Sitting in silence, paying attention to the sensations of breathing, noticing when my attention wanders, and returning my attention to the breath – when I practice mindfulness in this way, I don’t always feel good. In fact, I often feel restless, bored, anxious, or distracted. This is precisely why I do it.
I started this practice in my late twenties as a way to deal with what had become crippling anxiety. I had tried all kinds of ways of escaping the discomfort that came with worrying about what other people felt or thought about me. I doubted that I was good enough, worthy of love, or capable of being happy. I scanned the horizon for the hope of a future when I wouldn’t feel this way. I numbed myself by drinking and intellectualizing. I kept people at arms length with sarcasm and deception.
After all of my strategies failed miserably, I gave up. I stopped trying to escape. I began to bring as much awareness and acceptance as I could to the direct experience of anxiety. To be honest – when I started meditating, I was using it as another form of escape, but over time it shifted from an escape to an encounter.
I can say that my life is flat out better as a result of this simple practice. Practicing mindfulness has given me tools for coping that make my life richer, deeper, and more full. No, I don’t feel happy and comfortable all the time (humans are not supposed to feel a certain way all the time), but I do feel better equipped to deal with the inevitable challenges (internal and external) that come with living a life.
So, here is my top four reasons I meditate:
1. Being with what is
Urges, impulses, moods, thoughts, emotions, weather, people, events, losses, disappointments – these things show up all the time. We procrastinate, eat, drink, yell, blame, complain, zone out, avoid, distract – all in an effort to feel better. Many of our attempts to resist and escape discomfort go against our values and commitments and actually diminish the quality of our lives. Sitting for a few minutes everyday with the full range of experience with the commitment to accept whatever shows up – this makes it easier to find acceptance for the stuff that happens throughout the day.
2. Focusing on what matters
Attention wanders. This is a reality of being human. Accepting this and noticing when it happens allows us to return our attention to what is really matters. Throughout the day we get distracted by the urgent, the shiny, and the comfortable. What often gets starved of attention is the important – the goals, commitments, and relationships that we value most deeply. The more we practice, the sooner we notice when our attention has wandered, and the sooner we can bring it back.
3. Cultivating what we seek
Love, compassion, gratitude, wonder, joy – these are internal resources that make life more rich. Most of us have been trained to seek circumstances or people who trigger these things in our nervous system. We try to arrange life to be just right in hopes we will feel all these things. The great shortcut is to cultivate these things – to stop and access them in the midst of the demands and distractions of daily life. We can cultivate love and gratitude in traffic, in the dentist’s office, or in line at the supermarket. Practicing mindfulness has given me the space to connect with these powerful internal resources throughout the day.
4. Supporting others through service
Everyone struggles. No matter how shiny, beautiful, successful, or put together a person appears, they still have stuff they wrestle with. Everyone needs belonging. No matter how independent, aloof, or powerful a person appears, they still have a fundamental need for human connection. The less time I spend running from discomfort or spinning in my own head about my worries and insecurities, the more bandwidth I have to listen, to understand, and to offer support to others. Giving someone else what they need has a way of making things feel grounded and meaningful while the waves of life roll along.
So, that’s it. These are the primary reasons that I practice mindfulness. Am I happier as a result? Definitely. The paradox is that when I gave up on the compulsive pursuit of feeling better and found greater awareness and acceptance for the full range of feelings, then there was space for happiness to naturally arise.