“With mindfulness, you can establish yourself in the present in order to touch the wonders of life that are available in that moment.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
I am not a good friend to myself. This realization shook me as I was riding the bus home one day from the local university where I taught.
This realization had been building for some time, but it struck me powerfully that day. I was teaching a summer class on Asian philosophy, and we were reading the Sayings of Buddha. We had been discussing a passage about a monk watching his feelings.
The passage explained that when the monk had happy feelings, he knew he had happy feelings. And when he had unhappy feelings, he knew he had unhappy feelings. And as the monk went about his day, the passage went on, he watched himself in all his actions. If he chopped wood, he knew he was chopping wood. And if he swept the floor, he knew he was sweeping the floor.
The Buddha explained that such attentive mindfulness helps us decrease our own suffering.
One of my students said, “I don’t understand. How is this supposed to be helpful?” I didn’t have an answer. If I was honest with myself, constantly watching myself and noticing my feelings and actions sounded slow, mundane, and boring to me. I told my student I didn’t know the answer to his question but that I would think about it and get back to him.
As I was walking to the bus after class, I thought, “If I don’t think about my feelings and actions, what do I usually think about?” I realized that I was usually thinking about everything but the present moment.
For instance, I would often think about a past regret. Or I would think about a future worry. Or I spent a lot of time ruminating over my current life and finding everything that was wrong with it or everything that was wrong with me.
As I rode the bus home, I realized that I thought about everything except myself as I was in the current moment. And that’s when it dawned on me. I am not a good friend to myself.
I realized that if I treated my friends the way I treated myself, I would never really listen to them when they were talking to me. Rather, I would be thinking about the past, worrying about the future, and finding fault with them and everything in our surroundings.
And that’s not how I treat my friends. I do my best to be there for them when they were having a hard time, to listen to them, and to encourage them as much as possible. Being a good friend is one of the most important things to me.
Treating my friends like I treat myself would destroy our friendship, I realized. It would make them feel like I didn’t care about them or that I even hated them. And that shocked me because if such behavior would be destructive to my friendship with others, I realized it was probably destructive to my relationship with myself. No wonder I often feel stressed, anxious, unconfident, and lacking in self-worth, I thought. I decided this had to change.
Later that day, I was sitting in my office thinking about all this. In a moment of inspiration, I put my hand over my heart and pledged to be my own best friend from then on out, to be present, and to listen.
Much to my surprise, I felt a big weight fall of my shoulders and tears fill my eyes. And in that moment, I realized that, among other things, the practice of mindfulness helps us become our own best friend, something I had apparently needed for a long time.
When we are mindful of our feelings and actions, we walk with ourselves throughout the day, listen to ourselves, and recognize how things are going in our world. Mindfulness helps us do this with loving, gentle attention and non-judgmental compassion. These are some of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves or anyone.
Since that summer, I have consistently practiced mindfulness both informally and formally. As I go through my day, I do my best to stay present in the moment, paying attention to the events going on around me, as well as my feelings. This helps me feel calmer, and more focused and joyful.
For example, several years ago, I was feeling especially anxious one summer. When I noticed myself feeling this way, I stopped and asked myself what was going on and what I needed. Surprisingly, I got a very clear message from my heart and mind. They told me, ‘You have been inside far too much lately, and you need to go outside more.”
I listened to myself and started going on daily walks in a forest near my house. To my surprise, my stress levels and anxiety started to decrease, and I felt more peaceful. These daily walks are still a consistent part of my self-care practice, and they were especially helpful during the stress of the pandemic. I credit mindfulness with helping me discover how important it is to have a self-care practice.
I have also experimented with pausing intentionally in my day to focus on my breathing and awareness. Sometimes I do a short practice session in which I close my eyes and just focus on ten breaths. And sometimes I listen to guided meditations that help me relax, tune into my thoughts, and to notice the tension I’m holding in various parts of my body.
No matter how stressful my day is, these moments of intentional awareness are like an oasis. They help me reconnect to myself and my intention to be my own best friend. I finish them feeling loved, peaceful, and ready to reconnect with the world again.
For the last few years, I have also been practicing moments of silence with my students at the beginning of the classes I teach at a local college. At the beginning of class, I turn off the lights, sit down with them, and invite them to be silent with me. I direct all of us to focus on our breathing for a few minutes. I never force students to engage in the moment of silence. I ask only that they be silent so others can practice.
Frequently before the moments of silence, I share brief, encouraging ideas, reminding them that they are worthy, capable, connected, and called to adventure. This adventure is their ability to be their own friend and to connect in a meaningful way with the moment and the world around them.
I have been so surprised how well my students have received the moments of silence. Class becomes still, peaceful. Many students close their eyes and focus on their breathing. Others just look around and let their minds unwind. We finish the moment of silence energized for our class discussion and study.
Students frequently comment that the moment of silence provides one of their only moments of peace during the day and helps them transition to class. One time a student wrote on an evaluation, “Thank you for reminding us of our worth.”
Contemporary culture is increasingly noisy, frenetic, and fragmented. Its hyper-competitive atmosphere can pit us against our self and each other. In such an environment, it is easy to focus on everything but our own experience of the moment and the beauty in it.
Mindfulness has reminded me that the primary purpose of my life is not to do and have more. My primary purpose is to be my own best friend and savor the beauty of the moment I am in.
About Shelly Johnson
Shelly Johnson is a writer with a PhD in philosophy from the University of Kentucky. One of her primary personal and philosophical interests is how we can learn to love ourselves and each other better to bring about positive change in the world. She teaches ethics at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky and is the author the blog Love is Stronger. She is also the author of three books on logic and critical thinking—Argument Builder, Discovery of Deduction and Everyday Debate.