How on earth did I get there: captivated by a room full of people slowly and mindfully eating raisins?
This is what I thought when I first attempted the practice of mindfulness. I would never have guessed that slowly squishing a raisin around in my mouth, becoming aware of the texture and mindful of the flavors, would yield all that much. At the time, my initial response was, “You have got to be kidding! What a waste of time. We all know what raisins taste like.” But something at a deeper level resonated with me and so I stayed.
Very soon I realized that, in all of my busyness in life, I was one of those people who had stopped tasting raisins.
When did that happen?
Was that just part of adulthood? In my version of being an adult, I somehow got myself so busy trying to “succeed” and get somewhere that I forgot how to truly feel alive. And I discovered that two weeks per year of feeling awake and alive on vacation are simply not enough.
When this dawned on me, things in my life began to change. I told my husband, “Jeffrey, I think I just need to give up all of my ambitions in life.” He chuckled at how ridiculous it sounded, but I could see a look of concern in his eyes. “Is she serious?” they seemed to say.
“I am serious.” I told him. “If I can find a way to not care about getting anything done, then I can just focus on being happy.”
Was this “non-attachment?” As a quintessential overachiever, I read my share of spiritual self-improvement books that discussed the big topics of surrender, letting go, acceptance, non-attachment, non-striving and the like. The problem was that I had no idea how to practice non-attachment. I had been goal-oriented and productive my entire adult life. Being goal-oriented suited me. I didn’t know how to sit still and do nothing. I thrived on getting things done. I liked getting things done. I had thought that was part of life… part of being successful.
I pictured what my life might look like being non-attached: I could see Jeffrey coming home to find the house a mess and the kids eating jellybeans. I would still be in my pajamas with my hair disheveled as if I had just gotten out of bed. He might worry that I had become profoundly depressed, but I would reassure him, “This is not depression, honey. I’m practicing spiritual enlightenment.”
No… I was missing something.
I needed a way to be mindful in the present moment, with awareness, but also continue to move through life with intention, purpose and meaning toward ideals, without being rigidly attached to outcomes. Sounds doable, right?
That’s when I realized that I had a hang-up about non-attachment: it had always felt too…well, too passive.
There are things I care deeply about in life: justice and equality, freedom from oppression, fairness and honesty, a sustainable society, clean water, biodiversity, politicians with integrity. The list goes on. I don’t want to just surrender these things. I don’t want to just let go. Call me a dreamer if you must, but I want to make the world a better place for our children. When there is an injustice in the world, I don’t want to just sit by and breathe. I want to help make it right. When someone is suffering, I don’t want to just acknowledge and accept the suffering, I want to try to do what I can. Can you see my dilemma with non-attachment? But maybe I was missing the point.
Perhaps what we need is a balance between acceptance and striving for change. A butterfly doesn’t just stay passively in the chrysalis, nor does she lament her metamorphosis. What she does is she struggles actively to emerge. There is a sweet spot between simultaneously accepting the conditions of the present moment AND acting in a way that brings forth the highest possibility in that moment. This sweet spot is mindfulness in action.
When in comes to physical health and wellness, I believe that non-attachment is about letting go of attachment to outcomes. Outcomes cannot be controlled. We can only do the best we can do. And acceptance is about accepting the conditions of the present moment, not the story about what might happen some day. But, there is still plenty of room for action – for doing right now what supports and enhances wellness. Mindfulness becomes about living life fully present today – in this moment – and letting go of any attachment to “should-have-beens” and “somedays”.
And to think, it can all start with tasting raisins. Mindfulness helps us find the witness to the constant, distracting, chatter inside our heads. Once we do, we can get a little space between who we are at our core and all the thoughts that swim around in the mind. We can learn to be in the present moment, to let go of rigid attachments to future outcomes, and how to tune into the needs of the body while finding ways to meet those needs in the present moment. We can also begin to distinguish between the truth of the situation versus some story that we tell ourselves.
By practicing mindfulness, I finally get, in my very bones, that my happiness, peace, joy, and love are not dependent on my external circumstances. All of those things come from within.
The present moment is where we find strength and the ability to influence the course of our lives. Mindfulness ultimately helps us choose to be fully present to life in this moment, come what may.