Mindfulness is a matter of being fully present in the moment. As we plan goals for the upcoming year, I invite you to join me in considering the benefits of mindfulness and whether being more intentionally mindful is a resolution that you may find has value.
May I have your attention please
Consider our attention as being like a scarce resource, one that we completely consume every second. Imagine that we spend our attention like we spend a pay check, budgeting different amounts to where it satisfies our needs or wants. It just so happens that some of us are better at keeping budgets than others.
Some of our attention we spend on thoughts, worries, and reminiscing about the past. Other parts of our attention we spend on the future that is yet to happen or may not happen, playing out scenarios in plans and daydreams. Still other parts of our attention we scatter across distractions in the spirit of “multi-tasking”, checking smart phones, working through situations not related to the current situation, presuming what other people are thinking, or simply being “somewhere else”.
Whatever attention is left over we spend on whatever is happening in the current moment. Like living pay check to pay check, we can go through life never quite having enough attention to give. This can lead to a feeling of mindlessly moving from moment to moment, overwhelmed and absent-minded, paying out nickels and dimes to situations that really need our full investment.
This condition of mindlessness can be a challenge to address. We can tell ourselves that we need to pay more attention, but without removing the other expenditures it is like saying we need to spend more money on food when we are already overdrawn and over-budget. We cannot spend what we do not have. What we need is a way to free up more of our attention. This is where the concept of mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness defined: Understanding our investment
Mindfulness is not a new concept. References to mindfulness can be found in many religions and philosophies going back over 2,500 years. Mindfulness has made its way into contemporary culture in the 1960s in large part through Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize nominee. One of the participants in Thich Nhat Hanh’s courses was American doctor Jon Kabat-Zinn, who then went on to package the concept of mindfulness into an eight-week course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which helped further spread the approach.
Kabat-Zinn gives this as a definition of mindfulness:
“Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, in the present, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
We get an idea of mindfulness if we unpack the definition…
1. Paying attention, on purpose
I suffer from a condition known as the $20 Snickers bar. This is where you buy something small with a large bill and then lose track of where the change goes. You break a $20 on a $3.00 candy bar, leaving you with smaller notes and change that looks like you have more than you really have. It is then easy to pay out little amounts here and there until you have an empty wallet.
It seems to be the same way with our attention. We can start out fresh with a full account, but as we pay out small amounts to worries and distractions, we can end up with nothing remaining.
The practice of mindfulness makes us intentional and purposeful about where we are to focus our attention.
2. In the present
Mindfulness is making purposeful investment in whatever is happening right now, as right now is the only thing that is real and that we can control. Being in the present means you are not dwelling on the past and you are not lost in the future. You are also not mentally somewhere else or occupied with circular self-talk.
Mindfulness removes the distractions of thoughts not directly related to the present moment, freeing up our attention.
We have a tendency to judge. We judge ourselves by our intention and others by their actions. We judge our own thoughts as they come into our head, and we guess at the thoughts of others in our internal narratives that run parallel to whatever physical conversation we are having.
When we judge, we focus on ourselves which can lead to increased self-consciousness, anxiety and stress. Judgement turns comments into criticism and allows compliments to stop us from seeing ourselves accurately.
To be mindful is to set aside judgement and take the present moment as it comes. We take things as they are, no more and no less, as accurately and realistically as possible.
4. Unfolding the experience moment by moment
Time changes as we get older. A year for a child is a long time, in part because everything in life is so new. There is something special about watching a child experience something for the first time, as we live vicariously through their wonder and amazement. As we age we tend to take much for granted. Our experience can then blur into routine, mundane and day-to-day.
Thich Nhat Hanh says the following about mindfulness:
“Mindfulness is to be aware. To be aware when you are breathing in and to be aware when you are breathing out… it is the capacity to be aware of what is here. Anything can be the object of mindfulness. Your breath. The sky. It is to be in touch with our felt experience in each moment.”
To be mindful is to once again become aware of what has been forgotten, taken for granted, and assumed, and appreciated simply for what it is.
The case for mindfulness
With an idea of what mindfulness is, why should we care? Mindfulness has moved from a spiritual and philosophical topic and been embraced by the psychological and therapeutical communities. The book Mindfulness for Life provides research and examples of mindfulness as a means to assist with a range of opportunities, including:
- Attention deficit disorders
- Weight management and eating disorders
- Heart disease and stroke
- Education and academic performance
- Workplace performance and leadership
- Sporting performance
Other recent research has shown being intentional about mindfulness has resulted in:
- students getting higher grades and lower stress as a result of just one minute of meditation before class;
- nurses who exhibited mindfulness reported less exhaustion and improved vigour after short two-day breaks;
- better ethical decision-making processes based on improved ability to regulate emotions, avoid pre-judgement, quiet our mental dissonance, and build up our cognitive flexibility;
- problem gamblers using mindfulness practices and the resulting self-awareness it brings to find relief from psychological distress, overconfidence and risk willingness; and
- help for those with self-esteem issues and social anxiety by taking the focus off of self, as compared to other self-evaluating methods which may magnify an inappropriate self-image and negative self-beliefs.
We all have choices as to where we spend our time. Based on the evidence, mindfulness looks like a pretty good investment.
