As a writer, I can’t stand adverbs. But the scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn, who’s been called the “godfather of modern mindfulness,” has a point: mindfulness is being aware in the present moment non-judgmentally.
I didn’t get that “non-judgmentally” part until right in the middle of a seven-day silent meditation retreat when I was engulfed by a terrifying, yet familiar emotion.
Loneliness has always been my deepest fear. Even as an increasingly unapologetic introvert, I worry about ending up alone in a house somewhere in the suburbs watching The Wire reruns with no one to talk to about it.
But, four days into the retreat, loneliness became just another fact of my experience. Like the blue jay that chirped every morning outside my window. And the urge to turn my phone off airplane mode. And the taste of the stale coffee at breakfast.
I was in a small group of students meeting with a teacher in one of the rare moments we could talk. A woman talked through tears about grieving for her husband’s sudden death in a car wreck years ago.
After that, I was embarrassed, but I told the teacher anyway: I was feeling lonely.
She asked whether I could feel the loneliness in the body. “Where is it showing up?”
“My hands — they’re so heavy. It feels like I can’t move them,” I said.
Normally, that my hands felt like 1,000-pound boulders would’ve triggered shame. I’m a 33-year-old man who’s afraid of being alone.
Usually, I would’ve acted out to get away from the fear and shame. Like the one time I was solo camping in one of the most beautiful parts of the country, Oak Creek Canyon in Arizona, and I drove an hour to a bookstore in the closest town just to be around somebody, anybody.
But this time I laughed. Happy tears welled up in my eyes.
This time, the loneliness was just another phenomenon. I didn’t have to make it go away or wrong or a sign that I’m not a “man” or anything at all. I didn’t have to resist it — I could let it just be.
My heavy hands were also just another phenomenon. Just something to notice and observe.
That’s what mindfulness is — allowing everything into our awareness equally and fully.
Our shoulder itches, a bird chirps, we think about that email we need to send, our back starts to hurt, and on and on and on.
We let sensations, sounds, thoughts, whatever pass like clouds in the sky. We accept any and everything, even our unconscious, snap judgements about whether whatever happens is good or bad, right or wrong.
We pay attention non-judgmentally.
Ready to get serious about meditation?
Sign up for my weekly email on meditation and bringing mindfulness to the stuff that matters most — work, relationships, and politics.