Mindfulness for Mere Mortals

The following post contains excerpts from:

Mindfulness for Mere Mortals — A Minimal Guide

The latest in my Minimal Guide series contains everything you need to know to develop the processes and habits needed to maintain inner peace. If you’ve always wondered what mindfulness and meditation were about or have struggled to develop a practice of your own, this contains all you need to get started and keep going.

In addition, the eBook is a “living” guide. It will be updated as more questions, feedback, thoughts, and topic ideas not yet covered come up. The book currently contains a lot more than the preview below. And there are even more great sections to come. As updates are made, those who have purchased a copy will receive notification of future versions available free download.

Buy it today!

If you want a preview of what the book is all about, keep reading…

Take a few seconds or a minute and close your eyes. Try, really hard, to notice every sound you hear.

When I close my eyes right now, I hear the cats playing upstairs, I hear cars rushing past in the distance (we live near a busy street), I hear the the quiet hum and whine of household appliances, and snow blowers still busy after recent snow. These are things I don’t really notice when going about my day. Yet, in my home these things are still there, my mind simply filters them out as unimportant background noise. I’m focused on seeing and thinking and doing.

The truth is that we spend most of our lives missing out on most of what is going on around us. We have limited capacity and our minds prioritize our focus according to our needs and desires. Needs and desires come from a dissatisfaction with the present. The want of something else, something more, something that does not yet exist.

Yet to be fully in the present we must de-prioritize needs and desires in lieu of what is here and now. Because our capacity cannot prioritize both the future and the present. It must choose. And, it is dissatisfaction (Dukkha) that causes us to choose to focus on what’s next.

So, the true goal of mindfulness is to miss out on less of what is going on around us by prioritizing the here and now. To hear more and see more and be aware of more on a moment by moment basis.

It’s not easy. It takes sacrifice — letting go. It means closing your eyes sometimes (to focus on hearing) and plugging your ears others (to focus on seeing). It means taking time regularly to just sit, not do, and take it all in. It is the opposite of everything the little voice in our head tells us we should be doing.

But, it is entirely possible. Like any other thing, it will come easy to some and others it may take a lifetime. But, you don’t have to be a saint or a monk. Mindfulness is completely doable for mere mortals like you and I — It just takes practice. Training your brain to respond to the future with phrases like, "that’s interesting" or, "Not right now please" and trust that the idea or need or desire will return when the time is right. Because it will, if it was worth anything.

So, did you do it?

That thing I mentioned in the very first paragraph? That whole close your eyes and listening thing? For how long? A few seconds? A minute? Five minutes?

Well, guess what you just did? You meditated! You’re a friggin’ zen monk rock star! Pat yourself on the back.

Seriously, it might have seemed like nothing you expected or have been told in the past meditation is. Don’t believe anyone who tells you you need to sit in lotus position (which I still can’t do after trying for years) and focus on some imaginary dot breathing in and out through specific blowholes. That’s meditation too but it is usually served with a lot of elitist dressing poured over it.

The truth is that even just taking a few moments to stop, be present, and observe as fully as possible the world around you counts just as much as meditation as any full on two week zen retreat. And you, mere mortal, can do that. A five-year-old can.

At the very least a few seconds is a perfect place to start. A small bit that anyone can do at anytime and anywhere. A small practice that you can build on.

Next time you are at the grocery store in a line that you wish was moving faster, try closing your eyes for a few seconds and pick out all of the sounds around you. As you focus in on each one simply acknowledge it and move along to the next. Right there, in that few seconds, you’ll find you were not focused on the frustration of a slow line. For just a few seconds you were present instead of worrying about a problem that is out of your control. For just a few seconds you were neither angry or happy — you just were. That’s meditation.

And, if you can do that in a long line in a grocery store, you can do that at work in a boring meeting, you can do it in the shower, you can do it anywhere.

And, if you can do it for a few seconds with ease you can double it the next time and double it again the next time after that. It can scale.

Do it enough and five seconds won’t feel like five minutes. Five minutes won’t feel like five hours. In fact, eventually you’ll have experiences where time simply ceases to exist, feeling wise. In fact, you’ll go so deep that an hour of sitting will pass and you’ll feel like you just sat down a few seconds ago (I didn’t believe this either until it happened to me). With practice, you’ll be into some next level zen ninja stuff.

But, it starts with just a few seconds.

Why meditate?

