Pretend that you are an alien. You have never been to this planet before and you know nothing of its technology, cultures, norms, whatever – you don’t know anything about this strange place. You don’t know what the inhabitants of this planet look like, what they do, what they care about – everything is a mystery. Hold on to this idea, take a minute (a real minute – 60 seconds) and look at the world around you. Don’t judge or assess, don’t tell yourself anything about the things you see, just see them. If you find yourself thinking about something, simply bring yourself back to the idea that you are an alien that doesn’t know anything about what you are seeing.
I have always been a troubled person. I think this is what draws other troubled people toward me. They find their way through referrals from friends who tell them there really isn’t anything they can offer that will shock me or bring judgment. They start conversations with me in public places, usually asking where I get my tattoos done, and it goes from there; or they simply pass out drunk in my driveway, truck running, heater on (he almost ran out of gas, but he might have frozen to death without it).
I lived in my being troubled: I wore it like a cape. I invested in it and cultivated it and crossbred it with other troubles until I wasn’t even sure what was mine anymore, but only that I was troubled. I was always angry, always discontent, always dissatisfied – never, ever happy. This was my identity. I had names and labels for it, diagnoses and treatment plans, very few of which (if any) were accurate or helpful. I spent time in doctor’s offices and mental wards and at parties and bars. All were about equally useful. I chose the latter path and drank and smoked and snorted things; sure that not only would this help me be less troubled, it would also validate just how troubled I was.
People stuck it out with me, stayed by my side and tried to help, but they were missing one key fact: being untroubled was never my goal. I needed to be troubled because it was all I had. To be clear, I was mentally ill, this becomes clearer and clearer to me as the years go on; but I was also very invested in my mental illness. Nothing here is meant to discount the reality of mental illness, working as a counselor I see it in front of me every day. Funny story, though – I have a friend who didn’t believe in it until he met me: “I didn’t think crazy was a real thing until we started hanging out.”
Over time, I evolved in how I manifested troubled. Drinking and smoking and snorting things became unsustainable, as did having no education or resources; so I went to college (a college with a very liberal admissions policy that still required me to complete summer school with A’s to be accepted). I worked jobs and became a good employee and I volunteered and I went to the park to sit and read and hang out with ducks. I had a son and I was (still am) a good dad. We spent a lot of time together and did cool things. I didn’t yell or condemn him; I encouraged him. I treated him like a person and our relationship bears out the value of this time to this day; he’s still a good kid and we can talk about anything.
I read so many books and found a sort of peace in life that I didn’t think existed for people like me…but I still needed to be troubled. Nothing had changed, my identity hadn’t shifted, I just needed a better way to express it, I needed to not self-destruct in expressing my trouble, but still be troubled. I had the same need, just less commitment. So it became about the War on Drugs and 9/11 (an inside job, of course) and veganism and just everything, man. I didn’t drink or smoke or snort, but I was still troubled. I thought I had found my means of expressing myself, my true role, but the trouble with being troubled is that you are always…well, troubled. I was looking for contentment and peace (like we all are) but I was looking for it in the very place that denied its existence.
Fast forward a few years: My troubledness had subsided greatly, and I was down to just cigarettes on the list of things to quit (if anyone would have told me they would be one of the hardest after everything else, I would have laughed). I always made it a day or two before panicking and running to the store to buy a pack. Mind you, this was no longer about being troubled as an identity. Zen, Buddhism, quantum mechanics and finding a red letter Bible at Walmart one day had opened up a new world for me and I was seeking to understand me, to disassemble the hateful identity of struggle I had worked so hard to assemble.
Anyway, I was quitting smoking as always, I made it a day or two before I hit my panicky “I have to get to the store” wall that ruined it every time, so I stood up to do just that. But a voice stopped me – it told me to sit down, to be with the feeling, to explore it. So I did. I scanned my body, seeking the place that needed a cigarette, trying to find the place of want. It wasn’t in my throat like thirst, in my stomach like hunger, I could not pin it down like pain – it was nowhere. I realized that the feeling itself was not the issue, but the comparison to what it would feel like to smoke a cigarette after a few days was; the need only existed by comparison. And I quit smoking.
That was my first encounter with mindfulness in my adult life. I had actually discovered it as a kid, but didn’t know what it was and called it “thinking beyond thinking.” I used it as a way to make it through church, because I hated church so very much (still do… I’m working on this). I discovered that I could entertain myself for the entire service by looking at things and pretending to not know what they were. I remember trying to see things without “myself” getting in the way. I honestly think it was my early encounter with this idea that made psychedelics so fascinating for me later on.
So the logical question: what exactly is mindfulness? Simply put, it is a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment – three things we tend to avoid in our modern lives. It is hard to explain precisely what it does for us, but it has helped me learn to be okay with the present moment, to see that things really are often only good or bad by comparison and to be less reactive to the world around me. It has helped me step away from what I want and to learn to accept what is; it has taught me that each moment is what it is, and that liking or disliking that has very little effect on anything.
I don’t passively accept injustice or unhealthiness, but I can approach it from a place of seeking resolution and growth rather than retaliation or a desperate need to fix anything. It helps me with other people in my life, especially in helping me to learn to be present with people–hard to do if you are judging them or the situation. More than anything, in a world where troubled people seek me out – either intentionally or by some odd turn of events as they drove around my neighborhood drunk – I am able to be there for them, to sit with them, without being troubled myself.