Engaged in the Normal Process of Living

The purpose of mindfulness…is to help us detach ourselves from the ego by observing the way our minds work. You might find it helpful to learn more about the neurological makeup of the brain and the way that meditation can enhance your sense of peace and interior well-being…but this is not essential. Practice is more important than theory, and you will find that it is possible to work on your mental processes just as you work out in the gym to enhance your physical fitness.

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that we perform as we go about our daily lives…Just as musicians have to learn how to manipulate their instruments and an equestrienne requires an intimate knowledge of the horse she is training, we have to learn to use our mental energies more kindly and productively. This is not a meditation that we should perform in solitude, apart from our ordinary routines. In mindfulness we mentally stand back and observe our behavior while we are engaged in the normal process of living in order to discover more about the way we interact with people, what makes us angry and unhappy, how to analyze our experiences, and how to pay attention to the present moment. Mindfulness is not meant to make us morbidly self-conscious, scrupulous, or guilty; we are not supposed to pounce aggressively on the negative feelings that course through our minds. Its purpose is simply to help us channel them more creatively.

With mindfulness, we use our new analytical brain to step back and become aware of the more instinctive, automatic mental processes of the old brain. So we live in the moment, observing the way we speak, walk, eat, and think. The Tibetan word for meditation is gom: “familiarization.” Mindfulness should give us greater familiarity with the Four Fs that are the cause of so much pain (feeding, fighting, fleeing, and—reproduction). We will become aware of how suddenly these impulses arise in response to stimuli that make us irrationally angry, hostile, greedy, rampantly acquisitive, lustful, or frightened, and how quickly they overturn the more peaceful, positive emotions. But instead of being overly distressed by this, we should recall that it is what nature intended and that the strong instinctual passions are simply working through us. Over time and with practice, we can learn how to become more aloof and refuse to identify with them: “This is not mine; this is not what I really am; this is not my self.” But it will not happen overnight; we have to be patient and understand that there is no quick fix.

Yet we should also take note of how unhappy these primitive emotions make us. When you are engrossed in thoughts of anger, hatred, envy, resentment, or disgust, notice the way your horizons shrink and your creativity diminishes…In the grip of these hostile preoccupations, we become focused on ourselves, can think of little else, and lose all wider perspective. We tend to assume that other people are the cause of our pain; with mindfulness, over time, we learn how often the real cause of our suffering is the anger that resides within us. When we are enraged, we tend to exaggerate a person’s defects—just as when we are seized by desire we accentuate somebody’s attractions and ignore her faults, even though at some level we may know that this is a delusion.

Similarly, we become aware that the acquisitive drive, which originally motivated our search for food, is never satisfied. As you progress, you will notice that once a desire is fulfilled, you almost immediately start to want something else. if the object of your desire turns out to be disappointing, you become frustrated and unsettled. You soon realize that nothing lasts long. An irritation, idea, or fantasy that seemed all-consuming a moment ago tends to pass quite quickly, and before long you are distracted by a startling noise or a sudden drop in temperature, which shatters your concentration. We humans rarely sit absolutely still but are constantly shifting our position, even when we sleep. We suddenly get it into our heads to wander into another room, make a cup of tea, or find somebody to talk to. One minute we are seething over a colleague’s inefficiency; the next we are daydreaming about our summer vacation. Gradually, as you become conscious of your changeability, you will find that you are beginning to sit a little more lightly to your opinions and desires. Your current preoccupation is not really “you,” because in a few moments you will almost certainly be obsessing about something else.