OK, this is going to sound a little hokey. Even I blush a little still when I tell people because I know half the people I tell it to will roll their eyes in a "Yeah, right!" gesture. But here it is…


Meditation, if practiced regularly and used prescriptively will bring the practitioner inner peace. It’s as simple as that. But, like the seconds that turn into minutes that turn into hours, peace also will scale in parallel to your meditation practice. Put simply, the more you meditate, the better you will get at it, the more at peace you will experience and feel.

How does meditation give you peace?

Because meditation helps you see the world, and your self in it, for what it is — not what you wish it to be. Meditation will help you learn to focus your energy on the things you can change — right here and now — and ignore the things you can’t (especially that which is not right here and now). When your energy is then focused on direct action on changing that which causes you suffering, discomfort, and stress, you will change it. You will learn to simply let go of those feelings for the things you can’t change.

There’s those "Yeah, sure, right?" eye rolls again.

Really, it’s true. Let’s go back to that long grocery line and break down the things you can do about it. Let’s assume there are no other shorter faster lines. Here’s your choices…

  1. Leave and not get groceries. There, problem solved. At least the waiting one is. You still need groceries.
  2. Wait and get frustrated. Does that make the line move faster? Does that change anything but making you even more angry and frustrated and dissatisfied?
  3. Wait and know that there is nothing to do but wait. Be OK with the wait. Be at peace with waiting.

Now, only one of those choices will bring you peace. The one where you paused in your frustration and took the time to see what you could do about the problem and choose the one that brought you peace. That is mindfulness. That is meditation. That is peace.

And, once you can learn how to approach a grocery line with mindfulness you can learn how to approach every single moment that way. No matter the situation. No matter how bad it seems or how much it hurts. With practice, you can bring yourself peace anytime and anywhere in any situation.

Once again, it’s not easy…

I don’t even consider myself all that good at it. Put me behind the wheel of a car and you will see my mindfulness fly out the drivers side window most days. But, just because my practice is not always perfect it does not mean I don’t know what the answer and solution is. I know it takes practice and, for me, it may take a whole lot more.

How much more? I have no idea. That’s future. If I focus on that I’ve already lost — I can’t put any action or effort there because it doesn’t exist. Not yet, at least, and maybe never. I can only put action and effort on today. I can’t even go back and say sorry to that driver who I flipped off when he cut in front of me and he wouldn’t likely apologize in return. That’s past and it can’t be changed. All I can do is, when I feel the road rage coming, take a second or two to be present, weigh my responses, and choose the one that brings me the most peace. It’s the only thing I can control. Because the one that brings me the most peace is the one that benefits me the most. If it sounds "selfish" it’s because it is. And that’s OK if it also benefits those around me and, by extension, the world at large. And how could the world not benefit from any one or all of us being a bit more at peace?

Dealing with dukkha.

That is really what it is all about. And, since I assume your knowledge of Sanskrit is poor at best, you are asking yourself what the heck dukkha is. Turns out, Wikipedia has a very good article on it. It’s one of the better written articles I’ve come across on there. I urge you to go read it. Here’s how it starts:

Dukkha (Pāli; Sanskrit: duḥkha; Tibetan: སྡུག་བསྔལ་ sdug bsngal, pr. "duk-ngel") is a Buddhist term commonly translated as "suffering", "anxiety", "stress", or "unsatisfactoriness". The principle of dukkha is one of the most important concepts in the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha is reputed to have said: "I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha."

So, dukkha is a fairly broad and all encompassing idea. One that is used to describe all of the general dissatisfactions of life. Not having enough, not getting what we want, physical pain, heartbreak, wishing for a better life, over indulgence, and on and on — all of these and more are dukkha. In other words, our daily lives are filled with dukkha. And, because we are creatures that, for the most part, don’t like to feel bad, much of our lives are also filled with looking for ways to lessen our dukkha. Which creates a paradox, because dukkha can also come from the desire to have less dukkha and the work chasing the wrong solutions. As long as we have dukkha we can not have complete peace. Peace will come when we learn how to properly deal with the dukkha.

So, how do we deal with the dukkha? Mindfulness. How do we achieve mindfulness? Meditation.

Do you have ten minutes?

Of course you do. Everyone does. And if you can’t spare ten minutes for meditation — ten minutes to be at peace — then you should really reexamine your priorities in life. I can’t help you and you should come back when you can. But, I’m going to assume that you can. We are going to take ten minutes to meditate. You and I, right after this little chapter where I’m going to teach you how step-by-step. I’m also going to cover some important details in each step — explanations as to why and how certain things work. Because I found that knowing the steps is not nearly as valuable as understanding them.

