The Mindful Journey
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
When I first started learning Tai Chi, I expected to learn everything, every move within a few months. I wanted to master Tai Chi in ten easy lessons. I saw all knowledge as something to be conquered—tell me how and I can do it.
Instead, I discovered frustration. Just learning the movements seemed impossible. Normally, I have a good memory. In fact, at the same time I started Tai Chi I was learning katas in my karate and I could easily remember those. But the Tai Chi movements eluded me. Wasn't it just another kata, I thought? I bought books to help me remember what I was being taught, but I still couldn't seem to get the movements down. I almost quit out of frustration but my instructor told me to not worry about memorizing the movements. He encouraged me to just attend and enjoy the class without even practicing outside of class.
What I understand now is that Tai Chi, as all mindfulness practices, goes through a number of levels which can't be skipped but are part of the journey. The first is often frustration. And that is okay. Because it means that it is important to you. Having decided to learn it and make it part of your life is a first step. But at that point you still don't understand fully what mindfulness is. Hence, the frustration.
If you can accept the frustration, let it wash over you, and continue your practice, you have taken the first step in your mindful journey. As my Tai Chi instructor had explained to me, don't put any pressure on yourself to learn mindfulness. Instead, practice it and the fullness of it will be revealed in time.
By accepting that I couldn't just memorize the moves I eventually was able to learn the form. Overtime, as I continued to practice Tai Chi, I came to realize that the reason I couldn't memorize the form was because the moves, being a complex interaction between the physical movement, the weight distribution, and the relaxing and tensing of muscles, are dependent upon body and muscle memory. Only through the practice and the corrections in class could I learn the movements.
Once I learned the basic form and my body was comfortable with the movements I could then begin the focus on the breathing. And once I learned to combine the breathing with the movements, I could begin to focus on the intangibles such as connecting with the flow of energy created by the movements. This process wasn't months, but years. It is a process that continues to unfold before me. Sometimes I am more involved in it and sometimes less so. Sometimes it is revealing and sometimes it is boring. Sometimes it is a pleasure and sometimes it is a demand. Yet, all of this is part of the journey.
The practice of mindfulness is similar to my Tai Chi practice. At first, you are likely to feel frustration because you understand there is more to it than what you are able to comprehend. As you relax and let yourself focus on the first step, you begin to learn the techniques of mindful focus. Over time as you practice those techniques you learn to bring that focus into your everyday life and develop mindful awareness. Again, with time, the levels of mindful awareness unfold before you as you continue to practice allowing you to develop mindful tolerance and to bring a mindful attitude more and more into your everyday experience.
As I've stated before, you can practice mindfulness techniques, you can meditate, or be a mindful athlete but that isn't the same as a mindful attitude, although those practices may be part of the journey. The mindful attitude is an acceptance of all aspects of who you are and all aspects of your journey, even those aspects you may not care for as much.
By accepting that you can't be at the end of the journey, you can begin to accept what the journey has to offer. All of the journey is part of developing the mindful attitude. Which is why no one can judge the mindful practice of another--even though we are tempted to say playing “mindless” video games isn't mindful or getting irritable isn't mindful or having a split focus isn't mindful or not being in the present isn't mindful. We can't judge another person's journey and process of discovery.
The mindful journey is unique to each person. Sometimes you will be frustrated, or disinterested, or discouraged. Sometimes you will remember your mindful practice and sometimes you won't. Sometimes your experience will be enlightening and you approach it with excitement just to find that trying to achieve that same experience eludes you. Only to find that when you give up the demand to recreate your experience you discover something new. All of these things can be part of the mindful journey. Because that is ALL it is—a journey, not a destination.
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