Last week or so I wrote a post explaining why I am suddenly, and somewhat reluctantly, reading about "mindfulness" (short answer: therapy. Long explanation -- just go read the post).
I have been trying to be mindful, or to think about mindfulness, as I go about my day doing different sorts of things. One of the funny things about mindfulness, unlike most other things I have tried to take on, is that when you are thinking about it you are almost by definition not practicing it.
But old habits die hard. Most of my experience with taking on new things has been that time spent thinking about what I am taking on is time "working on" my new direction, because it helps me understand it thoroughly, or ar least to form a theory about it. I have a nagging suspicion that this may not be the case here, but I can't help myself.
So, for instance, today I was running around the track at the YMCA while my 6yo was in his swimming lesson. I thought to myself that I should try being mindful, so for a while I concentrated on thinking about nothing except to carefully notice the sensations of the soles of my shoes striking the floor.
But my mind wandered and wandered again, and eventually I got a little bit bored and decided to think about mindfulness for a while.
I was not alone on the 1/18-mile track, although I was the fastest runner there today. There was an older gentleman walking along, absorbed in whatever auditory stimulus was being spooled into his ears via a wire emerging from the pocket of his tracksuit. There was a father and his daughter about the age of my daughter, having just stretched in the little alcove off the track, jogging along. There was a slim woman chatting on a cell phone while she walked easily around the track.
And there was a woman who was ignoring the posted rule that slower walkers are supposed to walk next to the inside rail of the track and allow faster people to pass on the outside. She was walking pretty slowly, and she was hugging the outside wall. So even though the rule is "Runners must pass on the outside," she made me have to shift over to pass her on the inside. Every. Time. I. Went. Around.
This irritated me. It made me want to throw her an annoyed glance, or pass extra fast and a little bit too close. And then I scolded myself for being irritated about something that didn't actually hurt anyone, at least not much.
But I went on thinking about mindfulness as my soles struck the floor, around and around. I thought: Mindfulness is supposed to mean "allowing what is, to be." Or something like that. Not fighting against, or being judgmental about, your circumstances. And this is supposed to be good for me because I am never satisfied with my circumstances, or with myself within them, or something like that.
The first step, if I was a little more practiced at the mindfulness thing, would be: I would notice my irritation at the woman walking on the wrong side of the track, and then -- understanding that it is natural to feel irritated when I see someone ignoring a posted rule -- I would observe, also, that it is possible to pass the woman easily on the inside, and so I would allow my irritation to pass away naturally, without feeling that I should act on it or communicate that irritation to the walking woman. The irritation would be as a cloud in my mental sky, which would arrive in its own time and which I would be confident would depart in its own time.
If I were a bit more advanced, I mused: I might never get to the irritation stage at all. Instead of noticing my irritation I might only notice the woman walking, and simply adjust my stride to pass her appropriately, without ever feeling, you know, judgy. It is what it is. There is someone in my path, and I can just go around her, so I will, and I do not even need to have a feeling about it. The observation of a person in my path would be as a cloud in my mental sky, which would arrive, be noticed, be acted upon, and then not be thought of anymore.
It strikes me that both of these would be better, objectively, than shooting the irritated side-eye at the woman every time I passed. Probably I should try to cultivate, first the easier ability, then the more advanced one.
+ + +
On further contemplation (I had plenty of opportunities, since I had to pass on the inside every time I came around) it struck me that a still better way would be a way, not of merely observing in a detached way, but of connecting with the woman as a human person. Not just allowing the things around me, as they are, or at least as I observe them, to be; but accepting the persons around me, as they are, to be as complex as they are, in a way that is much richer than my powers of observation can ever know.
Things are (usually) no more than we observe them to be, and so it is right and good for us to detach from any irritableness about how they seem, and from our wishes that things might be different (at least when we are relatively powerless to change them, or when we know we won't make the choices that would change them because we have other priorities).
But people are infinitely more than what we see when we look at them.
It is possible, I thought to myself as I went around the track, that the woman is keeping so close to the outside wall because she is staying as far away from the railing overlooking the basketball court as she can. Maybe she is afraid of heights, or gets attacks of vertigo. If that is so, then it's good that she is sticking as close to the wall as she is; she is making it easy for me to pass her on the "wrong" side, instead of making it equally difficult to pass on either side as she would be doing if she walked in the center of the track.
It is just a possibility, but it is enough to change irritation into -- not detachment -- but something closer to compassion.
+ + +
The last way is not really something new for me. I have spent a lot of my time trying to abolish "bad" irritable feelings in the third way, by trying to come up with a theory by which it might be possible that some bothersome behavior is actually a good behavior under the circumstances, or at least the best that someone can do. I still think it might be a better way (at least when dealing with people instead of inanimate objects) than mere detachment.
Still, I think it will be a worthy exercise to try to step back and cultivate the detachment as a separate process. Maybe I will leave an empty space behind where compassion will have even more room to grow.