We were having dinner at an elegant Manhattan restaurant, talking animatedly, looking forward to the play we’d be seeing later in the evening. I gestured to emphasize a point — and capsized a large glass of red wine onto my white shirt and into my lap. I burst out laughing, heartily. A few moments later, I felt intense surprise — not because of the accident, but because of my reaction to it. In the past, instant self-recrimination would have been more likely, followed by dour visions of what I’d look like at the theatre, not to mention how I’d smell.
Reflecting on this moment now, I feel that it embodies the paradox of mindfulness meditation: this practice has a wide range of benefits that seep into every aspect of my life, but the benefits do not accrue because you strive after them. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Mindfulness meditation means bringing awareness nonjudgmentally to whatever is happening in your inner or outer world, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant. It doesn’t involve trying to change things. And yet things can change for the better as a result, sometimes dramatically, as evidenced by my uncharacteristic reaction to the “wine disaster.”
Of course, daily mindfulness practice ordinarily takes place on a cushion or chair, often in relative privacy, not in crowded restaurants. With some training, you begin to learn that any of the “objects” of awareness can help us stay present. These so-called objects can be body feelings, sounds, smells, movements, thoughts, or emotions — even simply knowing you are aware right now can help you be present. In the privacy of your home or office, how unpleasant could that be? For some, it can be very unpleasant. One study found that many research participants would rather receive an electric shock than sit alone with their own thoughts.
As you become more familiar with mindfulness practice, you begin to bring it into the flow of daily life. You practice mindfulness in any ordinary or extraordinary moment of the day, and the same nonjudgmental approach holds. You get a hug. Your boss screams at you. Someone pays you a compliment. You feel acute embarrassment over a mistake made in front of people you admire. Your little one smiles up at you. You remember the death of a friend. The food you’re eating tastes really good. Your head hurts and you are sure it’s brain cancer. With mindfulness, you bring yourself fully, nonjudgmentally to any and all of these experiences.
We all have these pleasant and unpleasant moments. The surprising fact about mindfulness meditation is that you open yourself to their vividness. In fact, such moments become your friends — for they support you in knowing you’re aware in each moment. Paradoxically, through this process, you end up happier, more centered, healthier. Mounting research confirms this phenomenon on all levels of our lives — from gene expression and immune response to interpersonal relationships and creativity.
In our highly efficiency-oriented, goal-driven world, pills and treatments abound for what ails us. Self-help programs offer a linear, rational progression to happiness. The quick fix is what we are after. In this world, mindfulness meditation is an anomaly. While it is associated with many specific benefits and increased well-being, it is emphatically NOT a pill or a fix or a tool for specific ends.
So, if you have the good fortune to train in awareness, and the even greater good fortune to establish a regular awareness meditation practice, you will be embarking on one of life’s great adventures: exploring the laboratory of your own mind. The good news is you don’t need a grant to do research in that laboratory. It’s free. And perhaps one day, you too will spill a glass of wine, or drop an ice cream cone, or get splattered by a passing car, or miss the last bus — and burst out laughing.