In this post, I would like to share my own mindfulness journey and my discovery of how to practice this ancient art of mind training. I started to embark on practicing mindfulness in 2016. At the time, I was looking for a teacher. But as usual, Google turned out to be my best teacher. I found a place in Myanmar to learn mindfulness and signed up for one of the many 10-day mindfulness retreats to follow. It is from this first 10-day mindfulness retreat that I learned not to ask why in mindfulness. So, why is “Why” seldom asked in mindfulness?
What is Mindfulness?
The word mindfulness has become ubiquitous in our society. “I should have been more mindful about my tone of voice” to “We can be more mindful in listening to our client’s needs”. All of these imply the need to pay attention and become aware of the situation or of ourselves. We all know we should pay more attention to churning out better work or learning new things. But how do we train our minds to pay attention?
Also, what do we pay attention to when we train our minds in mindfulness? In mindfulness training, we learn to train the mind to pay attention to the present moment. This is one of the hardest things to understand about mindfulness. What is there to pay attention to in the present moment? Of course, the next difficult thing to understand about mindfulness is – why is why seldom asked? I’ll come to that.
Paying attention to the body
In my very first 10-day silent mindfulness retreat, my friend and I were taught to pay attention to our bodily movements in all of our postures and in our daily living in the center. As we had no work to do, except to clean our rooms and sweep the floor, we spent most of our time sitting and walking. Besides that, we also have two meals a day, one before the sun rose and another before midday.
We woke up early in the morning at about 4 to 4:30 am. We would start with walking and then sitting. When we walked, we had to pay attention to every movement of our feet. When we sat, we had to pay attention to our in and out-breath. At the start, we did not have to walk long or to sit long. That is because our minds were still restless.
The duration of the sitting increased gradually from 20 minutes to half an hour to an hour or even more. There was a meditator who walked mindfully and ate mindfully. Her eyes and her awareness were really sharp. She knew what she was doing at every moment whenever I observed her. I can never forget her practice. She could also sit for a very long time – 4 hours at a stretch. I have never met any person who is so mindful in my life. We had to pay attention to every movement we make while eating, drinking, and right up to falling asleep.
The reason we were trained to pay attention to the body in every movement, as well as the breath in the body, is because the body is in the present moment. Our minds are seldom in the present. In fact, our minds are insulated from reality because we are always absorbed in endless thoughts and creating narratives inside our heads. Normally, our minds are living in their own world apart from the body. For the first time in my life, I learned to live as one – where the mind and the body are united by awareness.
Our fear about looking inwards
When I was a child, I was too shy to ask the question why. After I grew older and became confident, I often ask my bosses why I have to do this or to do that. I felt that when I knew the objective, I could carry out the tasks better. I also asked many whys as to why people behave in ways I could not understand.
At the retreat, my questions of why came from a deep sense of curiosity about the images that can be conjured by the mind. The mind is really interesting. I always wondered, why are the majority of people more interested in looking outwards than inwards? Certain religious groups would warn their relatives and friends from looking inwards because that would cause one to become mad or evil. The logical thing to ask is, shouldn’t we look inwards into our minds so we can understand it? To those who think looking inwards can cause madness or evil, are they then saying that we are innately crazy and so to be safe, we had better not enter into the doors of our minds?
No answers to the question why
After all, all of our perception and beliefs of what we see on the outside comes from the inside. Otherwise, we would all agree on the same thing we see outside of us. For example, someone may speak rudely. To person A, this rude person may be annoying. But person B may perceive this rude person to be stressed and so they forgive and don’t think too much about the rudeness. If we looked into our minds, perhaps there would be fewer disagreements in the world!
I shared certain experiences I had in my mind with my retreat teacher. Also, I shared what I saw in my body. The teacher would be unfazed. He would nod and answer with a simple “Just keep knowing”. The teacher did not want to entertain my intellectual pursuits. He was trying to make me pay attention to my awareness in the present moment. That’s the reason why is seldom answered in mindfulness.
Asking why takes us away from the present
I don’t know how to live in the present moment and have never really experienced it. That was why I could not understand the teacher’s terse answers in my first real mindfulness retreat. If he were to entertain my whys, my mind would drift to the past or to the future. Have you ever noticed that time passes fast or slow depending on the movement of your thoughts? If there are no thoughts, where is time?
The question “why” mostly leads us to the narrative of the past or the future. For example, if I were to be asked, “Why do I practice yoga and exercise?” The answer would be so that I can keep fit and remain supple as I age (the mind drifts to the future where I age, even though at present, I am not sure if I will really live till a ripe old age). Although asking “why” can also bring the mind to the present moment sometimes. For instance, I could ask “why are you eating now?” The answer could be, “Because I am hungry”. Being hungry now makes me want to eat.
Why live in the present moment?
You might have heard of the phrase “Carpe Diem” or “Seize the Day”. The Roman poet Horace coined this term to mean one should enjoy life while one can. Different people have different requirements for enjoyment. Most enjoy themselves with food, drinks, friends, family, and entertainment. Others enjoy themselves gossiping, plotting, planning, and creating goals to meet. They can also do a mixture of both.
We are seldom present when our minds are busy creating narratives in conversations with others and ourselves. Not being here and experiencing the sensations in our bodies and seeing what triggers us, we miss out on learning how to see reality. The reality is, our lives are short, we are not here forever. Even the impact with leave behind fades with time. Therefore, do we need to make ourselves unhappy by insisting others follow our opinions to lead a happy life? Do we always need to divide and conquer, instead of uniting in harmony? Competition need not be a form of conquering. Healthy competition can be friendly and encouraging.
Mindfulness in creating good memories
We also neglect to experience the little moments in life when we are not present. Instead of listening deeply to others, we are listening to the opinions in our heads. Not being present, we are not aware of the reality that our lives are made up of memories.
If our memories are so important, why do we fill them with endless goals and narratives instead of bringing awareness to every breath we take and making each moment a joyful one with compassion and forgiveness? Without awareness, we cannot learn to change our minds towards happiness and peace and we become prone to suffering conflicts within.