Also, find a way to let yourself know when the ten minutes is up. If you have a smartphone you can set a timer with it. Kitchen timers work great but I find the buzzer a bit jarring when they go off and coming out of a peaceful meditation session with a loud alarm is no fun at all. So, whatever you find, it may be nice to have a gentle alarm.

OK, here we go…

  1. Sit. Find somewhere to sit that is comfortable and you can sit up straight. You don’t have to sit cross legged or in "lotus" or on a zafu cushion. The reason you see many doing so or read meditation guides that advocate it is that these, in general, force one to assume good posture and sit up straight. But, you can sit up straight almost anywhere. If you can’t, try lying down on your back. The point of all of this posture stuff is to make it easy to breathe. Breathing deep and long — good in-and-out breaths. And for that you need to use your lungs and your diaphragm. And breathing is going to be very important for this. So, sit so that you can take nice, long, breaths.
  2. Focus your attention on your breath. Why breath? Why do all of these hoodoo guru zen geeks always want you to focus on your breath? Because it is one place of focus we all have. It’s universal. One place we all can return to when our mind wanders. No matter our physical condition or place or anything else that may be going on, if you are alive, you are breathing. If you have a pulse you have breath. When you sit and close your eyes and your mind immediately starts popping with all the other things you should be doing or have to be doing during this ten minutes, directing your attention back to your breath is something all living humans can do. So, take a few minutes now just to focus on your breath just to know what you need to do. Feel it flowing in and out? Got it? Good.
  3. Are you sitting up straight and comfortable and do you know how to focus on your breath? Good. Now, set your timer and close your eyes. Why? Less distractions. Heck, if you have ear plugs that help with noise distractions but still let you hear your alarm then do that a too. The more you can pro-actively deal with distractions the better. Because, your mind will have plenty of fun thinking up things to distract you with because the last thing it wants is peace and quiet. It has grown very accustomed to constant distraction and a sense of being busy. You have helped it along with all of your dukkha — your shoulds and coulds and wants and needs. Your brain will need to be retrained to want this more. Once again, it’s not easy and it takes time but it can be done and this is how you do it.
  4. As your eyes are closed and you you are focused on on your breath, you’ll start to think about the laundry or the errands or the work thing or… You get the idea. It’s OK. That’s normal. As things pop into your head, acknowledge them, visualize them briefly, and think to yourself, "Not right now. Come back later.", and then visualize them going away before returning your focus to your breath.

Got it? Great. Now, stop reading and go off and give it a try. I’ll wait right here…

How’d it go?

In general, folks have one of two responses which I will paraphrase here:

  1. "Great! Was that only ten minutes? Felt like nothing at all. I could have gone for hours."
  2. "Um, I only lasted about a minute and a half. Then, I remembered I needed to RSVP to a Facebook event and, well, this is stupid and I’ll never be able to do it."

If you are at number one, stop reading. You don’t need this. Just consider making this a daily practice.

If you are in the number two camp, well, so was I at first. Welcome to the club. If it makes you feel better, we are the normal ones. The ones who get this right off the bat are the weirdos. Although, believe me, I wish I was one of the weird ones. But I’m not and wishing is dukkha so…

The point being that this will take practice. You will likely fail a lot at first. Every time you go to sit for meditation you will question the point because you have yet to sit for long enough to see it. But, trust me, keep at it — ten minutes every day — and you’ll begin to wonder why you have not been doing this all your life. Then, you’ll figure out that if ten minutes of this is good then twenty minutes must be great. And you may struggle with that longer amount at first but now at least you know, from having worked hard to get to ten, that twenty is perfectly doable.

Much more in included in the book with even more on the way…

Buy it today!

Some Thoughts On Solitude

I have long wanted to take a private/personal retreat of some kind. Last Christmas, my best friend Dawn gave me the gift of one — telling me to simply choose what I wanted and she would take care of any needed details. I searched for through the many option in the area, but kept coming back to a Franciscan based hermitage retreat called Pacem in Terris (Latin for “Peace on Earth”). My Birthday fell at the end of last week and I felt it would be perfect timing to spend it there in solitude and reflection.

