What is Mindfulness

What is Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

 “Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn’t more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it.” ~Sylvia Boorstein

 

Mindfulness has become a buzzword that is used in many contexts with many different meanings. There is no single definition that is agreed upon by the research and practitioner communities.  In fact, there are many different definitions. Arguably the most commonly used definition and the one that I prefer, is the definition proposed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

 

This definition contains a number of important components that help to better understand exactly what mindfulness is. Firstly, mindfulness is “paying attention.” But, not just letting the mind settle somewhere passively, but “on purpose.” That makes it an active process; a willful choice. With mindfulness, the mind is not aimlessly wandering. Rather it is focused.

 

The problem comes up, though, that our minds are unruly. In fact, the mind is often referred to as a “monkey mind,” implying that it jumps around in an untamed and unruly fashion. This is without a doubt true. Matt Killingsworth sampled people’s thinking at unpredictable times during the day and discovered that 47% of the time people’s minds were off-topic, that is, they were thinking about something else other than what was going on at the moment. They were not mindful almost half the time.

 

It is often a shock for people to discover that a large amount of the time they are not controlling their minds. Rather, the mind appears to be some extent controlling what they are experiencing. Most people suffer from the illusion that they are in control. So, it is eye opening to discover that frequently they are not. To get control of the mind and keep it paying attention to what is going on in the moment requires a degree of effort. But, even then the mind tends to wander off, thinking about past events, planning for the future, or simply day dreaming. Fortunately, mind wandering can be reduced with practice. But, even highly trained mindfulness practitioners have frequent lapses where the mind goes off by itself into topics far removed from the present. So, no one should expect to be able to completely control the mind, just hope to control it better.

 

A second important aspect of the definition is that, in mindfulness, attention is directed to what is occurring in the “present moment.” That seems straightforward until one tries to define exactly what portion in time is the present moment. Our first inclination is to think of the present moment as instantaneous, exactly this particular moment only. But with a little reflection it becomes obvious that what we experience as the present moment actually extends back in time a short ways and also forward slightly into the future. If it didn’t extend back in time we could never see motion, as we wouldn’t be aware of a change from a previously seen position. For that matter, we wouldn’t be able to hear a full word, only the immediate sound. Obviously this is not the case, because the present moment actually contains a little bit of the past. Demonstrating that the present actually extends a little into the future is more difficult and subtle to detect. But, if we interrupt speech in the middle of a sentence, you will find that you seemingly “hear” the next syllable or word that the mind is expecting to appear or if we interrupt a movie you seemingly “see” the next frame.

 

The total amount of time constituted by the present moment is difficult to precisely define. Marc Wittmann asserts that before we can answer that question of how long is now we must first define exactly what we mean by the present moment. He identifies three different ideas of the present moment; functional moment, experienced moment, and mental presence. The most pertinent for our discussion of mindfulness is the experienced moment, the subjective present. It is an experienced now within an ongoing stream of events. For example, while listening to music a note does not stand alone in consciousness but is joined by the prior note and the expected future note. In speech, each word is perceived in reference to past and expected words, as in the phrase “how are you”. When we hear “are” we process it recognizing that it’s in reference to a question, “How” and due to our learning we also experience the “are” with the expectation of a following word “you”. It’s been estimated that the experienced moment lasts somewhere up to 3 seconds. So, when we refer to present moment awareness we are referring not to an instant but to the approximately 3 seconds that we experience as the present.

 

A third important aspect of the definition is that, in mindfulness there is no judgment of experience. This indicates that when we are mindful we are simply experiencing things as they are without evaluation. It is important to note that it is value judgments that are absent. Making judgments about the likely course of events and what actions are needed is actually a part of mindfulness. If we’re driving mindfully we are constantly judging whether we need to slow down or turn to avoid hitting another car, whether we can safely make it through a traffic light that is about to change, whether a car may pull out in front of us. If we are driving mindfully we’re making these judgments but totally aware the whole time of what is happening.

