In recent weeks, given the political turmoil in the world, I’ve heard from a lot of people who are wondering how to calm their minds. It’s painful and unhelpful to be caught up in anxiety, anger, reactivity, despair, fear, and worry about the future. In addition, these kinds of emotions are what Buddhists call afflictive – that is, they are self-perpetuating and suck up a lot of our energy. Stewing in anxiety, for example, generally leads to more anxiety and exhaustion, not to solutions or relief.
People often assume Buddhists have achieved a kind of magical inner peace, and they want to know what the secret is. Or, if they see Buddhists losing it, they ponder out loud how that can be so. “Aren’t you a Buddhist?” they ask. The truth is, Buddhists get upset too – but we have tools we can use to calm our hearts and minds. In a particular moment we may forget – or neglect – to use our tools, but when we finally recognize (or admit to ourselves) what’s happening, we know what to do.
The tools in the Buddhist toolbox are many, but the most basic and useful one – a tool you can use anywhere, anytime – is taking refuge in this body, this moment. This is also called mindfulness. Wherever you are, whatever you’re thinking, whatever you’re feeling, you bring your awareness to what is actually happening in the most literal, physical way. You are sitting, standing, or lying down. You are breathing – in and out, in and out. Your hands are touching something. You are warm, or cold, or in between. Your eyes are resting on something in your visual field, taking in the play of light and shadow. You can hear things – conversation, traffic, the sound of a fan. You may have a knot in your stomach, or your shoulders may be tense, or you may feel fatigue. And through it all you keep breathing. Sometimes shallow breaths, sometimes deep breaths.
Taking refuge in this body, this moment, is incredibly effective at calming your mind – even if you only do it for 30 seconds. Heck, it’s helpful even if you only do it for a few seconds, before you react or speak. Doing it for longer periods – 20 or 30 minutes at a time, in meditation, for example – is even more beneficial and helps you get more familiar with the process. But don’t let the prospect of meditation, or some ideal of being mindful all the time, stop you from employing the tool of mindfulness any time.
A few moments of mindfulness sounds so simple, you may wonder how or why it could possibly make a difference. In a way, it doesn’t matter how or why it works, it just does. Try it. In the middle of your stress, busyness, turmoil, troubling thoughts, tense conversations, or uncomfortable emotions, take a few moments to bring your awareness to your body and its direct experience. Then return to activity and see if you feel just a little bit better – a little more calm, a little more sane.
However, if understanding how or why mindfulness works makes you more likely to employ it, here’s my best stab at answering that in a couple paragraphs:
As human beings, we are conscious of many different aspects of reality. We are aware of things that are happening all over the world even though we aren’t directly experiencing them, and probably never will. We are aware of things that have happened in history, and in our own past. We can imagine all kinds of possible future scenarios (wonderful, terrible, and everything in between). We are aware of countless decisions we need to make, and we try to anticipate what the consequences of our decisions will be. We are aware of complex social dynamics at all times, and of our dependence on our relationships to family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, community, country, and planet. We are aware of the need to prioritize and stay on top of all of our responsibilities. The list goes on and on.
This is a lot to process and hold in our minds. Is it any wonder we get stressed and overwhelmed? In a certain sense you could say we’re too intelligent for our own good. Fortunately, our direct experience of this body, right here and now, can be a refuge for us. Your physical posture, breathing, and what your senses perceive is all very real. In a way, your direct experience is more real than all the things I listed in the previous paragraph. Unless you are in immediate danger (in which case I suggest reacting quickly instead of working on mindfulness), you are more or less okay. At this moment you are safe, and alive. If you pay attention, chances are good you will notice things to feel grateful for: a kind person, food to eat, the sight of a tree bending slowing in the wind.
When you return your awareness to the more complicated aspects of your life, you’ll find everything that upset you or stressed you out is still there. Mindfulness doesn’t get rid of your problems or make you stop caring about them. However, letting yourself take periodic refuge in this body, this moment, will change your relationship to these more complicated aspects of your life. At some level you’ll know your problems and concerns aren’t everything. Your body and mind will ramp down a notch because you’ve touched base with this moment, where – at least for the time being – you’re okay and still lucky to be alive. You become a little more identified with the space through which all the thoughts, emotions, and other experiences move, and less with all the content.
In the end, though, it’s not thinking about mindfulness that calms your mind. It’s actually practicing it.