April 20, 2009

Traveling Mindfulness

“There isn’t any formula or method. You learn to love by loving – by paying attention and doing what one thereby discovers has to be done.” — Aldous Huxley

I’ve spent a busy weekend in Chicago facilitating a board meeting for a professional association. And, apparently, getting a bit of food poisoning to boot.

Saturday, at the end of our day-long session, I began to feel hot. My head started to throb, and all at once every joint in my body ached. I managed a bit of dinner with the board, made my apologies, and walked back to the hotel feeling miserable.

There’s only one way through misery. It’s called mindfulness.

I know it sounds paradoxical. Being sick, feeling ill, is surely something you’d want to escape. Who wants to be present with a fever and body aches? My best thinking tells me I’d rather be anywhere else.

Yet the mental experience — the story — we call misery arises because we struggle to escape from it.

I remember the year I broke my left leg. I was playing sandlot football in a field belonging to a local private school a couple of miles from my house. We were running hard, breath smoking in the brisk autumn air. It was perfect football weather, and we were having a great time. Then one of the other boys and I collided. I heard the sound of what I thought was a tree branch breaking.

That was my leg, just above the ankle.

There I was, in the middle of a field with a group of boys who didn’t know what in the world to do. One of them, James Callahan, took off running to get my parents, thank goodness. I lay on the ground waiting, getting colder by the minute, and looked into the sky.

I learned something about pain that day, and about staying with it. It was excruciating, yet somehow being with the pain helped me through it in a way that’s difficult to describe now.

So as I lay in my hotel room in Chicago Saturday night, I stepped into the headache. I listened to my aching joints. I felt the heat in my face and the chills running through my body.

And I gradually fell asleep.

When I awoke nine hours later, my fever had subsided. My body no longer ached. I felt better, if a little shaky still.

What happened? Who can say.

I like to think it was mindfulness got me through. Perhaps by being present and not trying to escape, my body’s full resources were able to concentrate on whatever bug had attacked it.

So it is with any source of trouble. Running away from it serves only to make it much worse, prolongs the associated stress, and seems to lengthen the period of duress and recovery.

But when we give ourselves to it, we can find that it miraculously dissipates and becomes more manageable than we had ever imagined.

That is the power of mindfulness. That is the gift of attention.

Exercise

As you move through the week, notice the sensations you experience when struggling with a situation. What happens when you stop the struggle and simply give it your attention? Can you be mindful enough to let it be what it is without wishing it to be anything else?

Write about what happens!

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