Living mindfully, in the moment, with awareness, can at times feel like walking a tightrope. In order to walk the rope, one needs to bring wholehearted attention to the step we are taking, an exquisite attention, otherwise one finds oneself wobbling off into the past or into the future. It’s not the case that the tightrope walker just walks with absolute poise along the rope, she shifts from side to side, carefully, deliberately placing her foot on the rope, between left and right. It’s like this with our mindfulness practice.
There are times in life when the analogy of the tightrope walker, particularly the sense of urgency around finding balance seems more pertinent. When one is struggling with difficult emotions, thoughts or bodily sensations, uncertainties about health, relationships or finances, one can easily spiral into anxiety or depression if one doesn’t pay attention to what is happening in the mind. It is a human habit to try to control experience by thinking about it, the proliferation of thoughts that often arise when things become difficult, make it is easy to fall into patterns of thinking that actually exacerbate the experience. One of these is endlessly turning a problem over in ones mind, and trying to work it out by thinking, rumination. The problem with the problem solving is that life is more an art than a science, as Soren Kierkegaard said, ‘ Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.’
During difficult times living mindfully can be a lifeline, a direct connection to reality, we come out of the thinking/doing mode into being mode, being with the washing up, being with eating a meal, being with difficult bodily sensations, as best we can. Williams, Teasdale and Siegal in their groundbreaking work ‘Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression’ describe the mind as having a ‘limited capacity channel’, meaning that we can only focus on one thing at a time. When we bring awareness to what we are engaged with in any moment, we cannot be ruminating at the same time. So we walk the tightrope, our minds wobble off, working out the future, understanding the past, problem solving, ruminating, we notice, and we patiently and persistently return. Wobble, return, wobble, return.
The body is a true ally in this, just as the tightrope walker has to feel and sense with every sinew where the rope is, when we are beset by difficulty we can turn attention to the experience of the body bending, lifting, lying, standing, moving. Mindful Movement, yoga, swimming or other forms of activity can shift stuck energy and renew vitality. Many people on MBSR courses find the mindful movement practice the easiest in which to pay attention, the dynamism of movement, the amplification of sensation that this allows, can provide anchorage for a wandering attention that sitting still doesn’t. Kabir, the Sufi poet, in his poem, ‘I Said To The Wanting Creature Inside Me’, captures the power of bodily awareness beautifully, when he says:
Be strong then, and enter into your own body;
there you have a solid place for your feet.
Think about it carefully!
Don’t go off somewhere else!
Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of
and stand firm in that which you are.
And so, we walk the tightrope, standing firm, step by step, breath by breath, in that which we are.