Did you ever get into a heated argument with someone over a meaningless issue, only to find that encounter constantly replaying itself in your head, as if it’s stuck to you like glue? You don’t want to think of the other person yet now there’s no getting away from them; you’re stuck with them. Despite the situation or encounter being well over, it keeps coming up again in your mind.
Soon after Nelson Mandela’s release after twenty-seven years in jail, President Bill Clinton asked Mandela if he was angry with his jailors the day he finally walked away them. “Surely,” Clinton asked, “You must have felt some anger?” Mandela agreed that, yes, alongside the joy of being free, he also felt great anger. “But,” he added, “I valued my freedom more, and I knew that if I maintained my anger I would still be a prisoner.”
This is a brilliant example of recognizing the effect anger has: one of keeping us a prisoner to ourselves. It also shows that we always have a choice to either be aware or be a victim. For instance, imagine your mind is like a beautiful garden and you let a pig into it. You will then have a very hard time getting that pig out, as pigs are stubborn and won’t budge, especially as they love tasty gardens! In the same way negativity, like a pig, won’t budge or leave us alone but imprisons us within ourselves. That’s where mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness is being completely present with whatever we are feeling, thinking, or experiencing, purposefully paying attention to whatever arises in the moment. So it’s being aware of negative thoughts and feelings, and me-centeredness, as much as it’s being aware of positive feelings such as love and kindness. Such mindful awareness is nonjudgmental; it doesn’t condemn or discriminate. It is simply being aware of what is.
In this way, the stickiness of negativity doesn’t sneak up on us unawares or take us over, so we don’t end up with a garden full of pigs. Normally an angry encounter, self-pity, depression, hopelessness, or any one of a myriad of self-depreciating states, will push others away, condemn, and make everything wrong except itself. Certainly all the negative reactions that arise during moments of discord can cause great anguish, but our own anger does us far more emotional harm than someone else’s words or actions. Our heart goes out of reach and we lose touch with our feelings. There’s no compromise, no chance for dialogue, just “I am right and you are wrong.”
Being mindful is like a dear friend who enables us to know and embrace ourselves with kindness. Mindfulness means we don’t get locked out of our heart and throw away the key. Rather, we can watch how negativity distracts the mind and makes such a song and dance, and we just keep breathing and watching as it goes on it’s jolly way.
Which means mindfulness is like Teflon as nothing sticks! As our partner, neuroscientist Brian Jones says, “Mindfulness is the first step to being free of anger and all the obstacles that limit peace of mind, inner freedom, and true happiness.”
Practice: Start by choosing just one thing to be mindful of, such as your breathing, or the movement of your body as you walk. As you do this, so you’ll naturally become mindful of other things too, such as physical sensations or feelings.
To become aware of your breath, find a comfortable place to sit with your back upright. Close your eyes and simply watch the natural flow of the breath. There is a difference between watching the breath and controlling your breathing. Here you are just watching. To help you focus, you can silently repeat “Breathing in, breathing out” with each breath.