A despicable mind
I just received word that after a year of diving deep into all things concerning mindfulness, I have been certified to teach Search Inside Yourself, a mindfulness-based, emotional-intelligence program designed at Google. And so the work—on becoming a better human being and sharing my learnings with others—officially begins.
When I left Manila last January to explore mindfulness, some of my friends expressed misgivings about the choice I was making. I would be lying if I claimed that there was no doubt in my own mind. But surviving cancer changes one’s perspective drastically. A sense of urgency takes hold: to do the things about which one is passionate. So I took the leap.
I was reflecting on that choice as I waited for my flight back to New York after spending a few days in Manila this month. Some of those friends who expressed doubts were now starting to explore mindfulness as well. “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” That, and the learnings I take from a year of exploration (which continues), the people I meet in this space, and the sense of equanimity I feel as I deepen my practice, all have affirmed for me that the leap was not into the abyss.
What does mindfulness in real life mean? Here is what a few hours in the life of a mindfulness practitioner look like.
I have an early flight and thus get up much earlier than usual after being up much later than usual the night before. I notice the negative self-talk as I stumble out of bed (“You are pathetic, Joel,” “You really can use some discipline,” etc.). But I do not get caught up in it. The thoughts just pass through like dark clouds on a breezy day. I observe them as they appear from seemingly nowhere and let them disappear into thin air like soap bubbles bursting.
My brother comes to drive me to the airport. I love my brother dearly, but we have had a challenging time relating to each other growing up, especially after our parents died. Happily, our relationship has markedly improved in recent years, but being alone together still results in awkward moments. Stealthily, I offer him warm wishes (“May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering, may you live a life of ease and joy…”) and I feel nothing but kindness, which result in a heartfelt conversation. Being present in that moment, not letting myself get distracted by my phone or something else, and giving him the gift of my undivided attention make for a real connection.
We are caught in traffic as we proceed to the airport. I notice I am getting fidgety. I notice my mind starting to imagine the worst-case scenario of not making my flight. So I breathe deeply and focus my awareness there. No worrying about the future, about being late, and my mind calms down. The more mindful one becomes, the less ruminating and worrying one does.
We reach the airport and there is a long queue at the entrance. As I wait in line, I observe the people around me. My mind, my despicable mind, starts making judgments. There is a woman wearing tight jeans and trying her best not to tip over on her high heels, talking in broken English to an older pot-bellied Caucasian gentleman. (“Ah, a prostitute for sure. She must have caught the guy in the red light district where she works.”) My eyes see a man who looks like my age. He wears a fake leather jacket in the sweltering Manila heat, and his face cannot disguise his utter excitement. (“You haven’t been on a plane, boy? Loser.”) And on and on the despicable mind judges everyone with contempt, the same mind that belongs to this person who claims kindness as a strong virtue.
But that is not all bad. Certainly, the substance of the thoughts is reprehensible. But the point of mindfulness is to have no judgment about being judgmental, to be able to sit with what is. The fact that I am able to know what is happening in my head (the judgmental thoughts and the inflated ego), and not get carried away by it, is what the entire practice is about.
As we board the plane, the diminutive lady in front of me is having a hard time putting her bag in the overhead bin. “She can take care of herself,” my despicable mind says to me. But I ignore it. Without hesitation, I offer a hand. I feel good about helping, and I smile to myself as I find my seat.
I reach my row and someone is on my seat. I tell her, somewhat gruffly (the ego, again rearing its ugly head), that she is sitting on my assigned seat, but she insists it is hers. I ask to see her boarding pass, and indeed she is on the wrong seat. My despicable mind spouts expletives silently. I just observe the thoughts as I gently take my seat and breathe, and the mind calms down. I even manage a genuine smile and a stealth wish of kindness toward the lady.
For many of us, we go through our daily routines caught up in our heads, overwhelmed and stressed out. We treat others horribly, not out of malice, but because we just want to get through our day. However, when mindfulness becomes second nature, when we are present at every moment, we see the other person. For human beings, being seen and being heard, genuinely, produce strong positive emotions.
Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer says that mindfulness is the essence of charisma. “When you are mindful, you are present. When you are present, people notice it. When people experience you as mindful, they then see you as authentic and trustworthy.”
With continued practice, the despicable mind is silenced, and the default state of mind becomes, not one of judging, but of offering kindness and respect.
Joel Villaseca ([email protected]) is a lawyer living in New York City.
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