Mindfulness in the New Year

 

Image of MindfulnessMindfulness is very trendy these days. 

In the last few months, Google Alerts has delivered several references a day to blogs that explore the application of mindfulness to everyday life. A recent sample included holiday eating, parenting, office management, career planning, reading comprehension, and— this one got a belly laugh from me—using a smartphone.

In my view, most of these advice-giving essays miss the point. While there is considerable evidence that an attitude of mindfulness can have a positive impact on one’s life, particularly in terms of reducing stress, mindfulness is not a tool, but a state of mind.

It is a state of being in which you are consciously and intentionally present in the moment, in which you observe your situation non-judgmentally, without regard to how the present moment relates to the rest of your life. It reflects a recognition that the past no longer exists, that the future is both unknown and largely out of your control.

I first ran into the concept of mindfulness twenty years, at the top of mountain in India.  I was attending a month-long philosophy class at the Tibetan Library in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama. As someone who tends to be highly analytical, I was charmed by the idea of simply being present in the moment, whatever that moment happened to be. 

The concept of mindfulness resonated all the more because it offered a philosophical explanation for the unusual degree of contentment I experienced during the eight months my husband and I had spent crossing the Pacific Ocean on a 37-foot sailboat. Our pace of travel and our ports of call depended on the wind and the weather, both completely out of our control. In those pre-cell phone and pre-GPS days, we had very little contact with the outside world. We had left family and friends behind, and had no idea what lay ahead.

Beyond brushing my teeth, fixing meals, and trimming the sails when the wind shifted, there was very little I had to accomplish. When I wasn’t reading or sleeping, I watched the multi-textured sea beneath us and explored the star-filled skies above.  

I savored those moments. The bronze-and-gold highlights on the water’s surface as the sun peeked above the horizon in the morning. The dancing lights cast on the black sea by the moonlight. The white stripe painted across the sky by the Milky Way. The surprisingly visible “black hole” in the sky near the Southern Cross. The high-pitched whine of our stern-mounted reel when we caught a fish. The alternating sensation of warmth and coolness as the heeling of the boat moved me from full sun to the shadow of the sails.

I was, for much of those eight months, present in the moment. I was mindful, not because I aspired to be, but because that was pretty much all there was to do. 

It was a lovely way to live.

But being in the moment proved harder to do once I returned to the world of work, travel, family and friends. It has been particularly hard during the past two years, when I have been intellectually and emotionally committed to finishing my novel, A Fitting Place. But the book is now done, with publication planned for the spring.

There are lots of “tasks” that remain to be done before then, but none that require the intensity of focus that writing a book took. I am consciously avoiding including any of these tasks in my goal for 2014.

Instead, my New Year’s resolution is to simply “be present” as often and as intentionally as I can.  

I think I won’t call it mindfulness. 

 

Happy New Year to all my blog readers.  The discussion of themes that are relevant to my forthcoming novel will resume next week.

 

Comments

  1. Happy New Year to you, Mary. Being present is a great resolution/goal. In my own way, I am working for that, too. After spending the last 2-3 years working along side you as we completed our novels, I appreciate the intensity of that effort. I often admired how you could stay “in that moment” while I dawdled. Good luck as you bring “A Fitting Place” to publication!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Thanks Carol … you and I have been on an amazing journey, and I have been both thrilled and honored to have you traveling with me. A part of me is sad that it is over, but a part of me is looking forward to a change of pace, at least for a while.

  2. Mary, What a great post. And your trip of a lifetime across the Pacific must have been stunning. What an amazing opportunity to practice mindfullness. In this hurry-up world of ours it is hard to maintain such a state of mind when we’re pushed and shoved to get out of the way of not only ourselves but the rest of the world. Wishing you all the best with the publication of your book and a life filled with deep pockets of mindfullness.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Thanks Joan. I love the “deep pockets of mindfulness.” I may want to borrow that at some point. I am reminded that you were toying, at one point, at doing a blog on mindfulness. Let me know if you ever decide you want to do it.