 

The non-judgmental aspect of mindfulness involves value judgments about what we’re experiencing. Things are not good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, liked or disliked, happy or sad, worthwhile or worthless, etc. They simply are. Although seemingly simple, this is actually devilishly difficult to do. The mind has been trained pretty much since birth to judge everything. This is actually quite good and adaptive, allowing us to decide if we should approach and acquire things we need or to avoid things that could do us harm. But, the judgment goes on even when it has little consequence toward survival. So, we see another person and classify them as attractive, or smart, or boring, or obnoxious, or rich, or a fool, or friendly, or a rival, etc. We hear a loud sound and we immediately think it’s threatening, or unnecessary noise, or enjoyable, or someone being inconsiderate, etc. We taste a food and immediately think that it’s delicious, or sour, or nauseating, or healthful, etc. We are constantly judging.

 

Being non-judgmental requires quieting the mind. If left to itself, the mind will always judge. So, to be mindful we need to shut off the evaluating chatter. Just experiencing everything as it is, as a pure and simple experience. It’s actually quite amazing what happens when judgment is turned off. Suddenly, we begin to appreciate even the simplest of things which begin to shine and stand out in their own unique way. Another person is simply seen as another human being with needs and desires, and a consciousness, just like us, a reflection of our own humanness. An odor can be experienced as a unique sensation that will never be repeated exactly the same again. Just breathing can be experienced fully as a series of movements and sensations that arise and fall away and the repeat over and over again, automatically, without direction or thought, each time revitalizing and nourishing our physical being, leading to a recognition of physiology at work. These are just some of the fruits of mindfulness.

 

It is very difficult to stop the judging even for brief periods of time. But, again practice comes to the rescue. Over time, if the effort is expended, judging slowly decreases and stops for longer and longer periods of time. Don’t expect to ever be able to stop judging completely. This would be a battle with you mind that can’t be won. Just expect that you can become better at looking at things as they are without value judgments and be able to maintain it for a longer period of time.

 

The final aspect of the definition that needs amplification and discussion is the notion that mindfulness involves paying attention in “a particular way.” Unfortunately, this is a rather ambiguous phrase that actually refers to a very important component of mindfulness. The “particular way” refers to attention primarily to immediate sensory experience. It could be focused on a particular component, aspect, or thing, or it could be broadly on all that is immediately present. The key is that it is a total appreciation of what is without any attempt to hold onto it, letting it arise, and fall away without grasping at it or attempting to change it. The experiences can include feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment and even thoughts. But observing the thoughts as just another thing arising, and falling away, with no attempt to hold onto them, elaborate on them, judge them, or associate them with any other thoughts just letting them flow through awareness and fall away like a cloud passing over the horizon. In other words, thinking can be mindful if we are completely aware of what we are doing and not getting carried away and lost in the thoughts.

 

This is a rather idealized conception of mindfulness. In practice, one can be very mindful without coming even close to this description. This discourse should be looked on as describing the model, the ideal, with it understood that reality will in fact be a diluted or compromised version of this ideal. One can be very mindful and still judge the experience, as long as there’s a recognition that that is what is happening. One can be very mindful and still bring in memories from the past or plans for the future, as long as there’s an awareness that these are not an essential part of the experience but the minds embellishments. One can be very mindful and still

Try to maintain a feeling or keep an enjoyable experience going, as long as one recognizes that what you are doing is simply another part of present moment experience. It is even possible, albeit difficult, to daydream mindfully as long as you are completely aware that this is what you’re engaging in completely under willful control. In other words, mindfulness need not be perfect, it only experiencing things as they are, in the present moment, without judgment.

 

One problem with the definition is that it specifies the processes involved in mindfulness but neglects to specify exactly what entity is being mindful. It doesn’t specify who or what is attending, who or what is producing the purpose, who or what is not judging, who or what is having the immediate experience. When these questions arise, it’s a sign that the issue has moved from mindfulness to the spiritual side of mindfulness, who or what is aware. This is not the place for a discussion of these aspects of mindfulness. But, it is important to recognize that this definition and description of mindfulness only scratches the surface. There are deeper levels to mindfulness to be explored.

