One of the things I enjoy listening to in my downtime is a podcast by writer and TV personality Bill Simmons on sports and pop culture. In contemplative terms, it’s a far cry from, say, St. Basil the Younger, but it’s thoughtful, it’s light, it’s entertaining. On a recent episode, one of the ads was for an app that helps people with meditation. During the ad read, the terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” were basically used interchangeably, as these terms sometimes are.
Not a huge deal. It’s a sports and culture podcast hawking an app. No biggie. But I think as a culture, it speaks to some of the misconceptions about contemplative or mindfulness practice.
The term mindfulness was ushered into the culture by authors like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Though there are certainly differences between the two practices of contemplation in the Christian and tradition and meditative practice as taught in the Eastern traditions, there is also much overlap (Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s writings are a great place to start if you’re interested in this dialogue, see also Kim Boykin’s book on the topic).
One of these points of connection is the emphasis on moment to moment awareness, both of the world around you and internal dynamics of thought and emotion. The area of growth is here: in accepting that which is, in observing, not resisting. We become the observer. Over time, in this context, some of our bad habits, ego trips, and addictions dissolve as we see them play out again and again.
If we need to be right or beat ourselves up, we’ll watch it happen again and again and slacken our grip. Letting go of the underlying need, we taste a deeper freedom.
The meditation practice is basically just that, practice. For what? Thoughts come. Then, at some point, we become aware of the thoughts, sensations, and emotional charge. Then we gently let it go and return to a state of silence. Then another thought comes, we become aware and let that one go, and so on.
The point isn’t so much the experience itself, though it can be deeply refreshing. It’s bringing that same practice into the rest of life.
As poet Iain Thomas puts it: “Every day the world will drag you by the hand yelling, this is important and that is important! You need to worry about this, and this, and this! And each day it is up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart and say, no, this is important!”
The contemplative learns what is important is the act of letting go of mental-emotional focus elsewhere and returning focus to the moment. The non-attached state makes room for gratitude and receptivity in the present. In the unconscious state we’re pulled around by ego, resentment, and justification. There’s often an emotionally charged inner monologue about something in the future, or likely a bundle of things in the future, something from the past, even the recent past, that we’re turning over in our heads. We’re preoccupied with something out there. If we’ve been practicing, we are able to let it go and let something else emerge.
Author on the contemplative tradition and practices Mirabai Starr puts it this way “The contemplative life is not a matter of achieving some artificial state of perfection available only to the spiritual elite, who glide past the obstacles that throw off the rest of us. It is a matter of being so fully present to the moment that we cannot help but catch a glimpse of God in all that is.”
For most of us, this takes some kind of practice, like meditation. And though apps and classes and books can help point the way or create a space for practicing, the life change that is a commitment to mindfulness or deep awareness moment to moment can get lost when it becomes a cultural buzz word. When is it mindfulness? When you’re not stuck in past, not stuck in future, nor all the ego’s stories, but present, content, delighted, graced right here and right now without reaching or striving. For even seasoned practitioners, that state can come and go, and that becomes one more thing we can come to accept.