On Life: 2 – Mindfulness

In the last post, I asked the question “If you had 12 – 36 months to live, what would you change?”

The drive behind the question is one of fully awakening you to the conclusion of your imminent death. While the topic of death may be too confronting or distasteful to some readers, the final destination is important if one is to fully enjoy the journey.

Generally, we are so numbed and distracted by our habitual lives, that we not only avoid the reality of our approaching physical deterioration, but more importantly, the full realisation that we are actually alive.

You may be thinking to yourself: “Come on, Jorge, I know I’m alive, and I know I’m going to die. WTF?”

While we may know this conceptually, it may be more accurate to notice that we don’t feel truly alive in our bodies. As an extension of that disconnect with ourselves, we also don’t want to believe we’re going to get severely ill and inevitably die.

How do I know this?

Because when we receive a terminal diagnosis, it’s always an unwelcome surprise rather than an expectation.

Whether you’re 19 or 90, a terminal diagnosis always comes as a shock.
“What? I’m going to die? Now? But I’m not ready!”

However, One of the most significant benefits of being confronted with death is the instant realisation that we were always on borrowed time. We become painfully Mindful of our fragile physical existence. But while mindfulness is probably the last thing we want, it’s the very thing we need.

What is Mindfulness anyway, and why should we care?

Mindfulness is a term popularised by Buddhism and at the foundation of every meditative practice. If you’ve ever tried meditation that focuses on watching the breath, thoughts or any point of focus, you’ve practised Mindfulness.

A mindful state is nothing more than focused attention to our internal environment—our thoughts, feelings, speech, actions, sensations and existence.

Okay, but why should we care about Mindfulness outside of a meditative practice?

  1. At a minimum, daily mindfulness develops your ability to focus and remain attentive for extended periods of time. The benefits of mental focus should be self-evident.
    • More focus = increased understanding and productivity.
    • Less focus = more stress, more distraction, less presence and productivity.
  2. Sustained Mindfulness can serve as a filter, a gatekeeper to what enters our awareness, runs through our minds and comes out of our mouths. We can temper our actions and reactions by becoming deeply aware of our sensory experience and automated thought stream.
  3. Mindful attention can serve as a microscope into who we believe we are—an inside look at how past conditioning motivates and drives us. We can examine with sincerity the multitude of personal identities which we emphatically defend, but which are no more real than a wisp of imagination.
  4. Another benefit is the full awareness of being embodied and alive. We feel grounded in our existence by exploring our body’s psychological reflection and its adaptable communication with the outside world.
  5. Finally, for the more advanced, mindful attention exposes the fundamental reality that who we are is not just a body, but something more—something beyond the physical and mental realm of sensory experience. One can only recognise this through persistent meditative exploration.

I feel, therefore, I am?

One of the great benefits of mindful awareness is the detachment we can experience from emotional states. It may be safe to say that we feel the most alive when we experience our physical existence through emotions. After all, emotions are a physical phenomenon. Whether it’s anger, sadness, joy, fear, envy, or the multitude of transmutations, every emotion has very predictable and measurable symptomology.
Yes, I said symptoms, because, in essence, emotions have physiological characteristics which make us feel good (and want more), or make us feel bad (and want less).

Our relationship with how we feel commonly determines our actions and what we move towards or move away from. For example, let’s say that a particular activity or event triggers you to feel scared, and predictably, you avoid the situation. With mindfulness, you will understand that what you’re avoiding is not the situation but the fear itself. You are scared of feeling scared, and therefore, avoid it.

Why is this important? Well, because it reveals that it isn’t the activity that’s the problem because many others will participate in the event and sit with the fear, or not experience it at all. It seems the issue is with the physical feeling itself. You will avoid feeling scared at all costs.

While you may think to avoid feeling fear is justifiable, it’s vitally important to understand that avoiding fear will undermine many possibly life-altering decisions and, therefore, veer your trajectory in life towards the bland and mundane.

You may rationalise to yourself (lie) that you didn’t do this or that because of so and so, but fundamentally, you didn’t do something because you didn’t want to feel scared. You ran away from your emotion—your embodied experience.

Of course, this applies to any emotion in the human spectrum—anger, excitement, lust, greed, hate, love—we will avoid or run towards these emotions, depending on our conditioning and history. For example, if we’ve been conditioned to experience fear and remain in a situation regardless (like emergency and combat professions), then our scope with Life will be far more profound than someone else who will avoid fear at all costs.

This is where mindfulness can be an ally. You can make yourself notice, observe, feel, endure and see the fear (feeling) for what it is: a temporary physical symptom cascade.

