We are faced with an overwhelming, constant input of media, be it from our phones, iPads, laptop, or desktop computers – not to mention the burgeoning possibilities presented to us by cable and network TV, and movie theaters.
Our bosses, colleagues, clients, family, and friends often expect us to be accessible and responsive at all hours.
In addition, the world these days can seem bewildering on many levels: politically, economically, environmentally, medically, financially. The list goes on and on.
Certainly there are good and beautiful aspects of life to behold, but we are evolutionally wired to focus on potential danger. We are not wired to take in and process a massive amount of information without some down (or neutral) time to integrate it.
So, it makes sense that in an attempt to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction, more and more of us turn to practicing mindfulness (paying attention to the present moment without judgment), which comes with a host of potential benefits.
At the same time, in many cases mindfulness has lost some crucial components. When Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk and the “happiest man alive” was asked about mindfulness by author Roman Krznaric, Ricard replied, “You could have a very mindful sniper and a mindful psychopath. It’s true! A sniper needs to be so focused, never distracted, very calm, always bringing back his attention to the present moment. And non-judgmental – just kill people and no judgment. That could happen!”
A graphic example, but yikes… Ricard’s words echo Krznaric’s belief that “the secular mindfulness movement typically offers mindfulness without morals.” Part of this may be due to (unnecessary) concern that the Buddhist principles on which mindfulness are based require one to ascribe to Buddhism (or another religion). Or perhaps people are wanting a quick fix to their emotional, physical, or mental distress. Whatever the case, while programs such as Insight L.A. integrate spiritual and ethical principles into mindfulness courses, this is not always the case.
So, how can we use mindfulness as an adjunct (rather than the sole method) to nurture our well-being and emotional maturity?
Do one thing at a time. Multi-tasking does not allow you to pay 100% attention to any one thing. Which often leads to not fully taking in an experience. Think about it – if you “have to” (read, choose to) eat a meal in a hurry or if you’re working on another project, do you feel satiated when your plate is clean? Often the answer is no, because you missed out on the taste, smell, and texture of the food. In addition, you may not notice if a particular food doesn’t agree with you, or when you’ve had enough (or not enough).
How does this translate into personal growth, in a way that benefits others around us?
The better we take care of ourselves, the more able we are to take care of others. We can serve as a model of balance, self-discipline, patience, and empathy. When we are able to sit with the hurricane in our head, neither fighting it nor becoming enveloped by it, the dust will eventually settle. Think of a snow globe, the type that is popular during the winter holidays. When you shake the globe, the snow slowly floats to the bottom. You can’t hurry the process.
So, as you learn to stay with your experience, however unpleasant or unwanted it may be, you develop greater compassion for yourself. This then translates into your relationships with other people – not only your family, friends, and coworkers, but also people with whom you may exchange only a few words (if that). Think about it – have you ever been having a challenging day, and a smile or bit of encouragement from someone you pass on the street brightens your spirits? We can do that for each other.
Practicing mindfulness is like sculpting. With increased awareness and non-reactivity to your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations, you become more able to simply not fan the flames of those aspects you observe that are not beneficial. Gradually, you become more and more the “real” you. It can feel a little like a foot that’s gone to sleep does, when it begins waking up. A little prickly, but eventually more functional.
As you make it your intention to stay with the present moment with kindness, you strengthen your ability to recover balance and develop resilience, which is something life will demand of you again and again.
Mindfulness can greatly enhance the psychotherapy process. Sometimes clients wonder why they keep going around and around in circles, rather than effecting meaningful change. Surely there are many possible reasons, but one commonly seen is either forgetting what went on in the session or not following through with homework suggested by the therapist. This is like taking a piano lesson, not practicing between lessons, and wondering why you make little to no progress.
Mindfulness can help you see more clearly what emotions come up and enable you to act purposefully, rather than automatically. Therapy can teach you communication, thought-analyzing, or self-nurturing skills, but the trick is to implement these, even when you don’t feel like it.
And perhaps most importantly, mindfulness can empower you to live in concert with your most valued intentions – and be present for your life and those around you. As well-known mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Strive to live a life you want to be present for.
Consider the reasons you want to practice mindfulness. Certainly the management of physical pain, regaining your health after a trauma or illness, impulse control, anger management, and anxiety reduction are laudable goals.
You can go beyond these to connect more with others. You might consider joining a community of like-minded people who want to make this world a better place through cultivating kindness, humility, and courage, for instance.
Embrace what the practice of mindfulness was initially meant to be – an act of service for the world as well as yourself.