Portrait, Mood, Mobile Phone, Male, People, Chair, SitYears ago, when I was a graduate student living in England, I was invited to give a talk to a group of philosophy and religion students. After outlining the Buddhist teachings on mindfulness and offering a short meditation, one of the students asked, “why should I be mindful? What if I just want to let my emotions fly? After all, won’t mindfulness leave me numb and disconnected?”

I admit, I was a bit dumbfounded by the questions at first. Then I remembered my own experience as a 20-year-old, going from somewhat wild emotions to a cooler-calmer state. At the time, I was going through a diagnosed clinical depression. I had started meditating, and this was amazingly helpful. I also went on antidepressant medication, which was also very helpful for me.

But I did remember sometimes missing the swings of the emotions. I wasn’t diagnosed as bi-polar, but I did have up-swings in my mood in the midst of my depression. And I did almost enjoy (though it’s hard to use that exact word) some of the creativity that my depression seemed to unleash. I’m not sure of this is what that young man was experiencing, but this was what came to mind for me. Depression, anxiety, and simple mind-lessness all had something like a silver lining. Certainly, they were more trouble than they were good and I knew this—and I sought help to overcome them—but it wasn’t a clear-cut issue.

Being With What We’re With

It took a few years, but I did eventually overcome the depression and anxiety. I found that I still had my creativity, though I was also able to pursue other interests that seemed more important to me. And I found that I could still have the up-swings in emotions. This time, however, I didn’t become attached to them. And I didn’t crash so deeply when the positive feelings dissipated.

I could still feel down or sad, but this no longer caused the “downward spiral” of my early, depressed days. Instead, I could simply note that my mood or energy level was low and try to plan activities accordingly. I always knew it was temporary and that I’d be back to even or better before long.

Perhaps that young man was feeling attached to his high moods and even his low ones. However, what I explained was that mindfulness allows us to be more fully present with whatever we’re feeling: the highs, the lows, the in-betweens. On the contrary, mindlessness leaves us distracted, fluttering, and out of touch.

Foliage, Autumn, Bus Stop, People, Maribor, Slovenia

For instance, I asked the young man to imagine having a tough morning. He wakes up late and, in his rush, burns his toast. Rushing out the door with burnt toast, he stubs his foot and falls on the ground. Now he’s running late, in pain, and hungry since he dropped his toast. He reaches his bus stop and has about one minute before the bus is to arrive. He can either pause, breathe, and find presence, or remain frazzled and unhappy.

For me, remaining frazzled and unhappy means that I’m in a state of agitation. I have very little to offer those around me. Everything feels cold and uncomfortable. On the other hand, when I settle myself down, I return to this present moment and can find at least some joy and peace in the moment.

I asked the young man to imagine meeting a friend on the bus who needs a favor. What do we think would happen if we are upset? What do we think would happen if we have become calm and present?

This is not to suggest that being calm and present overcomes hunger or the pain of a stubbed foot. But to be able to set those aside to listen to a friend in need is a powerful capacity. And it’s one that we will utilize in some form nearly every day for the rest of our lives.

Flexing that Mindfulness Muscle

Man, Coffee, Outdoors, Lake, Lakeside, Drink, Portrait

The more often we can let go of past irritations, whether they are from five minutes ago or five years ago, the more capable we will be to see new opportunities. Every day will give us ups and downs. And it will give us 960 minutes (16 hours to allow 8 hours of sleep), each filled with potential to be joyful and creative and kind.

Or, each of those moments can be lived on auto-pilot, mindlessly ruminating about our burnt toast or chasing habits that numb us to our negative feelings. Our time is precious. Our opportunities to connect with others and to connect with our own inner drives are far more important than our stubbed toe and empty stomach.

Being mindful means being ready for each opportunity. Odds are, we won’t even need to see a friend. We can set aside our problems to simply greet the next person we see with warmth and kindness. This openness and compassion cycles back to ourselves as well. In my less-mindful times, I might have ruminated unhappily about sleeping too late, or the toaster I need to replace, or any number of my own past decisions. More than likely, I would have been judging myself harshly. This would have had the effect of making the temporary pains of the morning much more likely to stay with me through the day.

But, by switching the script and finding joy in the world around me despite some setbacks, I could easily move past the rough morning. Along with being present with those around me, I could think about things to do throughout the day that would bring joy. The first of those would likely include finding some good food and coffee, thus taking care of myself as I sought to be kind and care for others.

Default Alt Tag for this pageJustin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.