with increasing levels of efficiency and task mastery as we grow older, which only lets us cram more onto our to-do list, at least until we reach our mid-60s and need to start slowing down a little.
You’ve heard this before, but I’ll say it again: we have become human doings instead of human beings.
I don’t have the solution to alleviate our busyness or our endless to-do lists, but I do have an idea about how to stop the endless cycle of looking backwards, longing for a chance to truly appreciate what good thing that we didn’t know we had, now that it’s gone. And no, I’m not going to try and sell you a meditation CD that will increase your levels of gratitude or insist that you sit with a raisin for five minutes, focusing on its texture and appearance, and then five more minutes giving yourself a chance to truly taste a raisin.
Can you tell that I am just a little frustrated by the ways that we teach mindfulness? I knew you could.
How about we just take a minute to pay attention to the good things in life?
I don’t mean the house/apartment/rented room you live in because that’s obvious, and if you aren’t grateful for the roof over your head, this blog isn’t going to do you any good. I understand that we often forget to be grateful for what we have, but that’s not what I trying to say. I’m trying to shoot at the root of what my daughter talked about in her FB post: the habit of only valuing the fullness of our life after that part of our life has passed.
This problem…this is a part of the human condition. We like to identify our material possessions and our relationships as our blessings (because it’s so obvious) and consign everything else to the ‘meh’ category, wishing we didn’t have to deal with it. But it’s the stuff in the ‘meh’ category that we will miss the most once it is gone.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
When you’re busy plunging, how often do you think about how fantastic it is to have a flush toilet that functions? We don’t thank God for the sewer system often enough.
When your life becomes an emotional mess, do you ever think about the ways that your challenges and struggles illustrate to you exactly who your friends are? Trust me, you’ll know who your real friends are because they will show up (either physically or emotionally) to give you support in the midst of your difficulty.
When you are stuck at home with bronchitis or the flu, do you spend any time thinking about your body and how hard it works to keep you going…and how infrequently it breaks down? Ask anyone with a chronic illness how quickly they came to appreciate their previous health and what they now call their ‘good days’…and you might suddenly realize just how many good days you have in the average year.
When you are refereeing a fight between your children, or arguing with your teenager, or grounding your tween for bad behavior, do you ever stop to think that these moments—these frustrating, disappointing moments—are the grist in the mill that will help your child become a decent adult?
You can complain about the crap in your life—and broken toilets and bad breakups and the flu and disobedient kids are crap—all that you want to. It’s okay to call it like you see it. Crap is crap. I’m not asking you to pretend that life is all rainbows and unicorns.
What I’m trying to say is that we need to become mindful of the goodness that is inherent in the daily crap in our life.
We need to take a solid minute to be grateful for the obvious blessings and then another two or three minutes to be grateful for just how crazy life is, for the things that frustrate us, challenge us, and make us exhausted. Trust me…in their absence we will look back and say “If I had only known…I would have savored those years more.”
Well…now you know. Savor the life you have NOW…not just the obvious blessings, but the whole doggone mess.
This is your mindfulness minute for the day. Thank you for reading. I’m going to go clean the dog poop out of my backyard, and think about how I wouldn’t have to do this if I didn’t have two little Shih Tzus who love me, love me, love me!
I thank you Lord, for the crap. Literally.