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But What the Eff *Is* Mindfulness?

Because it sounds like something you blend with kale

05.31.16
WTF Is Mindfulness A Month of Mindfulness Man Repeller Feature 1

I was sitting with my knees tucked closely into my chest on the carpeted floor of my old office building while I asked my career coach, Jim, over the phone, “What happens if…? And in the event of…? What will I do when…?”

What actually prompted these questions doesn’t matter but Jim stopped me short into the fourth hypothetical to serve a quarter ounce of realness to the neurotic Jew on the other end of his landline: “Leandra,” he said with both conviction and compassion, “Your life isn’t good. It’s awesome. People care about what you’re building. But you approach this awesome life like you have 50-pound weights strapped to your legs.”

I was nodding. These are things I’m familiar with for the most part, but they never resonate profoundly enough for me to stop and do something about it.

Then he said, “Your problem is that you don’t know how to live right now. You’re playing out hypotheticals from the future.”

And that was that. Pow. Boom. Yeah.

I’m straight up living in a hypothetical reality where I’m trying to be ready to put out fires that may or may not actually burn, and guess what? Most don’t. When they do? I abandon the “rescue plans” I’ve instituted thus rendering all those hours upon days upon weeks I spent wondering “what if?” completely and utterly useless. Cue comment about laying on death bed up to the last strand of hair on my head in regret.

This is what they mean when they talk about mindfulness, isn’t it? Here we’ve spent the last two years listening to Ted Talkers and yoga teachers wax poetic on the notion of mindfulness — on being mindful, practicing the craft as a ritual and experiencing emotional awareness, and inner peace and calm as a result.

It sounds enticing, but what the fuck is mindfulness? I mean, really? Consulting Wikipedia, like any good journalist would, only brings you a single degree closer to an answer: it’s “the practice of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment, which can be developed through the practice of meditation.” Google (another great journalist move), says it’s “awareness.”

Okay, cool. But what does that actually mean?

When we elected May as Mental Health Month on Man Repeller to coincide with the rest of America, “mindfulness” was thrown around a lot. So was meditation — what is it? How do I force myself to do it? Will it really change my life? And these concepts-as-goals often seem so lofty — like they’re impossible to achieve and even if you can figure it out for a period of time (I put aside 40 minutes a day to meditate for like, six months, but once you fall off the bandwagon, it’s a real challenge to climb back on), it’s not sustainable. We live in reality. Reality teaches us that external variables — wine, sweets, baths — are what’s going to relax us, quell our anxiety, reduce stress and so forth. But is that actually true? Of course not! They’re temporary levers we pull, Band-Aids on wounds that need stitching up.

Everyone in the office had a different idea of what it meant to be mindful. Haley thought it meant checking in with yourself. That’s definitely part of it, but not all of it. Amelia defined it as focus. Also true. I didn’t really know what I thought it meant, something above my understanding, but a teacher at the Transcendental Meditation Center of Beaver Street defined it as nowness. Being here now. Presence, I suppose.

I took that to mean monotasking. Focusing on a single project, a single concept, a single entity at a time. And for the duration of May, I resolved to be mindful.

Initially, I hoped that this story would function as a sort of, “I tried the mindfulness diet,” but the reality of being mindful is that the deduction is singular: hours and minutes go by much more slowly. You become more receptive. Brushing your teeth isn’t just a time to think about what you’re going to do later. It’s an arduous, long and sometimes painful-on-your-gums process. Eating food is less enticing when all you’re thinking about is that you’re chewing, that your fork is going into a plate then coming out and entering your mouth. You find yourself full much quicker. It’s not as fun. Ditto that for drinking, which presents you with the question: do I really want to do that tonight? But it’s also quite good, especially for someone who observes for a living.

Just last week, I noticed a man eating a container full of medium-raw beef at the Prince Street Dean & Deluca at 7:45 a.m. I never would have noticed that if I wasn’t forcing myself to acknowledge that I was standing at a coffee counter, among people, about to put a straw in my iced coffee. And the grand, sweeping, overarching takeaway? Unremarkably remarkable. We’re taught to seize the day and embrace the moment because life is short but thing of it is, if you’re actually doing any seizing and embracing the moment — the now — what you’ll find is that life can feel pretty long. And also, of course, that it’s awesome.

