I know this post just got started, but let's take a break and explore this opening sentence, shall we?
As part of my ongoing effort to reduce stress, I've been studying mindfulness.
If I'd typed this sentence 15 or 20 years ago, here's what it would have looked like. I would have realized that my permanently tense shoulder muscles and frequent headaches were not normal and set about looking for solutions to the problem. After talking to the doctor and friends, and reading around at the bookstore or library, I would have uncovered about fifty different solutions to muscle tension, each of which would have required thorough research into the evidence.
To research mindfulness specifically, I would have purchased five or six books on mindfulness because the interwebs were barely invented for common use and I hated technology back in the early to middle 1990s. I then would have read the books cover to cover with highlighter in hand and taken notes on index cards. These index cards would have been arranged and rearranged and rearranged again on my large breakfast table into categories and sub-categories and sub-sub-categories...until I knew everything those five or six books could tell me about mindfulness.
And within six months I would have forgotten most of what I'd learned about mindfulness (it's all safely preserved on note cards, right?) and wouldn't be practicing it at all because I'd still be researching the 49 other solutions for stress and seriously, how much information can one brain hold without going completely cuckoo?
"She's cuckoo. Bat-crap cuckoo."
I hear you. Oh, yes, I hear you.
These days, I'm much less obsessive, which just goes to show you can teach an older dog new tricks. I blame motherhood and maturity for my kinder, gentler approach to problem-solving. After all, who has time for index cards and sub-sub-categories when you have to keep track of your son's minutes of trumpet practice and nightly reading, create lesson plans for small-group studies you've agreed to teach, read books for book clubs you've joined, and write riveting articles for your church's monthly newsletter every single month? Laundry, anyone? Grocery shopping? Dishes? Cooking meals to take to people going through chemo? Making cards for the troops? Perfectly wrapping each and every perfectly chosen Christmas present? Writing and addressing Christmas cards? Decorating not one but three Christmas trees because ohmygosh one just isn't enough?!?!?!
Index cards have fallen through the cracks of my busy life.
Mindfulness, however, should have grabbed my attention long before now; though if I'd heard about it back then, I'd probably have dismissed it as granola-munching nonsense. "Where's the evidence?" I would have asked.
Guess what? There's actually a LOT of evidence that mindfulness is really, really good for you and even helps people reduce muscle tension and stress. From news stories on NPR and interviews by Diane Rehm, to extensive and frequent articles in Scientific American and Discover magazines to book displays at Barnes & Noble, mindfulness pops up all over the place these days. So now I'm paying attention, but in ways I never would have paid before.
First of all, there are no note cards.
Second, there's just one book, and I'm not devouring it in a frantic, manic rush to transform my life and relax my shoulder muscles permanently in three easy steps. My life doesn't need transforming (it's pretty awesome, all things considered), and getting rid of 48 years of tight shoulders won't happen quickly or easily.
What does need to transform are some bad lifestyle habits I've picked up (little exercise, fatty diet, negative attitudes, absentmindedness), and mindfulness can help me change those. And let's face it, when we try to change, we need all the help we can get.
For now, I'm just trying to notice my muscles. How often do you think about, let's say, your hip muscles? Pay attention to them right now. Are they tight? Mine are. Think about relaxing them. Stand up from your computer and stretch them out while thinking about relaxing them. If you need ideas, check out this website. A little mindful attention paid to one muscle group makes a difference.
Mindfulness, at least as I understand it and am trying to practice it, is about noticing the Now. The Now? I'm not familiar with this territory, despite knowing all the words to Jimmy Buffett's song on the subject. My brain likes to travel all over, into ADD rabbit holes full of twists and turns and ups and downs and creativity and problem-solving and the past and the future. I'm a reader, people! I go places in my head, places authors invite me to go. I'm really good at it, too.
And it's fun. FUN! I love those rabbit holes so very much!
But too much time in them makes my shoulders tense and my hips tight. Balance. That's what I'm seeking in mindfulness. I'm not looking for gurus or easy fixes or fads or perfection. I'm looking for ways to slow down, savor, and notice, to stop being so absent in my own mind. I'm never going to be one of those calm, always-present-in-the-Now people, but paying attention to what my brain and body are doing, being more conscious of the Now...well, it sure can't hurt.
If you've stuck with me this far, you're probably nodding in understanding and appreciate how hard it is to change the mental and physical habits of a lifetime. But change is coming. It's a process, slow and uneven, full of setbacks and progress. I started with paying more attention to people when I'm out and about running errands. I used to insulate myself in my own little world, where ideas and thought experiments and creative flights of fancy swirled around me like Pigpen's cloud of dust and dirt, keeping people away and making it hard for me to see them anyway.
Now, I strike up conversations...quick little ones, designed to elicit smiles or laughter...with baristas or check-out clerks or librarians. I know which clerks at Kroger are chatty and which need just a sincere smile. It seems such a small thing, to pay attention and be grateful for the people who make my life easier by their service. Those small moments of attention have added up to my being more mindful.
And that attentiveness has helped me to be of service. I've helped people lift watermelons into their baskets and returned their carts because I'm paying attention to what's going on around me. I've smiled at moms whose kids were melting down at the library and who were pumping gas into their minivans at Speedway because I've noticed them. I've caught myself singing songs while ironing George's shirts or humming while scrubbing a toilet...instead of thinking of all the other things I'd rather be doing with that time. My prayer time is richer and more focused, too.
I feel a little more connected to the people around me, more a part of a community, more invested in this place and this time, more invested in my own life. This small improvement in mindfulness shows me just how very far I have to go to achieve balance, but the process feels good spiritually and emotionally.
If you're feeling disconnected and distracted, tense and stressed out, I recommend sticking your big toe into mindfulness. Take your time getting used to it. But don't bother with the index cards. You really don't need them.