Arianna Huffington does it, Anderson Cooper does it, Madonna does it, Congressman Tim Ryan does it, it’s taught in hospitals, schools, and to servicemen suffering from PTSD. But how could just sitting there watching your breath possibly have any real effect? Especially when it can appear to be boring or your thoughts just go round and round in your head? So what does it do? What does a mindful life look like? How is it different to an unmindful life? Does it improve our health, do we live longer, have happier children, or better jobs?
The answer is all of the above and none at the same time. Because mindfulness doesn’t necessarily change circumstances, rather it changes the way we perceive circumstances. So a mindful life might appear the same on the outside, while on the inside there is greater clarity and expansiveness. That difference may or may not translate into external changes.
For instance, someone may have a terminal illness so that no matter how much meditation or awareness they practice, the body may still have the illness. The difference lies in their attitude toward the illness. A lack of awareness can mean the patient is angry, resentful, or self-centered, while a mindful attitude enables us to make friends with the illness, and to see the humor in the situation. This change in attitude makes being ill far more bearable; it enables us to be alive and well no matter what is going on. That’s a big difference.
The same applies to everything that’s happening in our lives. The more we apply mindful awareness the more we develop a deep acceptance of what is. We get to witness what is happening without becoming or identifying with the story, or with the details of the story. Where a lack of awareness can lead to us believing we are what we call ourselves (divorcee, alcoholic, cancer victim, Jewish, Christian, etc), mindfulness enables us to know we are much more than the label. It is paying attention to everything, being present with what is.
Deb’s Zen teacher once said to her, “First you do this and then you do that.” Which means less stress, less panic, more inner quiet. We do one thing and then do the next thing (apologies to multi-taskers!) while being focused and aware.
So what do our lives look like when we practice mindful awareness? Maybe exactly the same as they did before, and maybe completely altered. The crucial difference is that we have changed. We are freer, less attached to appearance or form, and more deeply at peace with ourselves. That’s huge.