by Michelle Gerencser, MS
I could not imagine navigating my life, let alone my wellness, without mindfulness and meditation. Some people prefer the term mindfulness because it sounds less formal than meditation. Sometimes meditation is referred to as if it is only a sitting practice. I think of meditation and mindfulness as one and the same, and I need access to this practice 24 hours a day, no matter where I am, who I’m interacting with, or how fast I’m going.
Why? I find that when I rely on my intellect to get me where I’m going, some factors can arise that cloud the way. I experience fearful thoughts about what I don’t want to happen, clinging thoughts about what I feel I absolutely need to have happen, and confusion because sometimes it seems like there isn’t enough information to make a decision or there is conflicting information. Thoughts and feelings are unfortunately not very solid ground to stand on I find. In fact, the more I observe them, the more I see that thoughts and feelings are not based in reality but instead represent a running story. And I’m not talking about a memoir. It’s plain fiction.
Case in point: A friend told me that she was sitting in meditation with a roomful of friends one morning, and they were treated to the sound of the gentle chirping of a baby bird in a nearby nest. At the end of the meditation period they went around the room, each one sharing how pleasant and charming it was to hear this baby bird, how easy and joyful it made the sit. The last person to share was the owner of the home. He noted that he too was enchanted with the chirping until he realized that it was the smoke alarm in the basement whose battery had died. Once he thought of the chirping as a smoke alarm, he found sitting through it to be extremely irritating, and he found himself growing more and more impatient waiting for the meditation time to be over.
What was really happening? At a basic level sound was being heard. Hearing the sound didn’t actually have the quality of being pleasant or unpleasant or confusing. It was only when feelings and thoughts started to arise that the sound turned into a story. It’s a bird. It’s a smoke alarm. Should we spring into action hunting around for batteries or sit as quietly as possible marveling at the miracle of nature? We want to put an end to the sound if it’s a smoke alarm, but we don’t feel that way toward the baby bird. The smoke alarm makes us anxious and short-tempered, while the baby bird brings up joy and compassion. These are powerfully divergent outcomes not based on what was actually happening. The outcomes were based on two different stories that arose after contacting the sound event.
Whether it is possible for us to identify the source of the sound doesn’t matter. The outcome of being anxious vs. being joyful is not decided by circumstance, in this case a sound event, but by something else that we can actually influence. Our mindfulness. The quality of mindfulness applied to the circumstance determines the outcome that arises in me I have found. My mindfulness influences my wellness (i.e. whether I am anxious or joyful) no matter the circumstances.
So much about wellness is defined by the story of what we think is going to happen. If my shoulder hurts, and a medical doctor tells me I have a rotator cuff tear that will require an expensive and painful surgery with a long recovery time and limited chance of lasting success, I start to feel anxious and that I am unwell and on a physical downhill slide! If I then meet a practitioner who says that he himself has had severe rotator cuff tears that he healed by gentler methods without surgery and had lasting success, then I start to feel exhilarated with hope and that I am already healing! I happen to feel averse to the expensive, invasive, popular solution and much more open to the less invasive, less expensive, less popular solution. I have friends who would feel exhilarated by the prospect of the surgery and the feeling of “taking care of the problem” this decisive action brings. Different brains prefer different stories I guess.
Healing isn’t a package deal, though. I can’t just align with my favorite story and follow it blindly to wellness. That means I don’t get to sign on for someone’s program and turn my health over to them, no matter who they are. I have to participate deeply. Fortunately there are many mindfulness practices that can bring deeper understanding to any situation. Some practices are focused on bare awareness. That is, dropping the story and focusing on only, say, the chirping sound or the popping, burning sensation in the shoulder. While other practices are focused on telling a better story. And there are many many others!
One thing I practice is to be engaged with what is happening now at this ground zero location that everyone calls Michelle. Is there a feeling of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral? How is the breathing? What is happening in the stomach? What thoughts or emotions are arising? Is the mind open or contracted? Is there aversion or a feeling of leaning in? Or is there confusion and overwhelm? Can I be aware that there is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting happening right now? I have found that these types of contemplations lead to insight that was not previously possible. They give me access to a knowing that, when I am aware of it, I can see has been there all along.
And while I’m at it, I can also tell a better story. For example, instead of saying to myself and others that my shoulder is injured, I can say that my shoulder is healing. That little shift makes a big difference in the quality of the experience.
Whether I rest in bare awareness or choose to tell a better story, the point is to know that stories happen. Making stories is just what minds do. Once I know that stories happen I no longer have to mistake the fictitious story for reality. I can instead use a story to foster healing or drop the story to gain insight into my next right step.
Enough about me. What I want you to know is that your ever-present knowing is central to your healing direction. I listen carefully for your knowing voice when we work together in a nutrition consulting relationship. And I am thrilled that I will be meeting many of you in person on PoSH retreat and learning the ways that you most easily tap into the ever-present knowing for yourself.