December 2014

MINDFULNESS MATTERS


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How would you define “mindfulness”? For many of us, our response to that question would probably be something like “paying attention to the present moment.” That concept is at the core of mindfulness, but there is definitely more to it. Let’s explore the meaning of “mindfulness” this month and look at how we might cultivate it.

What is “mindfulness”?

In his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” So in addition to the present moment, Kabat-Zinn includes references to purpose and to being nonjudgmental in his definition of mindfulness. Similarly, in her book True Refuge, Tara Brach states, “Mindfulness is the intentional process of paying attention, without judgment, to the unfolding of moment-by-moment experience.” Both authors refer to intention, the current moment and withholding judgment when describing mindfulness.

Regarding intention, the inclusion of this concept means that mindfulness doesn’t just happen. Practicing mindfulness is something that we actively choose to do. It may become easier and perhaps habitual over time, but it remains something we do purposefully.

With regard to the current moment, paying attention to what is happening now is at the center of mindfulness. Our lives are occurring here and now, and we can miss out on experiencing meaningful moments when we’re stuck in the past or racing to the future. We can be stuck in the past because of regrets about what we’ve done or anger about what others have done or sadness about our misfortunes; we can even spend too much time in the past by dwelling excessively on happy memories. We can race ahead to the future by worrying about upcoming situations and spending excessive amounts of time planning upcoming events; we can even live in the future too much by fantasizing too often about wonderful things that might happen in the coming months and years.

Certainly there are situations that are so difficult that focusing on positive memories or on hope for a better future can be the best option available. And it’s sensible to spend some time learning from the past and it can be delightful to enjoy pleasant memories on occasion; plus it can be prudent to do some planning and it can be fun to anticipate special events. But if we want to genuinely experience our lives as they are happening, we need to be truly present in them most of the time.

Withholding judgment may be the most surprising part of mindfulness. This doesn’t mean that we never make an assessment or never decide if we like or dislike something. It means instead that we try to see clearly what is happening now, without rushing too quickly to decide if something is positive or negative. In some cases, making up our minds too soon can prevent us from seeing what is really in front of us.

Balancing mindfulness with compassion

So mindfulness can be viewed as seeing clearly what is happening now. However, it’s not enough to be mindful. We need to balance mindfulness by using our heart. Compassion coming from our heart balances out the mindfulness we are experiencing in our head. In her earlier book, Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach discusses the “wing of mindfulness” and the “wing of compassion.” She writes, “Both wings together help us remain in the experience of the moment, just as it is. When we do this, something begins to happen—we feel freer, options open before us, we see with more clarity how we want to proceed.” Together, compassion and mindfulness can help us to face all kinds of challenges.

Paying attention to the whole experience

Although mindfulness can be described as “seeing clearly,” being mindful of course involves more than what we see with our eyes. In a mindful manner, we can listen to what a friend has to say, smell a heavenly fragrance, taste a favorite food or touch a smooth fabric—to name a few possibilities. Our environment can really come alive for us when we direct our senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch to things we usually take for granted. Sometimes all we have to do is slow our hectic pace just a little so we can really experience what’s right in front of us.

When mindfulness is discussed, it occasionally sounds as though we can only do one thing at a time mindfully. For example, it might seem that if you’re mindfully drinking a cup of tea, you should focus on the tea and nothing else. But what if you’re sitting in a lovely setting with a friend, sipping a cup of afternoon tea and engaging in warm conversation? It is quite possible to pay attention to the whole experience and take it all in: the setting, the tea and the conversation.

In addition to mindfully experiencing our environment, we can also mindfully notice what’s happening within us. For instance, we might notice tension in our shoulders at times. At other times, we might be aware that we’re feeling especially energetic. Bringing awareness to such sensations is part of being mindful about what’s happening in our lives.

Mindfulness exercises

Exercises in mindfulness are recommended by various authors who write about this topic. Some examples of such exercises are following your breath while listening to music, making tea mindfully and washing the dishes mindfully. These three exercises are from Thich Nhat Hanh’s classic book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. About washing the dishes, he writes, “Wash the dishes relaxingly, as though each bowl is an object of contemplation. Consider each bowl as sacred. Follow your breath to prevent your mind from straying. Do not try to hurry to get the job over with.” All kinds of ordinary tasks and activities can be used as the basis of mindfulness exercises: putting away groceries after a shopping trip, washing a load of laundry, dusting bookshelves and so on. The key is to allow yourself enough time for the exercise so you don’t have to feel rushed. That way you can really notice what you are doing and not be in a hurry.

Mindfulness meditation

In addition to describing exercises in mindfulness, authors such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh discuss mindfulness meditation itself. One of the most basic types of mindfulness meditation is to follow your breath. While sitting quietly, you simply breathe normally and pay attention to your breath, to each in-breath and out-breath. When your mind wanders from your breath, which it will, you just bring your attention back to your breath. Sometimes it can be helpful to silently count your breaths, going from 1 to 10 and then starting over at 1; such counting can make it easier to focus on the breath. There are many other types of mindfulness meditation to try, such as walking meditation and loving-kindness meditation. Wherever You Go, There You Are is a very good source for instructions on different types of mindfulness meditation, as is The Miracle of Mindfulness. Even a few minutes of mindfulness meditation per day can help us to experience more mindfulness in life in general.

Research

Recent studies have demonstrated that mindfulness practices yield numerous benefits. According to Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, author of Brainstorm, “studies of mindfulness meditation show how it supports healthier functioning in the body, in the mind, and in relationships.” As an example, he talks about how “research has shown that the more present we are in life, the higher the level of the enzyme telomerase in our bodies, which maintains and repairs the life-preserving ends of our chromosomes….” He goes on to say, “Building up more telomerase can help us be healthier and live longer.”

Siegel indicates that, if we are truly present more often, “our ability to be aware of our emotions and make them work for us instead of against us will be improved.” He adds, “other studies of mindfulness meditation show that we will be able to approach, rather than withdraw from, challenging situations and actually feel more meaning and fulfillment in life.”

“In the moment” vs. “for the moment”

When talking about mindfulness, it can be worthwhile to draw a distinction between living “in the moment” and living “for the moment.” There does seem to be a fair amount of confusion regarding those two phrases. If we’re being mindful much of the time, then we are usually “in the moment.” When we’re living in the moment most of the time, we are still able to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions and we can plan for the future. In contrast, living “for the moment” generally means that we’re not concerned about the consequences of our actions and we’re not planning for the future; in fact we’re acting as if tomorrow does not matter at all. Mindfulness isn’t about ignoring the future. We can plan for next month and next year and still spend much of our time truly experiencing the present.

Resources

All five of the books that have been mentioned so far—Brainstorm, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Radical Acceptance, True Refuge, and Wherever You Go, There You Are—are excellent resources for those who are interested in delving into mindfulness and meditation. Other terrific resources include A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield and Your True Home by Thich Nhat Hanh. Also, there are a number of online resources pertaining to mindfulness. One in particular worth checking out is the website of the Greater Good Science Center, which can be found at greatergood.berkeley.edu. In addition to information on mindfulness, this site presents material on related topics such as gratitude and altruism.


With mindfulness, we can really experience our lives instead of just racing through them. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake.” He also notes, “I like to think of mindfulness simply as the art of conscious living.” It’s reassuring that scientific research is documenting the benefits of mindfulness. But perhaps more fundamentally, mindfulness matters in and of itself. In a very real sense, bringing consciousness to living is its own reward.

-- By Mary Jablonski

See features from the December 2014 issue

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