Mindfulness is an incredibly useful tool for almost any situation life throws our way. I first learned about it while doing centering prayer and found it helpful even when I wasn’t engaged in this spiritual practice. Now, after years of trying to be mindful, I feel as if the time in my life before I learned about this was my spiritual infancy even though I considered myself a prayerful, reverent person back then.
The point of mindfulness is for us to engage all our five senses — or at least as many as possible — in order to keep us focused on the present moment. The other point is to focus on the present in a non-judgmental way. Although the idea seems redundant, it is deceptive; we might think we have presence simply because we are physically present. I know that’s what I thought, but after experiencing a true mindful presence, it became clear to me that I was absent from so much of my life. I began to notice how many of us are not really present either.
There seems to be an underlying distraction that prevents us from really engaging in daily life in a meaningful way. We also spend an awful lot of time assigning judgment to our experiences, even as they are happening. This judgment is the biggest barrier to mindful presence.
Once I saw how mindfulness works, I started understanding the tremendous benefits: reduced stress, more peace of mind and a much greater capacity for joy in the mundane events. Mindfulness can be practiced any time: while eating, praying, working, exercising and even dating.
As far as prayer goes, I’d mentioned how centering prayer introduced me to the idea. I discovered that St. Ignatius practiced mindful prayer with his idea of praying along the rhythm of the breath. Both of these practices are ways in to a mindful way of life.
Mindful eating is another way in, and one that has been getting a lot of press lately. Too often, we eat mindlessly without even realizing it. Couples and families spend meal times in the midst of conversation. Singles, too, often eat mindlessly — in front of the TV, for instance, or with a radio on, or while talking on the phone. Here in New York City, mindless eating is everywhere: people eat while walking, on the subway or hunched over their desks. It is so pervasive that it’s invisible, at least until mindful awareness steps in.
The more I understood mindful presence as a daily practice, I began thinking more about what this means for singles who are seeking partners. Lack of presence in our interpersonal relations can often lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings and alienation.
I wondered what this lack of presence looks like, and it occurred to me that I already named it: the Relationship X-Ray Machine. Those distracting, nagging thoughts that plague us on dates distract us from the present moment. It makes sense, of course: If you are trying to carry on a conversation with someone new, all the while questioning every gesture, every word and every glance, you can hardy be fully present in the moment.
But is it possible to engage in mindful dating? Given the pitfalls of Internet dating, is it even a wise idea?
I recognize, of course, how awkward first dates can be. It would be even weirder to stop talking and fully take in a total stranger on a sensory level, but mindful presence goes beyond the strictest sense of mindfulness.
I had a date recently that exemplified a mindful experience. We went to an art exhibit and, in between lively conversation, had moments of silent contemplation, completely absorbed in the paintings. After we left the gallery, it was a nonstop chat-fest, but there was no evidence of the RXM, and both of us were fully present.
So how can we turn off the Relationship X-Ray Machine long enough to become fully present on a date?
The first way to turn off the machine is to be open. Practice this before a date while with a friend. Take a moment to silently receive as much sensory details as you can. Don’t judge any information as good, bad, repellant or attractive. Just by close listening and watching, without worry, we can get a lot more information about our date. Try suspending judgment and the experience might be downright pleasurable! It is very difficult, of course, but the rewards might just be worth it. It’s a liberating feeling, one that for me is worth repeating!