Once upon a time, I was in love with someone who meditated. Because I loved him, I tried to meditate with him. There was one catch: he meditated for 2 hours at a stretch.
It didn’t go well.
For a long time, that was my first and last attempt at meditation.
I’m a skeptic by nature (and by design) so meditation didn’t seem like a good fit for me. The whole idea of sitting still, doing nothing, and thinking warm fuzzy thoughts did not fit into my plan for world domination.
But then I joined a quartet and moved to the Midwest. There, I was confronted by culture shock, both geographically and professionally.
After doing some research, I found that the University of Iowa Hospital offered an 8-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, modeled after the seminal Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program founded in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD and the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.
Since my first unsuccessful attempt at meditation, mindfulness has been increasingly in the news so you (unlike me at the time) may already know what mindfulness is. For those of you who don’t know, mindfulness is the ability to be aware of the present moment. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
Well, it is and it isn’t…
Doing the Two-Step
Over the course of the 8-week program, I learned that mindfulness is a meditative practice that, though rooted in Buddhism, is not necessarily a spiritual practice. This was a relief to me, suspicious as I am of dogma, having received some of my early education in strict Catholic schools. This was step one.
Actually, mindfulness is ever more tied to modern psychology and is proving to be an effective method for stress management as well as a treatment for a host of other serious psychological disorders, like depression and post traumatic stress disorder, as reported in this Memorial Day article about emotional and health treatments for veterans.
And, as Dan Harris explains very eloquently in his book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works, mindful meditation is just exercise for your mind. We exercise to keep our bodies healthy and running well, so shouldn’t we do the same for our minds?
Step two for me was realizing that mindfulness mediation is a practice. The practice of being present.
Right now in this moment.
And I understand what practice is; I’ve been doing it my whole life. In hindsight, I realize my first attempt at meditation was the equivalent of handing a 5 year old a violin and demanding he play a Paganini caprice without ever having a lesson: a sure fire way to make sure he never plays the violin again.
But the mindfulness program starts with eating a raisin.
Eat a raisin? What?
What does that have to do with meditation?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
But, try this: take time to look at a raisin, smell it, touch it. The deep purple-brown, glossy skin; the infinite wrinkles that form tiny, empty, inlets in the surface; the musty, sweet aroma; the light sticky weight in the palm of your hand. You can even listen to it. Hold it up to your ear. It emits a small, squeaking melody as you roll it between your fingers.
And you haven’t put it in your mouth yet.
Your teeth cut through the tough skin. Your mouth fills with saliva, the sweet-tart flavor a surprise to your tongue. When you finally swallow, probably with your eyes closed, you are fully present.
With this slow, close attention, you become aware of the world contained within…
When you finally open your eyes, you may find that it’s taken five minutes or more to complete the task of eating one raisin, something that normally would take a few seconds, if that. And you might find, as I did, the weird parallel experience of time standing still, the feeling that time stopped while you were experiencing that raisin and you are actually surprised that only five minutes have passed.
And your attention to everything around you may feel softer; your body more pliant, the light around you hazier, the ground more solid, more reliable and giving at the same time.
And perhaps this is the starting point for another by-product of mindfulness: compassion, both for yourself and for the world around you. And added bonus, there are proven benefits of compassion when it comes to achievement and performance, both crucial elements in taking over the world.
All from eating one small raisin.
P.S. Probably works with raspberries, too.