When I think of mindfulness, I always think of Patti Smith. Yep, that Patti Smith who wrote the book Just Kids that chronicles her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Or you may know her better as an amazing singer-songwriter whose album Horses appears on many top albums of all time lists (according to Wikipedia).
I can see how this might make absolutely no sense to you. She’s not a meditation teacher, therapist or spiritual guru so why is she (in my humble opinion) the embodiment of mindfulness?
Often, when I talk to clients about mindfulness, they picture sitting like a yogi or monk, peaceful, serene, without a thought in the world. It’s an intimidating image and one that seems impossible to achieve. Which is because it IS impossible for most of us, if not all of us. Even the most experienced meditation practitioners in the world struggle to achieve that level of perfection. That’s why we practice mindfulness – it is in the striving that we achieve the benefits.
When I first began practicing meditation, I really, really wanted to be good at it. And that translated into feeling really frustrated because my brain would NOT stop going. I would feel like a failure and stop practicing. Then I would start again, get really frustrated, feel terrible and stop again… on and off for two years (I verified this with my meditation tracker – definitely a bit of a shock!).
Things began to shift for me when a yoga teacher told me that meditation and mindfulness are just being exactly where you are, doing what you’re doing, with who you’re doing it with. When my brain began to drift, I could just bring it back to what I was doing. I didn’t have to judge myself for not being “good” at it. What I needed to practice was not judging myself or going down that spiral of self-doubt. I’m not trying to achieve a Zen state of permanent enlightenment – I’m just trying to be more present in my own life.
I practice being present for five minutes every morning. Sure, you could call it meditation. I’m sitting cross-legged on a bolster and my eyes are closed. And sometimes it lasts longer than five minutes. My commitment to myself is to practice being where I am, doing what I’m doing, with who I’m doing it with for five minutes every day. No judgement. No shame spiral. You better believe the judgement shows up some days. The shame spirals can get wicked. But I keep practicing. What I’ve noticed after two years of daily practice is that I am naturally more present (without judgement!) in the other minutes of my day without trying quite as hard.
And when I feel a little lost or caught up in what has been or what will be, I think of Patti Smith, and I am inspired to keep practicing and to keep returning to the present.
Her Instagram account is one of my absolute favorites and where I go when I need some grounding and calm. There are pictures of diner coffee mugs and dog-eared books, of her sketches and scribblings – moments of life that most people would probably forget to document, or wouldn’t even notice… unless you were observing mindfulness. When you are mindful, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, the unnoticed or ignored becomes beautiful. Mindfulness is just noticing. Noticing what you hear, see, smell, touch, taste. It can be thirty seconds or thirty minutes. It’s all mindfulness.
Nothing illustrates my point better than Patti Smith’s book, M Train. The entire book is her noticing things. Of course, she is an artist and photographer with decades of experience, so she is really good at noticing. And this is a simplification of the depth of what the book offers. I’ll leave that for you to discover.
What I carry with me, because this is a book that stays with me always, is the noticing. It is an ebb and flow of soothing observation. Patti’s words are like music or the waves of an ocean, enveloping me and making me feel safe. The book is a meditation on coffee, on art and on being unapologetically who you are.
One scene has always stood out to me, and I think of this scene often. It is only a few pages but, for me, it is powerful permission to just be. In those pages, her flight is delayed leaving London, so she decides to get a hotel room for the sole purpose of watching British crime dramas. She describes being in this London hotel room and watching episode after episode. I love these pages so much because she notices EVERYTHING and with no judgement. She is exactly where she is, doing what she’s doing, with who she’s doing it with – herself! And it is beautiful.
I am not at Patti Smith’s level yet. More moments than not, I forget to look around, notice the light through the trees, or experience the warmth of the first sip of coffee in the morning. But I am practicing. And, really, that’s all that matters.