Messy Mindfulness

“It is like this now.” ~ Ajahn Chah

I practice and study Buddhist Insight (Vipassana) meditation with a small local group of practitioners once a week. I discovered this form of Buddhism when my daughter was three years old and it has become an important anchor in my life. Vipassana can be translated as “insight,” a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens. It is a direct and gradual cultivation of mindfulness or awareness. 

Through the process of mindfulness, you slowly becomes aware of what exists below the ego image. Vipassana is a form of mental training that teaches you to experience the world in an entirely new way. It is a process of self-discovery, an investigation in which you observe your own experiences, while participating in them as they occur.

Most of the members of my sangha are seasoned meditators, who have developed a committed and consistent daily practice over many years: sitting for lengthy periods of time, several times a day. They are all older than me, and they are either retired, single, or have grown children, so they are at a different stage and place in their lives. As an independent parent, working full-time, and caring for my aging parents, it can be challenging to fit in a formal sitting period once a day, let alone multiple times. It is easy to beat myself up about it and feel like a failure; or it is an invitation to recognize that this is the place I am at currently in my life. Mindfulness still provides me with refuge. It just shows up in a different form.

At the moment, I am allowed to visit my mom once a week in her assisted living facility. In addition her late stage Alzheimer’s Disease, we are also facing COVID-19 restrictions, so the visiting conditions are very limited. Our allotted half an hour is spent together in a small, boardroom with a large wooden table at its centre. I wear a surgical mask and I cannot hug my mom. We are allowed to hold hands, and as she needs to constantly move her body, we walk in circles around the perimeter of the table. My mom has lost her ability to use language. She talks with a nervous, non-stop energy, and the words tumbling out her mouth are mostly unrecognizable. We cannot carry on a conversation. She stoops and she cannot look me in the eyes. I listen and nod along to her monologue. I rub her back and I provide her with comforting responses and assurances when I think she needs them.

What I am noticing about our time together is that we are firmly rooted in the moment. There is no ability to escape and wander away from where we are with small talk or distractions. We are in this moment together, and then the next one, and the next, until the time in our proverbial hourglass elapses. It is a walking meditation, one which demands that I pay attention to my surroundings, and the subtle changes in my mother’s tone and demeanour. I notice the rhythm of my own breath and the pattern of our steps. We are learning relate to relate to one another in a new and unfamiliar way. There are no recognizable protocols. We make it up as we go. All that is constant is the love that connects us together.

As the parent of a young adolescent, I bear witness on a daily basis to the rapid physical and emotional changes taking place within my child. She is often flailing in deep waters of intense emotions and it is hard not to get pulled under with her. My daughter knows just what to say to evoke a response from me; she is smart and she never misses her target. It is easy to get caught up in an automatic response: a knee-jerk reaction, where I lose my temper and perspective, along with her. It is in these moments that I am being provided with an invitation to take a step back and pause for just a beat: to bear witness to the intense triggering that is occurring. To feel the anger and agitation that arises from deep inside and let it wash over me. To choose not to respond and instead take a moment to breathe in deeply and seek ways to regulate my own body. Once I find my centre, I can then try to locate my child, and pull her into shore. This is my practice in motion.

During a busy day, it is easy to feel like there is no time for meditation, and so rather than doing a little bit, I do nothing. One of the members of my group, who used to be an emergency room nurse, provided me with some good advice, which has helped me to find a path forward. She shared that when she was working full-time she would fit in her daily practice in five minute increments. Much like getting up from your desk and stretching, or taking a short walk, a five-minute meditation is a mental break which can be easily fit in almost anywhere. I do not need a cushion or a quiet space: I only need awareness, the ability to scan my body, and my breath. This can be done while driving, walking or washing dishes. It can be achieved through generating thoughts of love and gratitude. These moments of conscious reflection are like mini-calisthenics for the brain: every little one helps to make it stronger and more receptive. Slowly but surely my capacity for holding this mental space increases over time.

Although I still enjoy the idea of going on a ten-day silent meditation retreat, or finding a way to cultivate a solid daily practice, I also accept that this is where I am in my life at the moment. It is messy and unpredictable and I need to be flexible and adaptive in my approach. Mindfulness provides value in all of its many forms and holding on to a set idea of what it needs to look like, in order to be successful, is unhelpful. Providing myself with love and acceptance is part of my work, because without the ability to extend this to myself, I will not be able to offer it to others.

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