Recently, my Beloved and I have been annoyed with each other. It really doesn’t matter why, even though in this case the underlying “cause” is a worry we share. If you are human and you live with another human, it’s going to happen.
For me, the easiest option would be to run with “annoyed,” work myself into a self-righteous stew, and make absolutely certain he completely understands why I am annoyed. For his own benefit, of course.
Unfortunately, that never works.
There are at least four problems with that approach:
1. It assumes that something outside of me is responsible for my annoyance. Oh how I would love for that to be true! Because if something else is the cause, then I am not accountable and don’t have to do anything because nothing I do would make any difference anyway.
2. That approach is deeply rooted in blame and what the other person “should” do. Because if it’s not me then surely it’s his job to do something, and if he doesn’t do anything, especially the things I think he “should,” I have even more grounds to be annoyed. Right?
3. There’s also the “personal power” issue. Holding someone else responsible is like saying I am too puny to manage my own feelings, a helpless victim of my own emotions.
4. Finally, there is my belief that seeing a flaw in another is really a clue that flaw lurks in me and needs some curative attention. Otherwise, their behavior wouldn’t even register as bothersome.
A better choice would be to take a mindful moment to consciously get off the “I’m annoyed” auto-pilot and instead ask what rough edge this sandpaper moment is trying to help me smooth.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, offers this definition of mindfulness: “Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
The practice of mindfulness helps you avoid getting tangled in old feelings, future worries, positive or negative judgments, or other people’s opinions. I used to think it was a state of being only meditation masters could achieve after many years of practice, so I have been delighted to learn that mindfulness is a skill that can be broken down into three simple components and practiced throughout the day.
The first element involves paying attention “in a particular way, on purpose.” The terms “mindfulness,” “awareness,” and “focus” are often used interchangeably, but that misses the key point. Mindfulness is the result of consciously focusing on present awareness. Focus alone is not enough. We have to be aware that we are focusing or we are just caught up in runaway thoughts. In order to be mindful, we must be purposefully aware, not just vaguely and habitually aware.
Take eating, for example. In “normal” mode, you may be thinking of a dozen other things, having a conversation, watching TV, reading, or even driving. Only a small part of your awareness is involved in eating even though you register sensations like taste or fullness. The classic exercise is to observe your own breathing. Sit quietly and pay attention to the sensations in your body as you breathe naturally. Often, your attention will wander. When you recognize that, gently bring your attention back. It is this process of realizing your attention has wandered off like a small child, then consciously bringing it back that is the foundation of mindfulness.
When we are only vaguely aware, our minds race or wander, completely without purpose. Mindfulness, then, is both being aware and being aware that we are purposefully aware.
The second key is paying attention nonjudgmentally which allows us to choose from a wealth of options, not just “good” or “bad.” There’s no need to get upset even when we’re not getting what we want or we don’t like what is happening. We simply accept that it is happening which helps shut down the racing mind. Yes, we still notice, but nonjudgment puts a buffer between the experience and our reaction similar to the 5 second delay on TV. Intellectually, we still think some experiences are pleasant and others are not, but we now have a safeguard to protect us from the emotional roller coaster.
The third component is the present moment. Left to itself, the mind wanders like an unruly child, often getting lost in anger, depression, and self-pity. Indulging those thoughts is letting that disorderly child get even more wild which is exactly what happens without guidance. Our thoughts need “parenting” or they will head straight for the cookie jars of past woes or future worries. It’s not that we must stop thinking about past and future altogether. They are both valuable for strategizing, planning, goal setting. We simply teach ourselves to visit the past or future briefly for information, not immersion.
Feeling annoyed was a dead giveaway that I was stuck in being irked about something that had already happened (past) and was worrying about what might happen as a result (future). In order to come back to the present, where everything was actually just fine other than my attitude about this thing, I first needed to pay attention and remember that the annoyance was trying to help me, just like pain tells us our body needs attention. I needed to become conscious that annoyance was a mask for my own fear and worry. I needed to observe the annoyance nonjudgmentally until the underlying message became more clear. Then, I could choose to lovingly respond rather than knee-jerk react.
Mindfulness as a skill is a way of life that helps you understand yourself better so you can relate to others better. Like any lifestyle change, it begins uncomfortably and becomes second nature with practice. I’m seeing a lot of practice in my future!
Anne Wade is the founder and publisher of The Soulmate Dance. She is a writer, educator, life coach, and lifelong student of soulmate relationships, devoted to expanding our understanding of all types of soulmate relationships and experiences.