Have you ever left a meditation retreat feeling inspired to practice being mindful in your everyday life and within hours done something unskillful and wondered, “What happened to my mindfulness?” More than likely your mindfulness was hijacked by your interpretation of your experience. We all have a tendency to rush to interpretation in our lives, and that can present a challenge to being mindful of our experience.
Instead of staying mindful of whatever is happening in the moment, we immediately begin to interpret our experience and create a story based on past associations and attitudes we have about ourselves and others. However, our interpretation is only our view of our experience; it isn’t the actual experience. As soon as we start to interpret an experience, we’re no longer having the experience, we’re having an experience of our interpretation; therefore, we miss the real experience. This happens in reaction to both the unpleasant and pleasant events of life.
Therefore, a key skill for sustaining mindfulness in daily life is being able to distinguish between our experience and our interpretation of our experience. Experience is simply whatever is happening in the moment — a sound, a taste, a body sensation, an emotion, an interaction, etc. Interpretation is the mind’s reaction to our experience. One way to understand this difference is that when we are directly experiencing a moment of life, we are “within” it; when we are interpreting it, we are “outside” it.
The primary driving force behind our compulsion to interpret is the need to gain control over our experience. There are experiences that are so painful we simply can’t bear them, so we jump to interpretation in order to control them. The mind wants to be anywhere but in the present moment where it perceives pain. As a result, the interpretation replaces our true experience. We also use interpretation to manipulate our experience in order to get what we want. And then there are many experiences in life both large and small that are uncertain and which we can’t do anything about, therefore we add interpretation in order to try to attain some degree of security. But adding interpretation really just prolongs our uneasiness. By interpreting the experience and separating ourselves from it, we may think we are getting control of it, but in truth we’re actually getting stuck in the experience. If we would just get out of the way of the experience and stop trying to get rid of it, it would go away on its own.
Releasing the Compulsion to Interpret
Once you begin to recognize that interpretation is only your view of an experience, it becomes possible for you to begin to release your compulsion to interpret every moment. Ideally, your goal is to create a new habit or “default setting” for responding mindfully rather than reacting unskillfully to all types of experiences.
1. Start by staying with the experience. You can begin to break your habit of automatically interpreting every experience by practicing being mindful of your experience within the experience. So when an unpleasant moment arises, be interested in the direct experience of what happens. You might say to yourself, “I’m just going to be interested in this,” and then watch what happens. Just be in the moment and let the experience form.
2. The next step is to practice being mindful moment-to-moment of the distinction between experience and interpretation. Begin to notice, “Is there a difference between my direct experience of what’s going on and how I’ve interpreted it?” The more you’re able to distinguish experience from interpretation, the more you’ll be able to stay in the moment, the calmer you’ll be, and the more choices you’ll have for responding skillfully to whatever circumstances arise.
3. When you find that you’ve jumped to interpretation, just notice the difference. Then, if it seems natural, shift your attention back to the experience and away from the interpretation. If you can’t, just stay with making the distinction.