Assess your mindfulness
So what does mindfulness look like? When you refer to mindfulness, you can use it as a practice (such as doing meditation or other mindful acts), as a state of being (describing someone as mindful), and as a trait we exhibit (as in we do things in a mindful way).
Attitudes often associated with mindfulness include:
- Patience: the understanding that many things in life unfold in their own time
- Having a beginner’s mind: a reluctance to operate in ‘‘automatic pilot mode,’’ despite previous knowledge or expertise with related experiences.
- Nurturing trust: in one’s own and in others’ wisdom and expertise
- Being non-judgmental of self and others: judgmental thoughts may be a distraction from the present experience.
- Non-striving: representing a shift of focus from attaining goals and meeting expectations to what is happening in the present so that the experience of the present is not undermined by the goals of the future.
- Acceptance: a willingness to see one’s situation as it truly is rather than focusing on how one wishes it to be.
- Letting go: allowing thoughts, feelings and experiences to come and go, without allowing them to distract one’s attention.
These attitudes can be seen in traits that include:
- Observe: Staying present with perceptions, sensations, thoughts, or feelings, even when they are unpleasant or painful; not distracting ourselves.
- Describe: Being able to describe or label in words our beliefs, opinions, emotions, expectations.
- Act with Awareness: Staying present with our actions, without distraction.
- Non-judgement: Being non-judgmental of our own experience.
- Non-reactivity: Being able to perceive our emotions without reacting to them, without becoming dysregulated.
So how mindful are you? You can self-assess your own state of mindfulness by testing yourself on these traits using this link to the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire.
Applying mindfulness: Making the investment and tuning the guitar
Photo credit: http://flic.kr/p/7q61XW
So how does one then become mindful? It’s not that complicated, so long as we approach it with the traits above: approach it with patience and a beginner’s mind, trusting in our inherent ability, accepting our current situation and not striving for an end goal apart from mindfulness itself.
Those who are skilled in the practice all recommend a similar path of regular meditation.
The students who improved their grades in the research mentioned earlier had the following instructions:
- Settle into a comfortable, balanced sitting position
- Keep your spine erect
- Gently close your eyes
- As the breath passes in and out of the body, bring your awareness to the changing sensations at your abdomen. Maintain this awareness throughout each breath from one breath to the next
- Allow the breath simply to breath, without trying to change or control it. Just noticing the sensations that go with every moment
- As soon as you notice your mind wandering, bring your awareness gently back to the movement of the abdomen
- Be patient with yourself
- Open your eyes and notice your awareness and focus during class
The Mindfulness for Life book also gives the following advice:
- Attention can be rested with the breath as it passes in and out of the body. The point of focus can be where the air enters and leaves thee nose, or where the stomach rises and falls with each breath.
- There is no need to regulate your breathing, let the body do that for you.
- Trying to force thoughts and feelings out of our mind just feeds them with what they feed on – attention – which makes them stronger, and increases their impact. Practice being less preoccupied about them or reactive to them. They will settle themselves all the more quickly if we learn not to get involved with them.
There are other approaches to meditation, such as performing a body scan focusing on each area of your body, meditating on a topic, meditating on an object or spiritual figure or their teachings, or meditating on a future state you desire. One technique for practice is what they refer to as the raisin meditation, where you eat a raisin as if for the first time, focusing and observing without judgement all your senses on the experience. I hear chocolate works just as well.
There are tomes written on meditation and the related topic of prayer, but the general consensus is that it does not take much to get results. The context of the meditation varies based on the religion or purpose, but the general principle is disciplining your mind to focus on one thing. Your mind can be considered like a muscle. Like running in the gym, I can train my body how to react when I am not in the gym. Similarly, meditating trains the mind how to gain the benefits of being mindful when out in the real world.
Similar to physical training, meditation takes time to get right. In his practical How to practice: The way to a meaningful life, the Dalai Lama proposes it can take around six months to achieve concentrated meditation. Just like other physical exercise, he recommends short and frequent sessions, around five minutes at a time, at intervals of four to sixteen times per day.
A key is to be patient, as there can be a tendency to judge yourself and feel like you are doing it wrong. Over time, you learn to address the two conditions the Dalai Lama refers to as excitement and laxity. Excitement is where your thoughts go everywhere and you are unable to maintain stability. Laxity is where you are unable to focus or where your focus is not sharp. The example he gives is of tuning your mind like a guitar, not too tight and not too loose.
Wax on, wax off
I am reminded of the original Karate Kid, where the young untrained hero was commissioned to “wax on, wax off”. He grew frustrated of doing the same motions over and over to what he felt was a pointless exercise. He did not know he was learning unconscious skills and building muscles and reactions to help him in the fight. I look at mindfulness in the same way.
I do not profess to be an expert and at times feel very much like Ralph Macchio just going through the motions. I am encouraged, however, by the benefits shown by research and the simplicity of what is required. Again, it is a matter of developing patience and approaching the practice as a beginner. Compared to other skills you can learn in six months, mindfulness appears to have substantial benefits across a range of areas in life.
Thank you very much for your attention. You only have a finite amount and I appreciate that you have given some of it to reading this post. If you have more attention to spare, I welcome your thoughts on all things mindfulness and meditation below. If you feel others could benefit from being a bit more mindful, please consider sharing through the social channel of your choice using the buttons below.