I open my eyes. Nestled in bed, comfortably warm under a fluffy sage bed cover, I peer out through the sliding glass door of our bedroom that opens up to the panorama of hillsides north of the Willamette River. In the winter stillness, behind the skeletons of towering big-leaf maples and one tall fir tree, is a hint of light, sign that the new dawn will soon break open night shadows.
It is the next moment that paralyzes me. My attention turns to sensations in my body that I have learned over the years to equate with anxiety and fear. Tingling throughout my body. A new day. What will it bring? Oh dear. Oh no. The feelings and thinking associated with these body sensations take me over on many mornings. Often linked to what has happened in the near or distant past. And over the years, those feelings and thoughts, when they arise, have become the reality of these sensations. In other words, I have come to believe that those feelings and thoughts are causing these sensations.
But, truth is, the body sensations actually arise before the feelings and thoughts arise. Over the past several years, I have come to realize that the sensations arising in me, the sensations that actually woke me up in the first place, have more to do with a regular morning call from nature, and very little to do with the dawning of a new day or anxiety and fear. Once I get up and go to the bathroom, the sensations disappear. But the anxiety and fear often-times remain. Why is that? Because over time, over years, I have created neural pathways that lead my mind from the familiar sensations that occur in the early morning hours to anxieties and fears that have brought forth similar sensations in the past. Guilt by association. Wrong thinking. Wrong perceptions. Creating and extending a fictitious cycle of suffering in me.
So now that I know about these familiar responses–have actually known for awhile–why don’t they just change, go away? Can’t I just dismiss them? For good? Mark Williams, et. al. (The Mindful Way Through Depression), said that instead of our seeing the feeling of familiarity as a sign that the mind is going down an old mental groove, we take the feeling of familiarity to mean that it must be true. For most of us, when we are not paying attention–and even if we are–familiarity really does ring true. Our mind says, “Yeah, that makes sense to me.” Then we focus our attention on these “true” feelings and thoughts because we believe that it will reveal a way to solve our problems. But this just reinforces our wrong beliefs, and doesn’t solve much of anything.
This is so much a part of our everyday thinking–my everyday thinking–that it takes time to fill in the ruts of those old mental grooves. It helps if I can catch myself in the act. That’s where mindfulness comes in. When I remember, I can stop speeding down the rutted road, gather up my wheelbarrow full of mindfulness mud, and shovel in a smile of recognition, a kind word to myself, a stretch. I can step back and observe the rut without judging it too harshly. After all, there is a history, my history, behind why it is there.
Over time, I am changing my relationship to these particular early-morning body sensations, but it is not just a matter of shoveling in, filling up the grooves and moving along a perfectly smooth road. There is a mysterious ebb and flow to this practice of my life. Perhaps the rain comes, heavy vehicles plow through, and the rut becomes a bit deeper for awhile. I can always come back with my mindfulness mud. It is as easy as taking a breath, smiling a smile, recognizing that old pattern of connection–once again! But perhaps this time the feelings and thoughts that arise stand on their own, sort themselves out, or allow me to see their source more clearly. I have given them a chance, and they become their own mud of mindfulness.
Mindfulness helps me become more familiar with the ruts in the road. It is a practice that allows me to more easily greet each thing, each moment, on its own terms, without tromping it into the ruts of my mind. It gives me a chance to open my eyes to a day, a morning, of awakening to see nothing more–nothing less–than the mysterious hint of light, in the winter stillness, behind the skeletons of towering big-leaf maples and one tall fir tree, on hillsides north of the Willamette River.