Wisdom//

We Stray, We Return. This Is How We Build Mindfulness

Even as life crowds in on us, we have to carve out space enough to breathe.

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Even after we find something — our intention for the day, or clarity about our life’s purpose — it is just as easy to lose it, if only for a moment. That pattern of stray and return is built into the flow and flux of life. It is built into the practice of mindfulness.

A common anxiety for those embarking on a meditation practice is fear of failure. We think: I know I’m supposed to sit quietly and focus on my breath without any thoughts. What if my attention wanders?

That what-if is part of the premise of meditation. It would not be a practice if our attention did not wander. (Also, we would either be dead or enlightened if we did not have any thoughts.) There is no failure. It is expected that we will stray. What Buddhists call our monkey mind will assert itself as our thoughts leap from one branch to another. What matters is that we take note of our wandering — merely observing it as a fact of life, without anxiety or judgment — and then return to our breath, to the here and now.

Every time we return to our breath, to our intention and purpose, to mindfulness, we exercise our attentional muscle. We strengthen our ability to self-correct. Stray and return. This is how we build mindfulness and the ability to make better choices. Organizations that learn to self-correct improve their agility and increase their resilience.

I received a humbling lesson on this score during my final days in India. I had come face to face with my authentic Self during my time at the ashram. My encounter with the silent monk had aligned my head and heart as never before. But did that mean I was no longer vulnerable to straying and stumbling? Hardly.

At the end of my trip, I met a close friend in Dharamshala, where the Dalai Lama led a three-day teaching for Russian Buddhist monks at his residence. The event was open to the public, and we arrived early to get our tickets and a Walkman-like translation device. Behind us, buses full of maroon-robed monks began arriving.

Before long, the entrance to the Dalai Lama’s temple was a sea of maroon as more and more monks converged on the scene. My friend left to get coffee while I attempted to hold our place in the chaos that passed for a line. I wondered if she would ever find my five-foot-three frame amid thousands of giant monks, almost entirely men. I began to feel claustrophobic. I could feel one monk’s breath on my neck, and I was only a nose’s length from the next man’s robe. I could barely see anything but the color maroon.

After almost an hour, my friend still not returned, the monks suddenly started pushing and shoving me forward. They moved as one huge mass, thrusting me even though there was nowhere to go. I was being crushed. The sea of monks beat me forward like unrelenting waves on a cliffside.

The pressure on my ribs was painful. I managed to call out, “Stop! Please, stop!” There was no room to turn my head to see what was going on. Towering Russian men surrounded me, their eyes fixed on the doors, oblivious to my pain. Barely able to breathe, I looked up at the sky, tears running down my face, calling out, “Nonviolence! Nonviolence, people. Help!” I felt invisible. I no longer cared about making it into the temple. I just wanted to get out of there alive.

This went on for what seemed like an eternity until we heard the sound of a violent thump up ahead. The maroon sea shifted momentarily, and I was able to squeeze my way out to the edge of the crowd. A heavy-set monk had fallen from the ramp leading to the open doors, landing hard on the concrete below. Nervous that the man had severely injured himself in his fall, I caught a glimpse of him down below. Amazingly, he picked himself up and shoved his way back into the throng.

I somehow made it up to the ramp and into the compound and eventually the temple. I could finally breathe again and tried to collect myself. Even still, my mind clouded with anger; my monkey mind (a term the Dalai Lama taught us that day) jumped in every direction. These monks are impostors, I thought. Here I was, in a sea of supposedly devout monks, waiting to hear the wise words of the Dalai Lama (who above all teaches nonviolence), while fearing for my life. This mosh pit of monks had nothing to do with mindfulness or compassion. This is not what His Holiness is about. This is not what I am about, my monkey mind exclaimed.

Just then, I heard the Dalai Lama laugh. The sweet sound of his giggle cut through the tension and brought me back to the present moment. My anger, confusion, and judgment left me like air from a punctured balloon. I remembered my intention and what had brought me there.

It was a valuable lesson. Even after my transformative experience in the cave, mindfulness and an open heart were no guarantee. I was only human. I would stray from my intention and then have to return to it. The monks were only human as well. Like drunk teens moshing at a Metallica concert, these maroon-robed fan-monks were just swept up by their excitement to see the Dalai Lama. They were not impostors. We were all in this moment together.

The Dalai Lama’s sweet laugh prompted me to pause and step back from all of the noise — in and of my head. I was able to breathe. I chose to be present to the moment with openness and curiosity. I let go of my judgment and relaxed a bit. Shortly after, my friend found me and we spent the rest of the day engrossed with the Dalai Lama.

As I did in that hotel room in New Delhi, I learned that mindfulness is most critical at times when fear and emotion threaten to take over. For the rest of that day, and every day after that, I vowed to reflect upon and reframe my experiences to focus on the positive. I made a conscious decision to frame moments like that in curiosity rather than negativity, and in mindfulness rather than judgment.

Pause. Breathe. Choose. Again, it is so simple, but it is not always easy in the moment. I have thought back often to what now seems a humorous paradox of nearly being killed by moshing monks. It reminds me never to take myself too seriously and that there will be times when it seems like I just cannot come up for air. I might be in an overcrowded subway on a hot summer day. Or feeling suffocated by a to-do list that just keeps growing longer and longer. I think of the Dalai Lama’s laugh and make a conscious choice to replace judgment with curiosity. I connect with the reality around me, however messy and chaotic it might be. I connect with myself. I reset.

We all have times when it feels like life and circumstance are suffocating us. We have to make a conscious decision to pause, to break the cycle, to nip panic and fear and stress in the bud. Even as life crowds in on us, we have to carve out space enough to breathe. Our breath is our lifeline in such situations. We can follow our breath back to ourselves, to the moment, and to a healthy mindful choice.

The cost of not being mindful is steep. When we are not attuned to ourselves and our surroundings, we are apt to ignore the early warning signs of stress, within ourselves and in others. When our decision-making is not mindful, it is all too easy to lapse into bad choices and quick fixes. A lack of mindfulness opens the door for our monkey mind to take over, jumping from thought to thought, unable to sustain deep focus. Most important, when we are not mindful, we are vulnerable to losing our way, as individuals and as organizations. We miss out on the opportunity to be our best.

Excerpted from the book Pause. Breathe. Choose.: Become the CEO of Your Well-Being. Copyright ©2021 by Naz Beheshti. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.

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