Last night during dinner, my son Liam looked out the window and said, very calmly and full of wonder, "Hey look - there's a snake on the wall."
I should perhaps pause to tell you that in this area, cinderblock walls separate one property from the next. The wall in our backyard is quite tall, much taller than any of us.
Back to my story, my husband Earl turns to gaze out the window and equally calmly says, "Huh...yeah, you're right."
It took me a few beats to catch up. The words that were coming out of their mouths did not match their calm demeanors. Did I even hear them correctly?
Eventually, reality set in. "WHAT?! A snake ON THE WALL? What are you talking about?" I jumped up and ran to the window.
Sure enough, a rattlesnake was slithering across the top of our wall. Towards a dove. Who was just sitting on the wall as calmly as Earl and Liam were gazing out the window.
The snake was steadily advancing upon the dove. The dove would take a few hops away and then stand calmly until the snake advanced some more, requiring a few more simple hops. Eventually, the dove stuck out one of its wings towards the snake as if to say, "No thank you. I'm not interested." The world had clearly gone insane.
Inside the safety of my house, I was doing what I thought the dove should be doing. I was hopping around, emitting high pitched squeaks, and alternately yelling at the dove to fly away and the snake to get the hell away from there.
Were you to have witnessed this scene from a bird's eye view and had to guess which character in the scene had studied mindfulness for many years and loved teaching it to others, there are a few options you probably would have guessed. I would say Liam was a Zen master, having been the person aware enough to have seen the camouflaged snake in the first case. Earl's calmly interested reaction places him right up there with some of my most respected teachers. If we're being very honest, the star of the show here was the dove, who remained present and relaxed whilst being hunted by a rattlesnake.
One thing is very clear. The mindfulness "expert" was definitely NOT the person hopping around, yelling, and in every other way losing her mind.
Am I right?
Ya, I used to think so, too.
When we first start studying mindfulness, it is common to get stuck in the misconception that in order to be mindful, we must be always 1000% calm no matter what. We shall have zero distracting thoughts. We shall feel peaceful all the time.
This sounds daunting. Kinda impossible. Enough to make me want to quit mindfulness all together. It just wasn't for me. I'll try to numb my feelings a different way.
To these misleading thoughts, I calmly raise my dove wing and say, "No thank you. I'm not interested."
Here is the reminder. Mindfulness is NOT about feeling calm every second of every day. Mindfulness is NOT about getting rid of your thoughts. Mindfulness is about being aware and present with your thoughts. It is about allowing your thoughts and feelings to exist and then, once acknowledged, to allow them to move on.
The reality of mindfulness is very different from the expectations of mindfulness. Having lived in an attempt to be mindful for the past several years, what I have come to know is this: I will still freak out. I will still feel triggered. I will still have my moments. The goal is not to eradicate this. The goal is to shorten the amount of time between freaking out and restoring a sense of calm. This is where my mindfulness practice comes in.
I practice my mindfulness every morning when I already feel calm. My mindfulness ability, just like a muscle, becomes stronger and stronger. Then, when a rattlesnake stalks a dove on my backyard wall, I allow my thoughts and feelings to exist and then I can flex my mindfulness muscles and restore calm. Over time as I continue to practice this, the space between freaking out and feeling calm becomes shorter and shorter. Eventually, the period of freaking out begins to shorten as well.
What a relief! When this realization came to me, my mindfulness practice felt much more achievable. You have permission to be a complete and utter mess. Go for it! Let's measure our growth in recovery time.
I'll leave you with a thought, something to ponder when you want to flex those mindfulness muscles:
Last night, Liam and I were talking about the snake. It had suddenly occurred to me that the snake was on TOP of the wall. How was this possible??
It turns out, Liam tells me, that snakes can climb. Horrifying. He then says, "Ya, they can jump too so you have to watch out for that."
If anyone needs me, I'll be barricading myself in the house against the climbing, jumping rattlesnake that is undoubtedly waiting for me on my welcome mat.