In fact, emotion can be thought of as E-Motion, or Energy in Motion. Essentially, this is what emotion is, an energetic buildup influencing specific hormones. The energy accumulation and discharge are quite potent, which is why we’ll feel exhausted after any sustained emotive period. Whether it’s anger, sadness, fear or elation and laughter, you’ll feel drained if it goes on for too long.

Who’s the Watcher?

It’s an odd realisation to become aware that there is a transcendent existence beyond the mind. One becomes cognizant that we have an extension beyond conscious awareness. By having the ability to watch a thought or emotion, we discover a fundamental Beingness that is separate from the observed. If You weren’t different from your mental phenomena, then You wouldn’t be able to observe your mind from the 1st person perspective. Think about that in earnest; it’s a profound, life-altering discovery worth the effort.

When I use the word “You” with a capital Y, I’m referring to your immortal Consciousness Self. When I use the term “you” with a lower case y, I’m referring to your persona, your physical and mental self.

With mindfulness, we become aware that our bodies emote (release energy), and those emotions are a temporary physical symptom cascade—an energy build-up and discharge. We also know from experience that our thinking (immaterial event) can make us emote (physical event), such as when we have a particular memory (past) or expectation (future).

On the other hand, we also know that when we feel irrational emotions (from drugs, medications, hormonal imbalances), that they will influence how we think. If we feel agitated or angry, we will have accompanying thoughts to rationalise and justify what we feel.

Since we’ve established that You can watch your thoughts and feelings from a detached 1st person perspective, it must necessarily follow that You cannot be your thoughts or feelings. In fact, it proves that your body and mind are no more than symbiotic instruments of habit. With mindful awareness and control, you’ll notice that your body’s movements and thoughts follow unique, yet, predictable, repeatable patterns.

You have a particular way that you emote as well.

Your family and friends will know exactly what will push your buttons (emote) and to what intensity. Your emotions (whether you like to admit or not) are also predictable, repeatable, habitual patterns.

https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/12/26/1321664111.abstract

I, like you, know how to make someone feel different emotions on command and control their intensity. Likewise, people we know can do that to us. Apart from realising that we’re usually like mindless puppets following predictable habits, it also means that we can change these habits by developing personal awareness.

It must follow then, that if we can change a pattern through conscious awareness, then our habitual puppetry has to be a choice. Although it’s a habitual choice, it’s a choice nonetheless.

With attentive awareness, we’re able to hold off on automatically reacting and speaking. Before we say or do something capricious, we can stop and decide if it’s virtuous, pertinent, helpful or even necessary.

Just as we are usually aghast at hearing our own voice in a recording, or watching ourselves on video, likewise, we’d be hanging our heads in disbelief if recordings of what we said and done most of the time were to be played back to us at a later time.

I know this first-hand because I’ve done this exercise to myself when I was training to be a therapist back in the day. Hearing what I said and how I said it via a recording played back much later made me cringe. That exercise alone was instrumental in wanting to change my behaviour and speech by becoming more consciously aware of what came out of my mouth.

Trust me, I still often forget to be aware of what I say, and on later introspection usually regret with shame the potential influence I inflicted; both immediate or latent. This was especially blatant in the early years of rapid ALS deterioration. I was completely enveloped and emotionally overwhelmed by my inability to stop the unrelenting loss of function, paralysis, control and autonomy.

What this exercise in conscious awareness taught me is that we have an unimaginable amount of personal power. We’re not aware of it because most of us are on habitual, predictable mindless reactionary standby (social media algorithms, the news, television programming, and the best salespeople all use your unconscious emotional habits to their advantage and profit; that’s why you’re addicted to drama!).

But if we can periodically increase our personal awareness even by marginal amounts, it’s an obvious inevitability that our personal experience of Life will be richer, more profound and satisfactory.

Embodied Living

A superb side-effect of mindful awareness is the grounded realisation that We are embodied. I discovered during my previous training in bodywork that I spent most of my adult life walking around as if I was a mind with a body hanging off of it. That is, my existence was purely sensory and mental, and my body was just a transport vehicle to do my thoughts’ bidding.

When I later relayed this experience to my clients, they were startled that was exactly how they saw themselves too. Some clients realised their bodies were no more than vehicles to appease their emotional fluctuations.

  • One client realised with shame he saw his body as nothing more than a thing to “fuck and fight with”.
  • Another saw her body as a bottomless pit of deep discontent and boredom that she stuffed with food.
  • One client felt her body as an uncomfortable impediment. It was constantly symptomatic and demanding her attention; like an annoying child.
  • Some loved the aesthetics of their bodies and saw them as a trophy to display; or like a business card and bargaining tool (this is the best I can offer, what do you have?)
  • Others were riddled with angst. Their bodies simulating an inaccessible and unstoppable siren.
  • A few clients didn’t feel anything at all, others felt too much.

