Participation is about awareness. It’s about being totally present when engaging in an activity.
For example, when you are learning something new, you are often forced into participating with awareness. When my son began to learn how to play the piano, he struggled to remember the placement of the notes on the keyboard. Later, he had to concentrate very hard to translate notes on the paper to the notes on the keys. Then, he found that in order to play the notes quickly, he had to be aware of how his hands were formed over the keyboard and learn the most efficient combination of each finger to play the chords so that he could quickly transition to the next note or chord. When I watched him practice, he was utterly participating in playing the piano. To talk to him, would often startle him.
This is a Buddhist story I heard:
One day the Buddha was speaking to a prince. The prince asked him, “What do
you and your monks do in your monastery?”
The Buddha said, “We sit and we walk and we eat.”
The prince said, “How are you different, then, from my people, for we do
those things as well?”
The Buddha responded, “When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we
know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating.”
Have you ever eaten your food mindfully? I mean being completely present with the experience – observing, describing, participating. I did this once while eating a mango. It was a practically orgasmic experience to taste the sweetness, feel the texture rolling over my tongue, smell the sticky, succulent fruit, watch the juices drip over my hand and feel them rolling down my chin.
In one of my DBT classes, the instructors would have us engage in activities that required our full participation. For instance, she would have us stand in a circle and assign each person a number. Then she’d give us a stuffed animal to toss back and forth, calling out the number first. It was actually fun. We even got up to tossing two animals at a time. I think what was especially great about it is that during that time, we left our problems and sorrows and attitudes behind in order to concentrate on the game. While we played, we actually laughed and engaged with each other.
By participating with awareness, we can be in the moment, which allows us to step back from our lives and our thoughts and be aware that we are alive in this moment and we are okay right now. This is a great tool when you’re in distress.
Linehan says that, “participation without awareness is a characteristic of impulsive and mood dependent behaviors.” I think of how many times I’ve gotten lost while driving because in my mind I’m hashing out some memory or possible future situation. At the wrong moment, this has landed me with more consequences than getting lost – like getting speed tickets or into accidents.
Lately, I have been practicing participating in the moment by trying to pay attention the whole time while I’m driving from one place to the other. Most of the routes I follow are ones that are common to me, so I try to see how many new things I can notice that I never saw before, whether it be a plant or a building, whatever. The amazing thing is, no matter how many times I do that on the same route, I still find something new.
Really, all I’m trying to do then is to drive the way I drive when I’m going somewhere for the first time and have to follow directions and be very aware of my location. It’s all about observing (the street signs), describing (making sense of the words so I can know where I’m going). In so doing, I’m fully participating.
Linehan says that ultimately we want to be able to participate without self-consciousness. When I watch my son play the piano today, rolling Rachmaninov or Beethoven over the keys like it was second nature, he no longer thinks about the placement of notes or the effectiveness of his fingers. But because he did do that before, he now has the freedom to feel the music in his heart and play with passion. He is still fully present and participating, and he does so without self-consciousness.
So, how do you know when you are participating mindfully (with awareness)? Well, this is certainly a subject for discussion because I am sure that each person experiences it differently. For me, I feel more peaceful, more satisfied. It’s like when you finally get to pee after you’ve had to wait for a long time. There’s a sort of satisfaction with the moment. I feel truly alive.
1. Try participating at something you do frequently (the dishes, driving, mowing the lawn, eating, etc.). Really pay attention to your activity. Concentrate. Set up a situation where you won’t be bothered by lots of distractions when you try this. Then notice everything about what your doing and try to do it really well. What does it feel like for you?
2. This is kind of a fun thing that I also did in my DBT class. You need a table in a quiet place so that it won’t be jarred. Get out an egg and try to balance it on the small side. It is possible. I did it once. (It doesn’t only happen during the equinox like some urban legends say.) Whether you are successful or not, what was it like for you? Do you find yourself berating yourself when you become frustrated? Do you need to be perfect? Can you let these things go and refocus on the egg in the moment? What is your ultimate measure of success? Can you be successful without balancing the egg? Are you having fun???? Is it okay to have fun?