Updated: Nov 9, 2019
Chapter Five: How is Mindfulness and the Three Principles related?
My teacher, Michael Neill, talks about a concept called “before the therefore”. It is a practice of noticing what is alive in ourselves in any moment, before the chatter of our personal thinking begins. It is labeling the experience before the story of the experience is written. For example, we may have a thought like, “I’m sad because my cat ran away, and I have a headache, and I don’t feel like going to work, and I wish I had more money so I could have more free time, and therefore, I’d be happier.”
If we applied the “before the therefore” technique, that same exact thought would be shortened to “I’m sad”. Full Stop. When we start to catch our thinking before we run away with its tantalizing storyline, we have less commas in our thinking and more full stops. We sit with what is, without trying to explain it or solve it away with our “therefores”. We create more s p a c e.
To those who are familiar, this technique sounds strikingly similar to mindfulness practice. It is. I feel that the practice of mindfulness or any other awareness practice is comparable to one of the principles in the Three Principles. Mindfulness is essentially the same as the Principle of Consciousness. The difference is that in the 3P’s there are two more principles that help us to understand how our minds work. Because of this, I like to think of the Three Principles as “Mindfulness on Crack”. In fact, I thought that would make a great name for my next book, but I’ve been advised otherwise.
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”. The practice of mindfulness or any other meditation technique really helps us to develop our awareness muscle. Our awareness muscle is our ability to see that we are distinct from what is happening around us, distinct from our thoughts. To me, this is what the principle of consciousness in the Three Principles is referring to, our capacity for seeing.
“There is nothing more important to true growth than realizing that you are not the voice of the mind - you are the one who hears it.”
― Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself
My first coach training was based in mindfulness and somatic awareness. As a yoga teacher, meditation is a big part of teaching the practice. I’ve studied mindfulness through books, courses, and trainings. I happily practiced mindfulness meditation for several years, dutifully sitting on my cushion every morning for 20 minutes. I felt peace and contentment and more spaciousness while I was fully in the practice. Although committed, I still found it difficult to get to my cushion every single morning.
I’m disciplined for a small amount of time. I’ve given up coffee, alcohol, and meat at different times in my life. Over the years, I’ve committed to daily yoga and meditation. For me, it works for a bit, maybe a month, maybe more. Then, I skip a day or two, which turns into a month, which turns into a whole year. A victim of my unreliable habits. Then the weight of my guilt from straying from the commitment would send me back. Days when I would skip my seated meditation felt like trudging through wet cement. I became overly reliant on the act of sitting in stillness in order to create my peace and contentment.
This is still operating from an outside-in mentality. That anything I do or not do can negatively or positively impact my mood. Michael Neill calls it the enlightened outside-in model. As in, you MUST do all of these things — yoga, meditate, give away 10% of you income, eat only vegetables, go to bed at 8pm — THEN, you will be happy. It works to a degree, but it’s difficult and exhausting to maintain.
In mindfulness, I practiced witnessing everything that arose in the present moment-- my breath, my thoughts, body sensations— without judgment. The big difference for me is that I used to watch my thinking, but I still believed that the content of my thinking was true. Although the task was nonjudgmental awareness, I would get pulled into the content of my own thoughts and caught up. At times it felt like I was voluntarily sitting down into a pond full of hungry alligators. My thoughts chomped at me like I was fresh fish.
Something shifted for me when I learned about the Three Principles, where thought is seen as a divine gift that allows us to mold our reality in the present moment. Thought is ever-changing, ever-transient, and unpredictable. It shapes our moment to moment experience of our reality. The content of our thinking is less important than the fact that we think. When we think, we create.
This very subtle distinction has been the key that has allowed me to wake up to my thinking in any given moment. I use my awareness, or mindfulness, to see that my thinking is shaping my current reality. I full stop myself all day long. My thoughts are no longer giant run-on sentences threatening to take over my brain. Instead, they are short bursts of real-time, in-the-present-moment awareness. “I’m sad. I’m hungry. I feel tired. I need to go to the grocery store. I don’t like this.”
I no longer sit on my meditation cushion each morning. Gasp! I know. However, I actually feel more present to my thinking throughout my day than ever before. I experience many more “zen moments” of non thinking throughout my day than when I was a daily meditator. This is not an argument to stop meditating. If it helps you, by all means keep meditating! For me, I am able to flex my awareness muscle throughout my day without the added pressure of having to clock in for my meditation session. That just works better into the flow of my day. As a result, I have experienced deep levels of contentment, peace and joy. It comes first from understanding.