Mindfulness is more than just moment-to-moment awareness, says Shauna Shapiro. It is a kind, curious awareness that helps us relate to ourselves and others with compassion.
BY SHAUNA SHAPIRO | FEBRUARY 27, 2013
I attended my first meditation retreat in Thailand 17 years ago. When I arrived, I didn’t know very much about mindfulness and I certainly didn’t speak any Thai.
At the monastery, I vaguely understood the teachings of the beautiful Thai monk who instructed me to pay attention to the breath coming in and out of my nostrils. It sounded easy enough. So I sat down and attempted to pay attention, 16 hours a day, and very quickly I had my first big realization: I was not in control of my mind.
I was humbled and somewhat distraught by how much my mind wandered. I would attend to one breath, two breaths, maybe three—and then my mind was gone, lost in thoughts, leaving my body sitting there, an empty shell. Frustrated and impatient, I began to wonder, “Why can’t I do this? Everyone else looks like they’re sitting so peacefully. What’s wrong with me?”
On the fourth day, I met with a monk from London, who asked how I was doing. It was the first time I had spoken in four days, and out of my mouth came a deluge of the anxieties I had been carrying around with me. “I’m a terrible meditator. I can’t do it. I am trying so hard, and every time I try harder, I get even more tangled up. Meditation must be for other, more spiritual, calmer kinds of people. I don’t think this is not the right path for me.”
He looked at me with compassion and a humorous twinkle in his eye. “Oh dear, you’re not practicing mindfulness,” he told me. “You are practicing impatience, judgment, frustration, and striving.” Then he said five words that profoundly affected my life: “What you practice becomes stronger.” This wisdom has now been well documented by the science of neuroplasticity, which shows that our repeated experiences shape our brains.
The monk explained to me that mindfulness is not just about paying attention, but also about how you pay attention. He described a compassionate, kind attention, where instead of becoming frustrated when my mind wandered, I could actually become curious about my mind meandering about, holding this experience in compassionate awareness. Instead of being angry at my mind, or impatient with myself, I could inquire gently and benevolently into what it felt like to be frustrated or impatient.
Article Copyright © 2013 U.C. Berkeley
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