Stories and our individual lives share the same elements: protagonists, antagonists, conflict, plot, action, climax, and resolution. What are the atomic components that make these narrative elements possible?
Mindfulness practice involves tracking aspects of ordinary experience as precisely as possible while allowing these observations to come and go with less interference. The noting technique creates a structure for maintaining both of these qualities of attention. Using mental labels is a technique that supports noting.
One good definition of suffering is the wish for our current circumstances to be different than they are, which means that most of us suffer a great deal of the time. The degree to which we suffer fluctuates based on the gulf between how things are and our idea of a more perfect set of circumstances. The resistance to accepting what is happening right now takes energy. No wonder why so many of us frequently report feeling exhausted.
It’s easy to think that the environment needs to be completely still and quiet for meditation to occur. When I first began practicing meditation I would switch off the ringer on our phone and put a Christmas ornament on the knob of the closed bedroom door to alert everyone in the house to try to keep it down until they heard the sound of the gong. Hey, whatever it takes to establish the habit, right? But these kinds of controls can develop into unquestioned necessary ingredients and a kind of literalism that can solidify into obstacles instead of supports.
Do I need to be in a gym to lift something heavy? Do I need to be wearing running clothes to chase down the bus? Do I need to be standing on a yoga mat to notice my breath? It can be interesting to consider how formal meditation practice and the application of the same strategies in the midst of our ordinary experiences relate to and inform each other. We don’t meditate to achieve temporary benefits, but to develop a kind of deep intimacy with how human perception works and how it operates to influence our happiness or misery. It’s not about trying to avoid life, but a means of engaging more directly with it.
When our physical strength increases as a result of lifting weights we don’t have to be standing in the gym to notice it or to put it to use. We just need to keep visiting the gym to maintain and improve it. In the same way, we don’t need to be in a sanctuary in order to cultivate the skills of attention. We cultivate these skills to gradually transform our senses into a sanctuary that we can bring out into world.
After a few months of practice, I no longer needed an ornament on my door. I usually don’t even need to close it. When the phone rings, I let it ring. Of course there are times when I do close the door or turn off my phone, but these feel like options now instead of requirements. I can relax or tighten my grip on allowing distractions and see what happens. Working in this way helps me bring these strategies out into the world. I’m a little more willing to let the cell phones of strangers ring at the grocery store without them preventing me from doing a few reps of concentration and equanimity strengthening exercises while I’m waiting in line.
Mindfulness meditation uses ordinary sensory experience to develop skills of attention which can increase our baseline level of contentment. We take the world in through our eyes, our ears, and our bodies. We make sense of the world and our relationship to it through our mental images, internal conversations, and sensations in the body which seem to have emotional flavors.