 

“Mindfulness is the process of actively noticing new things. When you do that, it puts you in the present. It makes you more sensitive to context and perspective. It’s the essence of engagement.” – Ellen Langer

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

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Happy New Year with Mindfulness

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By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul.”  ~G.K. Chesterton

 

At the stroke of midnight on December 31st all over the world revelers ring in the new calendar year with a hearty celebration. It’s a celebration of a relatively arbitrary day that has been designated as the first day of a new calendar year. The celebration of the solstice, 10 days before, at least has astrological meaning as the shortest day of the year. But, January 1 has no such physical meaning. January 1 was designated as the start of the year by Julius Caesar in 45 BC. That date was chosen to honor the Roman God Janus, the god of beginnings, whose two faces allowed him to look back into the past and forward into the future. That symbolism has stuck as the new year’s celebration involves a reflection about the year past and hope for the year to come.

 

Don’t Look Back

 

To some extent this looking back into the past and forward into the future is the antithesis of mindfulness which emphasizes the present moment. Our recollection of the past is, in fact, an illusion. When we look at the past we view it with the distorted lens of memory and the delusions that we have about the self. The memories of what happened during the last year bare only a fleeting resemblance to what actually happened. Recollections tend to be dominated by hazy and distorted memories of emotionally charged events and neglects everyday times of calm and contentment. When we look back we primarily remember the highs and the lows and believe that if we could simply keep repeating the highs and eliminate the lows then we’d be truly happy. This is the trap sometimes known as the hedonic treadmill. We keep seeking the highs and are unhappy when we can’t reproduce them or if we are successful are unhappy to find that we can’t maintain them. Unfortunately, our New Year’s celebration and our resolutions reinforce and amplify these ideas propelling us to even greater unhappiness in the new year.

 

Our view of the past is additionally distorted by the beliefs that we have about ourselves. These self-concepts are mainly incorrect and terribly distorted. Western culture, by its adoration of extraordinary and unrealistic models of perfection, produces and reinforces rampant self-dislike. We can never really attain the societal norm of perfection and this makes us feel horribly deficient. As a result, most westerners don’t like what they are and want to be different. As a consequence, people look back on the events of the year and interpret them through the lens of self-dislike.

 

We remember primarily those events that conform to our beliefs about what we should be, but cannot achieve. This creates a vicious cycle where the low self-esteem and self-worth causes us to remember events that exemplify this self-concept, creating even greater self-dislike. Those rare events that reveal us to be adequate are quickly forgotten. The events of the past year, then, are perceived as evidence to support our harsh view of ourselves. Rather than accurately remembering what actually happened during the year, our recollections are dominated by this distorted reality. So, don’t look back at the past year, rather look carefully and mindfully at yourself. You need to develop self-acceptance, before you can ever hope to have an honest idea of what the past contained.

 

Don’t Look to the Future

 

These distortions also color our thoughts about the upcoming year. We resolve to change ourselves to better conform to our unrealistic beliefs about what we should be. The New year’s resolutions that are such a common part of our new year’s celebration are a direct outgrowth of our self-dislike. The problem with these new year’s resolutions is that they are a declaration that we’re not happy with ourselves or the way things are. We want to be different. That’s not bad unto itself. Striving to better oneself is a good thing. The problem is that what we desire for ourselves is usually totally unrealistic as it’s based on a distorted reality. But, we strongly believe that this is what we need to be happy. It’s all a delusion that’s doomed to failure. In fact, research has suggested that only 8% of these resolutions are ever achieved.

 

Better New Year’s Resolutions

 

We need to craft a new set of resolutions, based upon self-acceptance, and a realistic view about what needs to be and can be achieved. The resolutions should be to better see things, including ourselves as they really are. To look at the world and ourselves mindfully without judgment, just as we are. These are the kinds of resolutions that can really work towards, not making us happy, but letting us be happy in the coming year; to simply experience the happiness that has been within us all along.

