Pema Chodron is a Buddhist monk, author and speaker. This story is from her book - The Wisdom of No Escape, page 25:
“There is a story of a woman running away from tigers. She runs and runs and the tigers are getting closer and closer. When she comes to the edge of a cliff, she sees some vines there, so she climbs down and holds on to the vines. Looking down, she sees that there are tigers below her as well. She then notices that a mouse is gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries close to her, growing out of a clump of grass. She looks up and she looks down. She looks at the mouse. Then she just takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly. Tigers above, tigers below. This is actually the predicament that we are always in, in terms of our birth and death. Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life; it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.”
The strawberry in this story symbolises the importance of the present moment. The present moment is always there and available to each of us who are willing to bring awareness to it. The simple question is - if we are not in the present moment and we are unable to raise awareness to it, then how can we eat the strawberry? This, my friends, brings me to the topic of this week – Mindfulness.
The last 3 weeks, I focused on thoughts – healthy and unhealthy thinking styles and offered some insights on how we can gain more awareness and identify them. We also realised that thoughts come and go and ultimately we have a choice whether to act on them or not. In order to offer ourselves this choice, we need to be aware and be present in the moment. One of the best tools for that my friends is Mindfulness.
Mindfulness is observation without criticism. When unhappiness or stress hover overhead, rather than take it all personally, we learn to treat them as if they were black clouds in the sky and observe them with friendly curiosity as they drift past. Mindfulness allows us to catch negative thought patterns before they tip us into a downward spiral. It begins the process of putting us back in control of our lives.
My formal introduction to Mindfulness came in 2015 when I joined a six-week Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) course. I remember my first class so vividly. My teacher Mary Walker started the class with what I thought was strange at that moment. She offered us a raisin each and gave us the following instructions. a) Hold the raisin in the palm of your hand. Focus on it as if, you’ve never seen anything like this before. b) Take time to really see the raisin – examine it with great care and attention. c) Explore the texture of the raisin. How does it feel? d) Hold it beneath your nose and smell it. Does it have a scent? Observe it. e) Place it slowly in your mouth and notice the sensations of having it in your tongue. f) Consciously bite the raisin and notice its effects in your mouth. Feel the texture. g) See if you can detect the first intention to swallow as it arises in your mouth, experiencing it with full awareness before you swallow. h) Spend sometime registering the after effects of eating the raisin.
She then asked us what we thought of this exercise and I remember saying - “I tasted this one raisin more than the 5 or so I usually put in my mouth without thinking.” I found this exercise so powerful and the lesson I learnt was to wake up from my autopilot. This was just the beginning of my mindfulness journey - over the next six weeks at the course, my curiosity grew as I engaged in the different types of practices. Over the last three years the learning and benefits stuck with me and has motivated me to practice mindfulness meditation daily.
So my friends, these are some of my learnings that I want to share with you:
Mind-Body Connection: We have a physiological response to any internal or external stimuli. Consider this - we are actually late to a big meeting. As we walk up to that meeting, we can feel the stress in our body – perhaps the chest, in our shoulders or in our gut – this is our physiological response to being late. Now imagine this – this time we don’t have to actually be late but lets just close our eyes and visualise being late for a big partner meeting – we’ll notice that we have a similar tightness in the chest, shoulders or gut. Our body responds physiologically to whatever we envision, because most of the time we live in our minds. I want you to observe this the next time you are in this fight or flight mode (in your mind or in reality) – what’s going on in your body?
Time Travelling: Although it’s great to have a vivid imagination, it can sometimes be a problem. As human beings we love time travelling – going back in time and digging up all the problems we faced when we were there or going right into the future and envisioning all the possible things that can go wrong. Remember catastrophising from the unhealthy thinking style? While doing all this time traveling, we tend to forget that there’s a present moment, the here and now.
Practice of mindfulness meditation is a great way to learn how to focus and be present in this moment. If you are curious and want to know more, there are numerous resources out there to deepen your leaning – courses, books, practices and more for you to explore.
Before I wrap up, I want to leave you with this exercise. At my course - keeping in tune with my raisin experience, I learnt a simple three-minute practice that I want to share with you. This can be done anytime and anywhere – you can be inside or outside, walking or seated, in a mall, at work, having a shower, eating your breakfast or with your kids. Ask yourself these questions and take a moment to observe your responses.
Step 1: What do I see now?
Step 2: What do I hear now?
Step 3: What can I smell now?
Step 4: What can I taste now?
Step 5: What do I feel now?
You’ll notice that you will bring yourself to the present moment and in that present moment that’s all there is really. So my friends let there be tigers above and tigers below, you eat your strawberry.