  3. Mary, you have savored some of the best life has to offer: a sailing adventure across the Pacific and the sensory moments it evoked, the publication of a new book in your sights. And you have chosen a great topic for the new year–mindfulness.

    When my Grandma Longenecker felt herself getting close to being frazzled, she would just stretch out in her chair and say, “Now I have to let my soul catch up to my body.” I love that.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Marian … Another wonderful phrase … “let your soul catch up to your body.” I think I’ll put that on the wall above my desk!

  4. Happy New Year, Mary! I always appreciate your articulate and insightful perspective. I love to hear that you are still gleaning lessons from your time at sea, but how interesting that the challenge of mindfulness increases “back on land.” When you had no choice, you made the best of it and made it work to your advantage. I’m still amazed by your journey and all it took to make it. To come out on the other side with valuable lessons learned is a gift. It reminds me of the gargantuan effort it takes in these current times to shut out the distractions and noise long enough to be present in the moment. Perhaps visualizing myself on a sailboat in the middle of nowhere will help. 🙂

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      And a Happy New Year to you as well. Imagining yourself on a sailboat could be fun, but anyplace where you are constrained in your ability “to do” anything about you situation might have the same effect. I always knew that couldn’t spend the rest of my life on a sailboat at sea, but there were many aspects of that life that I miss still. In those months when I had very little that I had to do, I was content in way I have never been before or since. It was example of the Buddhist notion that suffering is caused by attachment or desire … by wanting things. If you are happy with what you have, life gets pretty good. I just wish I could make it happen in my current life.

  5. What a beautiful description of “mindfulness” when you were looking at star-filled sky during your eight-month voyage. You didn’t just glance at the sky but rather you studied it and became mindful of it and its features. Then you returned to the world where “mindfulness” may be trendy but it’s not easy to be present in the moment when that moment just slips into another and another and another. Reminds me of a more mindful time when I was present in the moment until the world with its demands and distractions called me back. For me, 2014 will be a year of intense work and fulfillment, a year when I will publish two/three of my books. For that, I have to be present and in the moment.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Pennie … As I noted above, I could not have stayed on that boat indefinitely … I needed more intellectual and social stimulation than was possible in that environment. I am, fundamentally, a doer, not a dreamer.

      I think 2013 was for me what 2014 will be for you. For some reason, getting the book “out” seems much less daunting than getting it “written.” I want A Fitting Place to be well received, but my control over that is limited, whereas my control over the written word was total.

      I am looking forward to your books!

  6. Wonderful reminder Mary that we need no gurus, Indian or otherwise. Just Do It. You also remind me of a related principle I often lose sight of: trust the process. That’s a version of holding faith that things always work out in the end, one way or another, and pushing the river won’t help. That usually relaxes me enough to intuitively do my part with less stress, and enjoy the process while trusting it. Yes, that IS a form of being present in the moment, though I had not made that connection until just now. Thank you.

  7. Mary Gottschalk says

    Sharon … your thoughts are akin to my notion that a) there is very little that we can really control and b) things always do “work out” in the end–if you’re willing to learn the lessons from things that don’t happen the way you expect. I do pretty well with recognizing that control is mostly an illusion, but being positive when things don’t go the way I expected is just a wee bit harder.

  8. Mary, I like the way you push back on anything that seems too trendy. Or perhaps you are just way ahead of them. An ashram experience and Pacific crossing give you an inner authority to claim this idea and call it anything that pleases you. All the best on the launch of your new novel. It sounds like what you want is to be both active and present and unattached.

    That’s the very definition of a good day for me, too. And it is not easy to achieve. Having known both sides of the continuum will help you find balance.

    Eager to follow your journey.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Shirley … you’ve obviously figured out my M.O. … I’m a cage-rattler from my earliest days. And yes, I want to try to “unattached” in the Buddhist sense … do what I can do, but not drive myself crazy about getting things done in a particular way or on a particular date. It is, I suppose, one of the advantages of self-publishing. No one is breathing down my neck before I’m ready.

      And, of course, thanks for the good wishes.

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