In this time of “social distancing,” my friends are knitting, sewing, quilting, gluing and painting every sort of art project. They have assembled umpteen jigsaw puzzles and gotten Zoom drunk with friends. They’ve elevated binge-watching to an art form. They’re reading books, baking bread, deep-cleaning their homes, and posting on Facebook dozens of times daily.
Me? I’m learning Gonzo Mindfulness Meditation.
What is it? Briefly, it’s being aware of your thoughts and actions in the moment—being, as the saying goes, “in the present.” Notice the thought, acknowledge it and move on, no judgement. The result? Higher levels of happiness. It’s Gonzo, because you just do it, don’t analyze it.
In that spirit, I decided to practice mindfulness as I prepared for my morning walk. Here’s a snippet:
There’s a tiny hole in the mesh over the toes in my left shoe. Is it because I should be cutting my toenails more? I hate cutting my toenails. Each snip is from an awkward position. I remember the day I was cutting my dad’s toenails and missed. He screamed. He’s been dead since 2011, but I still feel so bad about that. (Breathe. I can’t change the past. Let it go.)
I wash my hands before preparing my coffee for the road. I didn’t do that before the pandemic. I am so sick of politicians saying they are “data-based.” The way I read the numbers, without a vaccine, at least half of the U.S. population will get infected over the next couple of years. That’s 170,000,000 people. If 20% gets seriously ill, that’s 34 million. There’s debate about the death rate. I’m going with a middling number – one percent. That means 300,000 deaths. OH MY GOD, WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE! (Breathe. Yeah, I knew that, even before Covid-19. Breathe, release the thought and move on.)
Mind-less-ness before mind-ful-ness
I’m following the guidelines of Mark W. Muesse, Ph.D., in Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction of Meditation, a Great Courses series in audio or video streaming format.
Our mind’s default setting, says Dr. Muesse, is mind-less-ness. He compares our free-range mind to a cowboy being whipped around on a bucking bull. Our thoughts flit at warp speed to past experiences and emotions, and to future hopes and fears, with almost no time spent in the present. (Try it. Take 30 seconds and follow your thoughts to see where they take you.) The result is we aren’t present in our own lives. As my friend Sue so famously said while she and I were looking at old photos, “If we only knew then how hot we were.”
When you learn to be aware of your thoughts and feelings as they are happening, without judging them, says Dr. Muesse, you have more options for responding. You have more freedom to act in your own best interest. You can let go of those passing thoughts and worries and experience the moment.
This in-real-time awareness of what’s going through your mind — without judgment—promotes happiness. (Although it must be said that sometimes what you are experiencing in the moment is pain or suffering. The same adage applies: This, too, shall pass.)
Getting there from here
Meditation is, according to Prof. Muesse, is the tool for strengthening the muscle of awareness. Meditation is to the mind what physical exercise is to the body. His program starts from the basics: how to sit, how to breathe, how to relinquish ideas that are at odds with reality. Practicing awareness without judgment leads to greater generosity and compassion, and thus to great happiness.
So, I’m practicing meditation, too—starting each day with 30 minutes of sitting to clear and calm my brain. Then the mindfulness is supposed to carry through the day’s activities.
Professor Muesse speaks about mindfulness in dealing with heavy duty subjects like envy, anger, grief and death. He also has suggestions for more mundane issues like overeating, road rage and perfectionism. He explains with cultural, historical and spiritual references, psychological insights and lots of personal anecdotes—some of them pretty hilarious. Like his perfectionistic streak while redoing his kitchen or his disappointment when he wasn’t chosen to be an astronaut. In the eighth grade.
So, I’m submitting to the Gonzo nature of my immediate thoughts, in order to ditch them for living in the present and enhancing my happiness. Very quickly, I recognized the scattershot of thoughts that floods my mind with rapid-fire sequences of notions and emotions.
I go to pee. I try to conserve on the TP. I’ve been wondering if I blow my nose, then use the same tissues to wipe the pee, could I get corona of the vagina?
I wash my hands in the bathroom sink. “Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you.” I wish I were more creative about the tune I sing. I read somewhere that Dan Rather sings “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” (No judgment.)
See what I mean?
I lace up my trail shoes, then microwave a cup of coffee for the thermos. Should I use the cream in the fridge or the Coffee Mate powder? We have to make the real cream last as we only shop once every two weeks now. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how just the two of us use five quarts of half-and-half in a two-week period. (No judgment, Cathy.)
I loop the elastic bands of my surgical mask over my ears. My mask is already frayed and fuzzy just from my walking and grocery store forays. I can just imagine how worn the PPE of the front-line workers get.
I turn on my phone and press the Teaching Company course I’ve been listening to: “The Early Middle Ages.” The Roman Empire didn’t just fall apart after the Barbarians invaded. It disintegrated slowly. I wonder if I’m looking at an American way of life that is on the way to disappearing.
I walk out of the house through the garage. The day is beautiful. The irises are in their glory.
About a mile out, I take a slug from the thermos. Ugh! This Coffee Mate is terrible. Then I realize that, in my big creamer debate, I had forgotten to add sweetener to the coffee. Well, so much for mindfulness. (NO JUDGMENT. No judgment. no judgment.)
Am I getting anywhere with this?
How does awareness of my thoughts promote happiness? At the least, it explains why it takes me so long to get out of the house! More importantly, awareness and learning to let go of emotions will be helpful when real trouble comes – times of grief that happen to everyone.
Finally, Professor Muesse makes clear that practicing mindfulness is an aspirational process. When you become aware that you’re being mindless, you don’t beat yourself up. You go forward more mindfully. No pressure. No judgment. More happiness. The point isn’t to get anywhere, the point is to …oh, you know, it’s the journey, not the destination.
Yes, maybe you will achieve enlightenment and think only of the great philosophical questions of life. Or maybe not. But you want to be there for it either way. It’s your one life.
Tell me: What is your biggest “social distancing” change?