Whatever the relationship with their body, a predictable pattern of being-ness permeated their lives. Their relationship to their body determined how they thought of themselves and invariably, how they expressed their lives.

This mind-body split implies a disconnect between who we think we are and our actual reality. Although most people have some semblance of awareness at how they want to be perceived, the vast majority of us have no clue that our bodies and movement are a direct reflection of our thoughts, emotions, choices and habits. Our internal environment manifests and etches itself in our physical expression.

Have you ever wondered why you can tell a lot about someone by their physical appearance? Although there’s a whole field dedicated toward body language and profiling, we intuitively understand much about someone’s psychoemotional state by their embodied expression. How you look, dress, move, talk and stand reveals multitudes about your psychoemotional state.

We can do ourselves a great service by becoming aware of our embodied expression of our internal state. Taking the time to reveal ourselves to Ourselves is often confronting but ultimately liberating.

You have a particular way you walk, talk, move that is so unique and predictable, a friend can pick you out from a distance in a crowd. Your physical expression of you is no more than habitual psychoemotional patterns playing out from years of subconscious emotionally-laden influences. Whatever caused an emotional impression on you (particularly when young) became a neurological pattern of movement through repetitive mimicry.

We imitate those we admire, and sometimes also those we feel threatened by. I’m certain you’ve noticed many children mirror a particular parent’s mannerisms and speech patterns. Those children grow up fortifying those patterns of movement into adulthood through repeated behaviour and predictably mirroring their psychological state.

Considering that we mirror significant influences into our bodies, is it any wonder we often follow the same psychoemotional trajectory as those past influences?

Perhaps the way to true fundamental change and personal evolution requires mindful awareness of body state. By exploring our embodied experience, we are able to repattern and inhabit a new reality.

Who Embodies?

I hope you’ve noticed a common theme running through this post and echoed in all mindfulness-based practices. The underlying conclusion you’ll find from any activity that asks for internal observation is that there is a You that watches independently of you. For example, if You’re able to view your thoughts and mind, then You can’t be your thoughts, mind or brain.

Realising that there is a very real You that’s embodied is a discovery of titanic proportions. The full weight of this discovery won’t hit you until you discover it by personal experience. But if you have any inclination towards getting the most out of your temporary sojourn in this life, I would strongly recommend taking an active interest in your mindful embodiment and its implications. I will expand and guide you further in future posts.

Aikido training six months after ALS diagnosis

From personal experience, if I was to name the quintessential practices that forever changed my foundations of Being, it would be any and all the body-centred mindfulness practices I’ve been exposed to. In particular, any embodied practice with a philosophical adjunct to its content.

Primary for me was Structural Integration Bodywork, Feldenkrais (Awareness Through Movement) classes, Hakomi, Reichian psychotherapies, Classical Greek Philosophy and Mythology, Martial Arts (Aikido), Zen meditation and Taoism. These disciplines were founded by some of the most transcendent, wise and enlightened people to the human condition.

Their sole purpose is to transport you beyond your conditioned persona to the You embodying your physical existence. Their purpose, essentially, is freedom—freedom from fear, from anaesthesia, from automated puppetry, from your habitual self—a journey to uncover a centred, holistic, embodied and awakened version of yourself.

So What?

Mindfulness, Internal Awareness, Embodied Attention, is a natural consequence of becoming aware of one’s approaching mortality.

Receiving a terminal diagnosis or having a close brush with death has the ironic side-effect of making us feel very much aware that we’re alive.

We become attentive to our physical existence and psychological habits, realising all too late that we’ve been sleepwalking through our days. We realise with a cold shiver coursing through our veins there may not be that many days left. With stark urgency, what we do from then on is done with mindful urgency for meaning and substance.

However, waiting for a death date isn’t necessary.

Many spiritual, psychotherapeutic and body-centred practices emphasise mindfulness training to reawaken you to the immense power, joy and freedom latent within You. Although many people say they’d like to “discover” themselves, it’s been my personal and professional experience that most are unwilling (or incapable) of reaching such a state of awareness with any longevity. Whether it’s due to a person’s disposition, conditioning, circumstances, timing or a myriad of other factors, one thing’s certain, a person must be ready and willing to go there.

As the old saying goes: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”

Mindful attentiveness has the incredible ability to reveal You to your life. Paying attention to our thoughts, emotions, speech and actions reveals both the automation rampant in our being, and the potential power and freedom that comes from recognition, change and implementation of new patterns. How to do so will be the focus of the next posts in these series.

Until then, look in the mirror, run your hands over your naked body and re-feel your physical existence.

See you soon.


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