 

There are some rules of thumb about these resolutions. Don’t be too grandiose. Don’t set goals of perfection. Small steps with a recognition that you won’t always be successful are recommended. Make a resolution to practice mindfulness. Pick a practice that you not only can do, but that you can comfortably sustain. The only one perfect right practice is the one that you’ll do and keep doing. It may be meditation, yoga, body scan, tai chi or qigong, contemplative prayer, or another of the many available practices or some combination of practices. The only thing that matters is that you’re drawn to it, comfortable doing it, and you’ll stick with it. Once you start, don’t try too hard. Remember the Buddha recommended the middle way, with right effort, not too much and not too little. Practice nonjudgmentally. Don’t judge whether you’re doing it right or wrong, whether the particular practice was good or bad, or whether you’re making progress or not. Just practice. Just relax and let the practice do you. You don’t need to do it.

 

Focus on Now

 

All of these various practices promote nonjudgmental attention to what is occurring in the present moment, the now. Slowly you come to realize that the now is the only time available where you can be satisfied and happy. The past are only nows that are gone and the future are only nows that have yet to happen. So, focus on the present moment. It’s where life happens. If you can learn to be happy right now, then you’ll be able to happy in the future when it becomes now. As you look calmly, nonjudgmentally, and deeply at what is happening right now you begin to see the beauty and wonder that is there all of the time. You just need to stop ruminating about the past and worrying about the future. Learn to enjoy the moment.

 

Focusing on the present moment the impermanence of all things becomes evident. In the present we can observe things rising up and then falling away. Change is constant. If things are bad at the moment, you can be sure that it’ll change. So, be patient. On the other hand, if things are good, know also that this will change too. Don’t try to hang onto what is present. Learn to enjoy the moment as it is. These observations reveal that every moment is new. It has never happened before and it will never happen again. Every moment is a new opportunity. Don’t worry about it passing. The next moment will again provide a new opportunity. Make the most of it. If you can learn to do this, you’ll enjoy life to its fullest, as the dynamically changing perpetual now.

 

Renewal

 

In the new year, we need to not think about a “happy new year.” Rather think about a “happy new day.” In fact, it’s best to think about each “happy new moment.” Focus on the present moment and wish yourself and everyone else a “happy new moment.” Every moment is a unique opportunity to experience life as it is, appreciate its wonder, and enjoy it while it’s here, in the present moment. Each moment is an opportunity for renewal. If we’re not happy in the moment, we can be in the next. We have a new opportunity every new moment. If we pay attention to them, we can use the opportunity to create happiness.

 

So, have a “happy new moment” with mindfulness.

 

“Empty your glass and feel your way through this New Year. If it feeds your soul, do it. If it makes you want to get out of bed in the morning with a smile, carry on. Be present and let your energy synchronise with the earth and give you the clarity to move forward and be comfortable and contented with who you are. Let your intuition guide you through a wonderful year and attract an abundance of positive opportunity.” – Alfred James

 

“Many of us are thinking about new year’s resolutions and taking stock at this time, but how many of those typical resolutions are just ‘self’ improvement projects (which means we’re trying to get more, be more or have more) rather than ways to actually embrace the life we already have right here and now?” – Mrs. Mindfulness

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

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Happiness is Just a Spin Away

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

 “We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.” – Frederick Keonig

 

We were recently driving through Louisiana and passed a billboard advertising a casino with the headline “Happiness is just a spin away.” For the gambler, this is the lure. Each win is a rush of happiness. Unfortunately, it’s short-lived. The next burst of happiness is now right in front of the gambler if they just continue spinning. From a psychological standpoint this is a perfect example of the power of intermittent reinforcement. When a reward is contingent upon an action, in this case pulling the lever on a slot machine, but the dispensing of the reward is not predictable, with the number of pulls needed to produce the reward not predictable, it produces a very potent form of conditioning. It is why gambling is so addictive. The brief rush of a win strongly conditions the lever pulling to get the next rush.

