Mindfulness Is Not A Magic Cushion

Mindfulness Is Not A Magic Cushion

All the stuff we actually do, every day, is where our minds need to be

I had a client once who restored an old car, and restored himself by doing it. His name was something else but let’s call him Jack.

When Jack started on the car he had only rudimentary mechanical skills. It took him several, patient years to teach himself enough engine-building, electrical wiring, panel beating, upholstering and spray painting to get the job done.

When Jack started on the car he was also depressed and friendless, after a bitterly failed marriage. His emotions had flatlined and he retreated into his garage.

The decision to restore the car was instinctive. He just knew it was the only thing he could do that would have meaning for him. He was right.

Over the course of those restoring years, Jack not only learned skills, he practiced daily, hours long, intensive mindfulness, as he machined engine parts, carefully threaded wires, meticulously painted. He brought himself back again and again from distracting, negative thoughts of the failure of his marriage and repetitive self-recriminations to the solid, gritty reality of the mechanical task in the moment, with the concentration required of performing a newly acquired skill at a high level.

Jack succeed in both restorations. The car became a showroom gem, a source of self-esteem and a way of rejoining the world as he shared his achievement with others. The inner stability he gained through years of applied mindfulness enabled him to face deeper inner pain in counselling without being overwhelmed by it. The car was the foundation of his healing.

Mindfulness exists in our lives mostly like this. It is like this that is has the most value, when it is integrated in our moment to moment actual life. Mindfulness is not a magic cushion that we sit on and miraculously find peace.

When I first see a client I am especially interested in how they may naturally apply mindfulness already in their daily life, their work, their hobbies, their sports. We talk about how this can be enhanced, deepened, extended.

With some clients it’s easy. They are knitters, musicians, gardeners, swimmers. We talk about how to deepen their moment to moment attention to that. If you normally knit scarves and jumpers, try knitting a stuffed dinosaur. If you play classical music, try some jazz. If you only grow vegetables, try orchids. If you swim laps, try body-surfing. Use the skills you already have in a new way that requires you to stay right in the moment with the task, and consciously enhance that concentration to bring your awareness fully into the now, letting other thoughts dissolve.

With some clients it’s harder. They might say “I have no interests”. No problem, I reply. You have daily tasks you already apply mindfulness to. How about cooking? Washing dishes? Driving? Cleaning? What tasks do you have at work that require concentration?

Where I live in Townsville, Queensland, it hardly rains for half the year. The last few years we haven’t had enough rain in the wet season, and our dam is very low, less than 20% full. So we have restrictions on watering our gardens and lawns. For the last year we haven't been allowed to use sprinklers - only handheld hoses. I explain to many clients how to use natural mindfulness with that. “Instead of daydreaming, bring your full attention to the spot where the water touches the lawn. Keep your mind fully with the experience of watching the changing pattern and sound of the water splashing. When you’ve brought your mind into the moment with that, relax and broaden the concentration a little so you can hear all the sounds of the garden and the neighbourhood, experience the fading light as the sun sets, watch the thoughts that try to come dissolve as you keep your concentration on the lawn, and the full sensory experience of this moment.”

The Buddha, 2500 years ago, explained how to practice single-pointed mindfulness of breathing like this:

It is like a skilled carpenter or carpenter’s apprentice: when making a deep cut they would clearly know ‘I am making a deep cut’, and when making a shallow cut they would clearly know ‘I am making a shallow cut’.*

The Buddha saw that mindfulness already existed in tasks like carpentry, was already familiar to people in that way, and so that was the best way to explain it. We shouldn't forget this.

Of course, if you do have a mindfulness practice that involves sitting on a cushion, fantastic! Keep doing that if it’s bringing you peace. Just remember though, that your sitting practice only has value if the peace and mental stability you find can be integrated in the rest of your day. A day where we simply, mostly remember awareness of experiencing the present moment is of more value in the long run than a day of distraction that includes a short mindfulness break on the cushion.

All the stuff we actually do, every day, is where our minds need to be. If there are already activities in our lives that we enjoy and love, we can add quality to that, make them more part of our inner healing, by enhancing the quality of mindfulness that we bring to them.

* Quote from the Buddha’s Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation, translation from SuttaCentral

Matthew Power is a leading trauma counsellor, psychotherapist, Focusing Trainer and mentor whose work includes educating other professionals in trauma awareness and the latest trauma counselling approaches. To learn more and to book a Skype appointment with Matthew, go to www.heartmindfocusing.net