Collage by Lizzie Darden; check out her Instagram @lizziedarden.

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  • supernova_KT

    I really like Diana Winston’s definition (she teaches meditation at UCLA and you can listen to podcasts http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=107) “Paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is”. I’ve been listening to her guided mindfulness meditations for about a year almost daily and it has changed my life for the better. I am constantly thinking about, planning for, and generally agonizing over the future, but mindfulness has really helped me to identify these behaviors and stop worrying so much about what I may have no control over.

  • Harling Ross

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this post since reading it, and maybe this is weird, but for me, I think practicing mindfulness is a way of practicing forgiveness–as in, a heightened level of awareness that lets you say to yourself, okay, I’m tired right now so I’m going to stop working go to bed because I know I’m not the best version of myself right now. And that’s okay. Or, my friend is being kind of mean to me right now but I know she’s stressed out about a fight she had with her sister, so maybe I shouldn’t snap at her. In other words, mindfulness is a tool for stepping back, reassessing thoughtfully, and forgiving your present self in order to help your future self.

  • Ellie

    And just as fashion is – like eating, drinking, thinking, standing, dancing, talking – an expression of who we are and who we would like to be, a question begs to be asked: can you be a mindful maximalist? Or is maximalism the antithesis of mindfulness, a yearning for a million moments in one, exponential potential with less than a sliver of nowness? Or is that just the beauty, or role of art?

    • Ellie

      (In comprehending fashion as art)

      • Leandra Medine

        THIS COMES AT SUCH AN INTERESTING TIME because Iw as just having a conversation with someone *today* waiting for a train about people and consumerism and about how “kids these days” don’t quantify their own successes through stuff anymore. A new ring doesn’t mean you’re crushing it at work. It just doesn’t work like that. I have to let this marinate a little bit but in the mean time, here’s a podcast episode on essentialism that I recorded after I got home from Paris last fashion week season. http://www.manrepeller.com/2016/03/leandra-medine-podcast-episode-15.html

        • Ellie

          Yes! I just started teaching, and it’s so interesting with my students and with social media that their sense of ‘ownership’ with consumerism doesn’t necessarily boil down to having to ‘buy stuff’ as you say. They can receive that ownership of whatever (experience/ring/dress) by taking a photo with or of that thing, and by posting it on a social media platform and owning that content is enough. I brought in my driving Ray-Ban sunglasses one day and they were all obsessed with *respectfully* snapchatting/posing in Ms. T’s cool shades. Which on one hand challenges the long-held American value that more stuff = you are worth more. Conversely, though, the danger is that any sense of ownership is increasingly dependent on that internet or social media content; i.e., if I don’t post a photo or publish something online, then there is no way to feel true ownership of that beautiful dress, wonderful experience or–and this is where it gets scary–one’s life/identity itself. One reason why I am scared of trying to become an online writer/presence and how it might warp my identity.

  • wine_monger

    I would like to bring attention to two daily acts that, in your piece, are portrayed as arduous when being mindful, but in practice can be ultimately fulfilling if done with intent. Eating & drinking when intent on the choice of food/drink and its taste, smell and texture become so much more than just mere eating when done with a mindful…well, mind I guess. I love that you went there about being more mindful each day and what it can do for us, but for the practice to be helpful you need to put it into play in a way that opens yourself to the deluge of sensory experiences you get and don’t get when you slug a glass of Cab down with a random slab of beef in 5 minutes flat.

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  • SherryStone

    Great article and great series of articles you wrote during mental health month. This article resonated with me. My mind is constantly running a mile a minute. I’m always thinking about future plans and things I want to accomplish and experiences I want to have. Then I realized I’m missing out on now. And what is life but a series of nows…

  • Aggie

    Can I be someone who observes for a living?

  • Haley Nahman

    “But it’s also quite good, especially for someone who observes for a living.”

    This totally spoke to me. Whenever I put down my phone and try to quiet my mind I always have more ideas, but I’ve never put that in the context of mindfulness before.

    There is something so charming and beautiful about checking in on the mundane. Of noticing your hand put your straw in your coffee or feeling the satisfying weight of your own arms.

    FINE LEANDRA. I’ll start I’ll start.