 

I was struck by how well the sign, “Happiness is just a spin away,” captured the western ideas of happiness and how to obtain it. It is a perpetual cycle of reward producing brief happiness followed by the loss of happiness followed by more action to produce another brief happiness. This is what psychologists term the hedonic treadmill. On the face of it, it sounds silly. We would never do that. But, if we look honestly and carefully at our lives we will see that most of it is spent on the hedonic treadmill. We work to purchase a new car and get a rush of happiness, but after a while it fades. So, we pursue a new love interest, and get a rush of happiness, but after a while it fades. So we work to purchase a new home and get a rush of happiness, but after a while it fades. So, we look for a new job and get a rush of happiness, but after a while it fades. And on and on it goes, on the treadmill, pursuing the ephemeral happiness that we can never seem to be able to keep a hold of. So, we spin the wheel again.

 

Humans consider themselves smart people. But, it never seems to occur to most people that there may be something wrong with their idea of how to obtain happiness. After spending the majority of our lives failing to obtain the lasting happiness that we seek, you’d think that we’d catch on that what we’re doing isn’t working, hasn’t ever worked, and there’s no reason to believe that it ever will work. But working against that recognition is a society and a culture that is determined to keep us on the hedonic treadmill. The western consumer culture requires that we keep seeking happiness in things. If we didn’t, the economy might collapse. It is virtually impossible to escape the advertising messages that pervade our everyday lives. Each holds out the promise of happiness if we just use this toothpaste, take this drug, drive this car, see this movie, go to this concert, buy this gadget, etc. The barrage of messages is all geared to keeping us on the treadmill. If there is a crack, a glimmer of vision that something might be wrong, the messaging distracts us by bombarding us with the idea that “happiness is just a spin away.”

 

So, what are we to do? Give up the search for happiness? No, that is a waste of time. We are born with a biological program to seek happiness and to deny it is to fight against our biological nature. So, trying to not seek happiness is as futile as to pursue it on the hedonic treadmill. Fortunately, there is an answer. One so simple, that few see it. It’s right in front of us hidden in our delusions of what makes us happy. It is so simple that we can’t believe that that could be the answer. It is so contrary to the cultural messaging that we can’t trust that it could work even if we saw it. It’s simply to accept what is, enjoy what we have, and be in the present moment.

 

If we adopt the belief that happiness is right here, right now, if we only allow ourselves to accept it, then we will begin to look at our existence differently. We don’t need to search somewhere else. We don’t need to wait to another time. All we need to do is look closely, without judgment at our present experience. We have become so used to it that we can no longer see it. But, what is here in the present moment is actually wondrous and miraculous. Each breath is a miracle. The energy and life just bubbling in and through our bodies is amazing. How can we not be happy when we realize the mystery of our existence and what a gift this precious moment is. We’ve experienced so many similar moments, are so accustomed to them, that it’s difficult to break through and see the wonder in each one. But, just concentrate, if only occasionally, on fully experiencing what is transpiring right now. It just might change your life.

 

Just take a look around. Listen to the bird chirp and wonder at the experience of hearing and the sheer beauty of the singing. Look at the tree where the bird is perched and enjoy its uniqueness. There has never been and never will be one just like it. See its beautiful nuanced colors from the myriad shades of brown of the bark to the shimmering green of its leaves in the sunlight. Look at its roots and be amazed by its stability and strength, at their ability to remove nutrients and water from the ground and move them a 100 feet into the air. Look at its leaves wonder at their ability to use the sun’s energy to create complex molecules and energy from the nutrients. Now look at the person standing under the tree and witness their uniqueness. Marvel at their ability to simply stand or walk and what an amazing feat of balance, dexterity, coordination, and strength it is. Look in their eyes and realize the consciousness that is looking through them and seeing you. Observe their happiness, sadness, joy, fear, etc. and recognize how much just like you they are. Relish the fact that you are not alone. This could go on and on. There is so much right in front of you in this present moment to keep you entertained and awed for days on end.

