Why Bother With Mindfulness?

DrinkSince a picture is worth a thousand words and a concept is worth at least a thousand pictures I feel that analogies hold a key to understanding concepts that the word-driven mind simply cannot.

We will need a few props for this analogy.  First, you are going to a drive thru restaurant.  You drive up to the window and order a 12 oz can of your favorite soda.  Lets say for the sake of this example that it was a diet coke (I will let the reader surmise what they may regarding my favorite beverage).  This 12 oz diet coke is going to represent your thoughts and emotions.

The server hands you the can of diet coke and a Small (12 oz) cup.  The cup will represent your mind.

You thank the server and open the can of diet coke, pouring it gingerly into the Small cup.  The fizz nearly runs over the lip of the cup but you manage to fit the entire soda in the cup without incident.  You silently congratulate yourself, place the cup in the cup holder between your seats and slowly pull out of the parking lot.

You make a right onto the street drive a few miles without incident.  The road will represent the circumstances of life.

You drive along for another mile with the cup of diet coke happily fizzing in between the seats when suddenly you thunder over an unseen pothole.  I need not say it, but the pothole represents the inevitable challenging life event.  What happens to the soda?

It sloshes over the lip of the cup, spilling into the cup holder, and ruining your upholstery.  So you have to pull off the road of life to clean up this mess.

CARAt this point in the analogy mindfulness practice makes its debut.  Lets say that you have begun practicing mindfulness regularly for a month now.  This time when you go through the drive thru the waitress hands you the same 12 oz can of diet coke but instead of the Small cup she hands you a Medium.  The Medium is a 16 oz cup and easily holds the fizzing soda.

You again place the cup in the cup holder and pull out onto the road.  A few miles down the road, sure enough, there’s that pothole again.  And just like most of us you didn’t learn from your first mistake and “bam!” you thunder over it again.  Just like before the diet coke sloshes and fizzles but this time the lip of the Medium-sized cup is large enough to contain the sloshing.  This time the diet coke doesn’t spill.  This time you don’t need to pull over to clean up your precious upholstery.  You smile smugly and tap a non-rhythmic beat on the steering wheel and drive on.

Barely another mile down the road though and the white whale of potholes sneaks up on you and shakes your vessel violently.  The diet coke sloshes and fizzles and with the tremendous strength of this whale-like pothole the soda spills over the sides of the cup and again splashes all over your up-tip-now spotless upholstery.  The smug smile has been left behind as you are forced to pull of the road and clean up the mess.

But you’re a good learner and you realized the benefit of the mindfulness practice in securing your sugary-sweet beverage to its cup-confines and so you decide to practice for a few more months.  Now when you go to the drive thru the waitress provides the same 12 oz can of coke but gives you a Large (20 oz) cup to put it in.  You fill the cup, place it in the cup holder, and pull out onto the road.  You thunder over the mini pothole and then the bane of Ahab and both times the cup is large enough that the sloshing and fizzing are contained without spilling.

village on hillYou drive along a few more miles and are suddenly faced with a washed out road.  You decide that you didn’t buy the Jeep 4×4 for nothing and that you going to try your luck at crossing the remnants of the road.  The jolt that this attempt provides not only clacks your jaw but also causes the diet coke to jettison from the Large cup and make its way onto your doubly cleaned upholstery.
I like this analogy for a number of reasons.  We must pay special attention to the behavior of the soda when encountering the potholes.  It acts the same way every time.  It sloshes and fizzles, it gurgles and glops.  Your brain will always have thoughts and emotions.  It will always react to your world.  Just like the heart’s function is to pump blood and the lung’s function is to breath air, the brain’s function is to create thoughts and emotions.  If you are searching the cessation of thoughts and emotions you are looking in the wrong place.  No matter how advanced a yogi you are the world will create disturbances both good and bad within your brain.

The key to the analogy is the size of the container: the cup.  As you develop mindfulness your container, your mind, expands.  It becomes more capable of containing the sloshing of your thoughts and emotions.  It becomes more equivocal of both positive and negative mood states and thoughts.  The emotions and thoughts still happen but they don’t overwhelm the container.  You don’t need to pull off the road of life (sorry about the cliche) to clean up the mess.

Lastly, you must be aware that no matter your level of practice there will always be a pothole (life event) that can overwhelm your mind and force you to pull off the road to clean up.  This is not a fact to bemoan or beat oneself up about.  This is a fact of life.