I was scared when I was approached by the Law Society to contribute an article on mindfulness in Hong Kong Lawyer. I have been reading the magazine for years but have never thought of writing anything there - “ I am not good at that” or more accurately “ I am not good enough” is the recurring voice in my head since my childhood. Yet, after years of mindfulness practice, I had managed to catch myself reacting in the same old way so I took a few breaths, calmed myself down and considered if I could respond differently. I did - so you are now reading this.
Mindfulness seems to be a fancy word now with a pretty high hit-rate on internet. Nonetheless, not many people really try it or understand what it is about.
To many, mindfulness is closely associated with meditation (eg sitting still with eyes closed). Other forms of mindfulness practice one may have heard of include mindful walking, mindful eating, attention to breathing, attention to body movement, etc. It may also be associated with the sound of a bell because mindfulness teachers like to ring the bell as they start or end the practice. Plum Village is especially famous for ringing the bell every 15 minutes and one has to stop till the bell sound is over no matter what they are doing at that moment.
Right now, you may already have formed some mental images of the above “practice” and secretly concluded that it is rather boring, and even silly. What is the use of this practice? It sounds meaningless and a waste of time. Although google search says it is good for health or stress reduction, does it really work? Or more importantly, does it work for me?
I would say that it works for everyone, irrespective of your age, gender, medical history, physical condition, etc. Why? Because all human beings are addicted to thinking, especially compulsive negative thinking. Addiction here means we can’t control the thinking happening to us – most of the time it is involuntary, incessant and goes on without us noticing it.
Most people attribute their high stress level to external factors such as work, money, health and relationship. Looking closely at ourselves however, we will discover that we spend most of our time thinking, in particular repetitive, meaningless thinking which keeps our internal “engine” running day and night without moments of rest and inner peace. Mindfulness points to another way of living - a more balanced way that alternates thinking (doing/ Yang) and non-thinking (being/ Yin).
Here are some examples of the practice.
1. I was sitting in the toilet after a day of work and suddenly found that I was thinking of the DMC waiver application I planned to submit to the Law Society the next day. The letter and application form had been signed and put on my assistant’s desk with the cheque for despatch the next morning (so basically all the work had been done and no further work was required from me) but the thought just came and I found my mind replaying the DMC work I did in the afternoon! I breathed and brought myself back to what I was doing in the toilet and finished the “business” there.
2. The next morning I was running late after morning shower. When blowing my hair dry, I blamed myself for being slow and thought of the negative impression/ remarks my lateness may bring. I was aware that I was doing my best to speed up and these thoughts did not help to make me faster but only made me feel bad. I directed my attention to feel the heat of the air of the hair dryer and to sense my fingers combing through my hair. The thoughts then subsided.
3. Walking from MTR station to office, I focused my attention on my body movement (eg the steps I took while I walked along and my body weight on the feet when I stood still in front of traffic light). This way, I practiced to just walk without making inner narratives about everything I saw or slipping into thoughts which were totally unrelated to what I was doing (eg walking) at the moment.
4. Another day I was annoyed by something my mom posted at the whatsapp group which I thought was inappropriate and seriously biased. Immediately I made negative comments in my mind and wanted to reply to her, spelling out my view and feeling. I took a “golden pause”2 immediately by feeling the unpleasant body sensation and tightness in my chest, the increased heart rate and the heat in my chest, ears and head. There was an impulse in me to immediately “do” something to correct her. Instead of falling into my usual mind cycle of attacking her mentally and feeling guilty for being disrespectful to her, I managed to turn my attention in and allowed the discomfort to sink in totally. The unpleasant and indescribable feeling swept through my body like a tidal wave; there was no thought but mere presence with my breathing and whatever feeling going through me at that moment, and then it left, again like water flowing through me without a trace. I began to realise that I could have negative emotion towards someone I loved without making wrong of myself or my loved ones. The inner space that came from mindfulness was precious that it allowed me to embrace myself and others without a bitter feeling afterwards.
The “thinking” side of us becomes overpowering when we begin worshipping or blindly believe that “thinking” or reasoning can solve all problems at all levels and in many cases, we mistakenly believe that we are the voice in our head (which of course is only a thought) and feel the need to defend our thoughts at all cost. While thinking is a very useful tool that we can’t live without, there is more to us as human “beings”. In some sense, thinking can be said to be an opposite to non-thinking/ state of being, so the mindfulness practice may at first sound very meaningless and even stupid to the thinking mind. It’s like a fish coming out of the sea and starts crawling on solid land. They are two different systems serving different functions of its own.
We have been running the “thinking” system predominately in all aspects of our lives with the result of increased stress that brings unsolvable and even severe mental and physical problems to many. Is it time to try another way to practice non-thinking to regain some balance in our lives? Mindfulness is not as difficult as a fish crawling onto land but just some simple practice to pay a little attention to the most ignored or tiny things in our daily life to create moments of quietness through non-thinking. That precious moment also provides inner space and freedom that cannot be taken away by externals and forms the solid premises for everything we do.
There is another way – a less travelled and subtle way.
1 The title of this article was taken from Eckhart Tolle’s teaching video of the same title released recently in the challenging time of pandemic.
2 “Golden pause” is a term used in mindfulness practice, meaning to stop ourselves at the moment we fall into the usual reactive pattern to try not to be taken away by our usual thoughts/ reactive pattern.