 

The ultimate reward for making the effort to deeply experience the present moment is the happiness which will grow. Not the ephemeral happiness or the momentary highs of the hedonic treadmill, but an enduring, satisfying, mellow happiness that can be re-invoked at will. Happiness is not “a spin away.” It is always present and accessible in the present. So, get off the treadmill and discover the happiness that has always been present inside you. You only need to stop the seeking elsewhere and just be in the present. Happiness is not somewhere else at some other time. It is here all of the time for the picking. You just have to stop waiting for the results of the “spin” and simply enjoy “spinning.”

 

“There is only one cause of unhappiness: the false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them.” – Anthony de Mello

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

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Red Means Relax

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

 “City life is stressful. Everybody is running around like crazy, stuck in traffic jams trying to make meetings, trying to make ends meet, trying to meet deadlines, trying to get kids to and from activities. There aren’t enough hours in the day for all this business.” – Rebecca Pidgeon
Modern life is stressful and busy. We move through the day from task to task. A successful day is defined as one where the day’s to-do list has been virtually completed. This busyness usually occurs mindlessly. That’s not to say that the mind isn’t engaged. In fact, it’s fully engaged in thoughts and plans, and memories and ruminations. But often when engaged in one task the mind is occupied with thoughts of completing it so that we can move on to the next one. In the process we do not fully appreciate what we’re doing at the moment. This strategy is effective in accomplishing an agenda. But, it produces a very big problem, we’re so busy doing we neglect being.

 

Although much is accomplished, we never really enjoy the accomplishing, only the accomplishment. We have ignored the most important thing in life; awareness of the present moment. We can only fully experience life in the present moment. We can only revel in the wonder of our existence in the present moment. We can only be truly happy in the present moment. It’s impossible to negotiate the modern world without being lost in thought frequently. The problem is that we spend the entire day in that state.

 

Thus the modern world occupies us totally. Only occasionally do we have a quiet moment to reflect on what’s really happening. We’re moving from to-do list to to-do list and our lives are passing by without really living. That realization should be a jolt. We’ve somehow lost perspective and gotten so caught up in the minutia that we now see it as important instead of the trivialities that they are. To truly experience and enjoy our lives and be happy we must find ways to interrupt the mindless thinking and intersperse periods of mindfulness, where we are fully engaged in what is happening in the moment. There are so many signals in the environment to distract us and create endless thinking but there are none to signal mindfulness. In order to promote mindfulness, we need to identify signals in the environment that we can use as triggers for mindfulness.

 

While driving it is important for our safety to pay attention. But, there are occasional signals that are useful as signals for mindfulness. One I particularly like is the red traffic light. I used to encounter a red light and respond with frustration and sometimes anger that I was being delayed. My mind would be full of thoughts about what I might have done to avoid the light or about anger with the other drivers who kept me from making the light or searching for indications that the light was about to change and my torment would soon end. But, in fact there is nothing you can do. So the best strategy is to actually do nothing. I repeat to myself the simple phrase “red means relax.” Don’t do, just relax and do nothing.

 

The red light is in fact a wonderful opportunity to relax, take a deep breath, and allow the accumulated stress of driving to dissipate. It is also a wonderful time just to be mindful and appreciate the present moment. Look around and see the beautiful sky and appreciate the intense blueness and the ever changing landscape of clouds. See the other cars and drivers and marvel at the orderliness of movement produced by traffic control. Note how wonderful red lights actually are in keeping us safe and traffic moving. Look at the light itself and marvel at the color of red, how it registers in our eyes and is viewed in our awareness. Feel the sensations from our bodies, feel the energy, appreciate the health, and marvel at the miracle of life. There is so much waiting for us at red lights, it’s such a shame that we’ve been wasting it for so long.

 

A wonderful part of relaxing to red is that we return to driving with an entirely new attitude. I start viewing other drivers as fellow travelers, not annoyances or competitors. I start appreciating the sensations of driving, something that has been long ignored while we cruise along on “auto-pilot.” You’ll be amazed at the effect of this simple small rest, that cost you nothing, yet earned you so much.

