I've meditated every day, with a few exceptions, for over 45 years. For a long time I was a super-meditator, spending 1 1/2 to 2 hours at a time on a quest for the Meaning Of It All (MOIA).
Failing to find the elusive MOIA, I've shifted to 20 minutes of morning meditation, half of it guided via my Calm iPhone app, and half freestyling on my own.
Having discarded a religious motivation for meditating -- I no longer believe in enlightenment, soul travel, or union with a universal consciousness -- I've embraced mindfulness as a secular alternative.
Be here now. Live in the moment. Follow the breath. Still the monkey mind.
Sounds good, but questions have lingered in the back of my skeptical psyche. Like, if now is all there is, then isn't remembering the past or envisioning the future filled with as much nowness as eating a single raisin with rapt attention?
To be fair, Tamara, who guides my Calm iPhone meditations, says:
Beginner meditators are often under the impression that their mind shouldn’t wander. I’ve been meditating for 25 years and my mind still wanders. This is simply the nature of the mind. ;)
While we don’t want to spend our entire practice just sitting still thinking, we have to expect that as we meditate, thoughts will arise and our mind will follow.
What this practice is about, is noticing what’s happening in our experience from moment to moment.
So when the mind begins to wander, simply notice it wandering!
OK. However, if this was all there is to mindfulness meditation, seemingly there wouldn't be much difference between it and everyday life, aside from noticing the mind wandering versus simply having a wandering mind.
In this regard, my observation of televised basketball games is that players who are obviously noticing "I'm about to try to make a free throw" seem less likely to make one than players who simply step to the line and shoot the free throw. Likewise, my experience with ballroom dancing lessons has convinced me that self-awareness often doesn't produce as good a result as simple awareness.
Tamara goes on to say:
Simply come back to the breath or the body or whatever your anchor is each time you notice the mind wandering. If you have to bring it back a hundred times, bring it back a hundred times.
Well, this brings me back to my previous question.
What's so special about focusing on the breath, or the body, compared with focusing on thoughts -- whether of the past, present, or future -- since seemingly everything is always happening in the present moment, regardless of what it is?
I've started to read Ruth Whippman's book, "America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks." She's British, with an appealingly cynical (or at least, skeptical) sense of humor. Her observations of how we Americans engage in the pursuit of happiness often strike me as right-on.
Here's some passages on the mindfulness front.
Mindfulness is everywhere, the hugely popular zeitgeist theory that in order to be happy we must live fully in the present moment, with total mental focus on whatever we are doing or experiencing Right This Second.
...I find mindfulness a hard theory to embrace. Surely one of the most magnificent things about the human brain is its ability to hold past, present, future, and their imagined alternatives in constant parallel, to offset the tedium of washing dishes in Pinole with the chance to be simultaneously in Bangkok or Don Draper's boxer shorts or finally telling your mother-in-law that despite her belief that "no one born in the seventies died," using a car seat isn't spoiling your child.
I struggle to see how greater happiness could be achieved by reining in that magical sense of scope and possibility to stare down some oatmeal.
In the 1980s I spent a lot of time with a Portland psychiatrist, Ralph Crawshaw. I was the executive director of Oregon Health Decisions, a grassroots bioethics organization. Crawshaw came up with the idea of forming the group.
When we were eating at a restaurant one day, the subject of meditation came up. I told Crawshaw that I tried to repeat a mantra as much as possible during my waking hours in order to keep my wandering mind under as much control as possible. He replied, "Not for me. I'm always thinking about something, no matter what I'm doing."
Crawshaw was an immensely creative and productive guy. He produced a lot of good in the world. And he seemed content with his life -- including thinking all the time.
I've remembered that conversation because his comment struck at an assumption that I hadn't questioned since I began meditating: thinking about the past or future, or, heck, even about the present, isn't as "spiritual" (whatever that means) as contemplating reality with a quiet mind.
Maybe. Maybe not.
I suspect "not" is the better answer. It's hard to see why thinking is less desirable than tasting a strawberry. Or why imagining what could be is less desirable than observing what is.
Like Ruth Whippman says, the human brain has the ability to mix and match images of past, present, and future, whether these be thoughts, emotions, perceptions, or whatever.
So maybe genuine mindfulness is embracing whatever your mind wants to do, so long as it works well for you.