August 17, 2016

Kindfulness—When Observing our own Thoughts isn’t Pretty.

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Life’s pace seems to increase a little bit (or a lot) every day.

One helpful response to the chaos this pace has created is the increasing popularity of practicing mindfulness. This word “mindfulness” is popping up increasingly in social media and the news, as even corporate America adopts this practice.

So what is mindfulness exactly? My teacher describes mindfulness as a practice of non-judgmental awareness of whatever is happening in the present moment. Another friend explained it years ago as the space between stimulus and reaction, allowing instead for a mindful response.

That phrase alone, of the space between stimulus and response, changed my understanding of how I can move in the world, that I have choices for how I respond. The phrase was a gift for me that created space to change my mind for the better.

For me the first stage of practicing mindfulness was observing my own thoughts.

This wasn’t pretty.

I observed how I judged myself and others—how others looked and spoke, how they looked blankly across the subway car, how they chewed their gum; you name it, I was judging it. And then I would judge myself for judging myself and everyone…and I couldn’t laugh at the absurdity because I took myself so seriously.

In cases like this, the “gift” of awareness can feel like more of a curse. If awareness is involved with observing a bad habit or an unpleasant emotion, it’s a painfully honest place to live.

But the judgment, the negativity, they don’t just “go away” the instant we notice them. It’s more of a gradual erosion of unkind thinking, and the negative thoughts in the meantime need to be offset. As we observe our thinking and perhaps shudder at what we find, how can we bring ease into these moments of discomfort without retreating?

Until you can remove the judgment, counter it with kindness. Consider practicing kindfulness.

Kindfulness, perhaps first coined in the fall by a monk named Ajahn Brahm, has been percolating in my mind as a helpful way to get started in a mindfulness practice, by infusing extra kindness to offset the unnecessary and unhelpful negativity we observe. For most all negative thinking is unhelpful; it creates a contracted mindset, when what we want to do is expand into our own possibilities.

There are many simple and complex definitions of any word that can be Googled, but one simple definition I found for kindness was “the quality of being friendly.” So how can we be friendlier within our own minds, in response to our less-than-friendly thoughts?

Just setting the intention to introduce kindness into our thoughts can be a powerful moment for change. If we set it as a goal it then becomes something that we continue to return to. If we slip off track and judge ourselves or others, there is the opportunity to be kind and forgiving, rather than harsh. After time we understand that it’s not really slipping off track but rather part of the process of rewiring. Each negative thought becomes just another opportunity to rewire.

For rewiring is what we’re doing when we practice mindfulness. The word “practice” is important because it’s something that is cultivated throughout each day. The rewiring is changing our old, unhelpful pathways and carving instead a new way forward, one that allows for more support, and less obstruction. We’re architects of our own minds, and by chipping away at the negativity and replacing that infrastructure with kindness, we’re building a better future for ourselves.

Bonus kindfulness homework points for trying a metta (loving-kindness) meditation by repeating the classic four phrases, first to yourself, then to someone you love (human or animal), someone you feel neutrally about (someone you see often but don’t know), and someone who gives you difficulty (doesn’t need to be the most difficult person). The phrases are:

May you be safe.

May you be healthy.

May you be happy.

May you be peaceful. 

I wish these phrases to each of you, and to myself, every day. As long as you’re not chewing gum the wrong way.


Author: Rebecca Polan

Image: elephant journal Instagram

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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Rebecca Polan