 

The next task is to find other stimuli or events that can be used to trigger mindfulness within the stream of daily life. Meals can be helpful, provided you eat quietly, without media or reading, or looking at Facebook posts on our smartphones. I admit that I’m not very good with this one, but my wife is and it’s transformed her appreciation of food, eating, and the understanding of the interconnectedness of it all.

 

Look for times in your own daily activit1es when it really isn’t necessary that you be focused on a task. Turn off your phones, take a deep breath, relax, and be mindful. An evening walk could become a source of joy and happiness, a coffee break at work could refresh you much more deeply than effectively still working in your head, a shopping trip could be a sensory extravaganza, even an interaction with loved ones could be occasions for deeply listening and just being present for them, transforming your relationships. There are many possibilities. Find one and try it out. If you find that it produces greater joy and happiness in your life, keep doing it, and look for another to add. Keep it up, expanding your times of mindfulness and feel your reintegration into your life.

 

So, stop at red lights and remember “red means relax.”

 

“Your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer.” – William S. Burroughs
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts

What’s Missing from the Present Moment

 

The mind is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity… The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope. – Samuel Johnson

 

One of the central tenets of Buddhism is that life is characterized by dukkha, which is usually translated as suffering. But, I prefer the less colorful translation as unsatisfactoriness. We in general constantly find ourselves and our lives to be unsatisfactory. It would appear to be a human characteristic to be constantly striving for something better. This can be a good thing as it’s been a driving force behind the development of agriculture, science, medicine, and engineering which has allowed us to improve our physical well-being. But, it has left us with intense feelings of unsatisfactoriness, dukkha.

 

This constant striving for something better results in seeing whatever is currently happening as flawed and needing improvement. Hence, we critically evaluate the present and find it unsatisfactory, not quite up to what it could be. As a result we impatiently wait for whatever is going on now to end so we can move on to the next thing. Unfortunately, when we get there, that too is seen as flawed and unsatisfactory and we again look forward to the next thing. But, that too is unsatisfactory. So we eagerly anticipate the next thing which of course is also found to be unsatisfactory, etc. etc. etc.

 

So we never enjoy anything for simply what it is. We are constantly looking for something better in the future, which of course it never is. So we move through life never happy, never appreciating all the beauty, wonder, and happiness that is present right now. What a sad treadmill! Constantly striving but never attaining the elusive perfect experience. A bit of thought quickly leads to the conclusion that the problem is that we never simply immerse ourselves in what is present. We’re always looking forward to something better resulting in us never truly enjoying what is.

 

When you’re on this treadmill and looking forward to a better future that never comes, break out of it by thinking “what exactly is missing from this very moment?” Examine what is actually present right here, right now, not in relation to the past or the future, but simply as it is right now. Is there anything that is actually missing? If you look deeply you’ll begin to see that nothing is missing. The present moment is complete and wonderful. Everything is perfect just as it is.

 

This takes some practice as our minds constantly want to find flaws and find ways to improve things. Don’t think about what might make it better. That involves memories of the past and expectations for the future. Simply, focus on what is. Look at what you’re experiencing. Listen deeply to the sounds that are present. The gnawing sound of the motorized lawn tools that is breaking up your peace is actually quite fascinating if you listen carefully. What a miracle it is that you experience it. Somehow you can sense which direction it’s coming from and how far away it is. How do you do that? What a wonder. Look carefully at what it is about it that makes you cringe and want it to go away. Realize that this unique sound will never be present again exactly as it is right now. How amazing is that? Here’s a one of a kind completely unique experience right here in your present moment.

 

Look at the intricacies and beauty available in the simplest things around you. Appreciate the incredible ability of the fly to soar through the air. Slowly you’ll begin to appreciate its completeness and its perfection. Look what is right in front of you. It may not be picturesque, perhaps a parking lot. But revel in the colors and forms that are witnessed. Appreciate the miracle of seeing. We take it so for granted. So, look at it deeply. What a wonder it is. What a delight!