Like Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin, each hermitage is a small, single room cabin with an attached screen porch. Each one is sparely appointed with just the essentials — a bed, a rocking chair, a small table, a couple of stations for washing and cooking, and a small altar for those who wish to pray. A delicious basket of food is supplied and refreshed daily — a couple of loaves of (oh-my-goodness-so-delicious!) homemade bread, some fruit, some local cheese, and some jugs of water. They have been doing this for years so every amenity is well thought out and centered around reducing any stress or desire.

A retreat into solitude like this is impossible to convey in mere words. One has to really experience it and come away with their own impressions. For me, it was lovely and peaceful and restful and I highly encourage everyone to seek out such a place near them and allow themselves such a gift. But I felt, at the least, I could share some of the thoughts I wrote down about it. What follows are all direct passages I wrote in my journal during and after, offered in no particular order other than flow…

In many ways a solitary journey into the wilderness is, in equal measure, a journey into the wilderness of self. Just as the path into the woods draws us further away from civilization until all one can see in any direction is nature, so too is the truth of our own nature revealed. We can finally see our thoughts without noise or hinderance of distractions and obligations.

One of the interesting things about being out in nature with nothing to do but listen, notice, and ponder, is that one’s attention becomes more acute. When the leaves are blown by the wind, after time one stops hearing a whoosh and rustle and begins to hear each leaf knocking against another. Instead of one great sound one hears a collection of individual ones. Acorns falling to the ground sound like heavy raindrops in rapid succession and not a short storm. So too it becomes with our own thoughts — no longer are they a fleeting cacophony bombarded by many outside inputs — here, in the stillness, we can see and examine each one for what it is without the fear of loosing it.

Thoreau knew the secret. His journals make so much more sense to me now! I can understand how focused and excited he gets over the smallest things. How the way the snow caps or the lake shimmers can be worth a thousand word ode. Because, it is the way one sees them when in wilderness (external/internal). One would notice both each sparkle of snowflake and whole of a storm all at once. Just as I, sitting in the middle of this field, am alive to each swaying blade of grass and the whole of the prairie at once. I could surely write a thousand word ode to this!

The reality of how much this is missed in our daily lives was when I began to realize how much of an incredible luxury this seemed. Almost as if to be able to have such time and to experience such a thing were to enjoy something far beyond the means of most. For a short time I dealt with almost feeling ashamed at enjoying such fortune. To have the time, however short or long, to ponder both that which is all around us and that which is deep inside. To not have to rush through it all. To watch grasses sway and dragonflies dance on a crisp Autumn breeze while I examine each thought before sending it along without care for a next action. To have such things be the only thing I do.

Ask yourself, when was the last time your were alone. Not just alone in the sense of not having another person around but alone in the completest sense of having no distractions, obligations, tasks, next steps, “should be doings”, or “have to be doings”? Like me before this, I bet the answer was “never”. I feel like I’m now a member of some small, secret, select club. One who not only holds a secret but knows what it means. The impact it could have if more in our modern society knew it. It may sound absurdly grandiose yet I feel it does not begin to touch the surface. This experience changed me. I went into the wilderness one way and returned from it another — better equipped and seeing clearer.

I implore to all who might read this one day — go out there, into the wilderness, into solitude. Find the world there. Find what matters there. Find yourself there.

Right Effort

Here is what my current favorite online Buddhist resource has to say about the precept of Right Effort:

Right Effort means cultivating an enthusiasm, a positive attitude in a balanced way. Like the strings of a musical instrument, the amount of effort should not be too tense or too impatient, as well as not too slack or too laid back. Right Effort should produce an attitude of steady and cheerful determination.

In order to produce Right Effort, clear and honest thoughts should be welcomed, and feelings of jealousy and anger left behind. Right Effort equates to positive thinking, followed by focused action.

Drop a stone into still water, and the water will respond with exactly the right amount of ripples for the size of the stone. A smaller stone will produce less ripples. A larger stone will produce more. But, it will always be in proportion and never more or less. In a similar way, Right Effort encourages us to apply the appropriate amount of action dictated by the intention.

In the last few months, I have worked hard to apply this idea to my social media approach as well. I’m certainly not perfect at it. There have been many times that I have failed. But, in general, if you were to look at my feed you’d find that I try not to post too often or too infrequently. I do my best to find balance between the two. I participate when directly engaged. I try to make sure that what I’m posting is of a positive nature. I try to only post things that I believe are worth the time of those who might be reading it. I rarely engage in debate or argument— and when I do my intention is to try to learn from an opposing view, not to rebuke it. And, more than anything else, I try to be helpful in any way I see that I can be.