 

Now let the greatest wonder of the present moment come front and center. Look at what is looking. Observe not just what’s being seen, but observe what’s seeing, what’s listening, what’s feeling, what’s knowing. What you’re observing is completely incomprehensible to science. It is one of the greatest mysteries in the universe, human consciousness, and you can view it right now within yourself. It’s only available in the present moment, but it’s truly one of the greatest wonders of all.

 

What could possibly be missing from this incredible moment? If you simply look at it deeply, honestly, without recourse to the past and future, you’ll find that it is absolutely complete and perfect as it is. You need not look to something else for happiness it’s right here, right now, in the miracle of existence, that’s always there in every moment.

 

Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment… Surrender to what is. Say ‘yes’ to life – and see how life starts suddenly to start working for you rather than against you”Eckhart Tolle

 

The power for creating a better future is contained in the present moment: You create a good future by creating a good present.” – Eckhart Tolle

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

What’s the Big Deal about the Present Moment?

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.Buddha
The present day mindfulness movement has made a mantra of the present moment. There are constant calls to be in the “now”, to pay attention to the present, to be aware of our state at this very moment. Whenever something like this gets into pop culture, as it has, it almost inevitably takes on meanings beyond the simple idea originally represented. The notion of the present moment is no different. It’s not rocket science. It’s simply what is right now.

 

To many, the idea of being in the present moment is not an attractive one. The present is full of suffering, it is stressful, it is unsatisfactory, and sometimes it’s terrifying. Such people not only don’t want to be in the present moment they do everything they can to escape it. They immerse themselves in books, movies, TV, social media, etc. to escape. Many use drugs and alcohol to get away from “now” and still others use thrill seeking in an attempt to make the present moment more exciting and pleasurable. But these escapes do not solve the underlying problems. Instead, they merely cover them up, to be suffered through at other times.

 

So, to many people the idea of being in the present seems ludicrous. Why focus on the suffering? Why work to stay in the place they find so uncomfortable and unsatisfactory. What is missed is that the present moment may seem to be the problem, but it is in fact the solution. After all, where else could problems be dealt with? The past can’t be changed and the future is simply a present moment that has not yet arrived. So, the present moment is a big deal because it is the only time that any problems can be solved, any issues addressed, and any happiness experienced. In fact, truly seeing the present moment as it is lets us see where our unhappiness and suffering are coming from.

 

The Buddha said that “I teach only two things: suffering and the end of suffering.” He recognized that things were unsatisfactory in the present moment, but paradoxically the unsatisfactoriness can only be ended in the present moment. Part of the problem that people have in seeing this is that their experience of the present moment is not a pure experience of the very moment. Instead it is colored by past experiences and future expectations and it is these that are the source of the suffering. Releasing them and seeing everything just as it is, is what is needed to relieve the suffering.

 

For many the present moment is filled with, not what’s simply there, but with their judgments and interpretations of what’s present based upon their past experiences. So, rather than enjoy a social interaction the individual is fearful and unhappy because in the past similar social encounters have produced unhappiness. Their past experiences cause them to interpret the current situation as a threat and not an opportunity. This makes the present moment unsatisfactory, even though, taking it simply for what it is, it is not only satisfactory but wonderful. The rumination about the past prevents the enjoyment of the moment from ever occurring.
For many the present moment and the things that are in it are predictors of future disaster or pain. The present moment is filled with anxiety fueled by constant worry and fear about the future. So the present moment is never honestly experienced, it’s constantly being seen as an indicator that problems are on the horizon. This causes these people to completely miss the wonder of the present moment.

 

We engage in mindfulness training in order to see the present moment as it is. The training works to eliminate the ruminations and worries that taint the experience of the present. It works to stop the judging and labelling of whatever is present. Our conditioning is deep and it takes time and practice, but slowly we begin to see the present in its glory. We begin to see that life is unfolding right here and right now, not in a remembered past or an imagined future, but right now. Slowly we begin to see that what is happening is not about us, it doesn’t say anything about us. It just is.

 

In actuality “now” is filled with amazing things and great joy and happiness, if we just let it. It is a big deal. In fact it’s the only deal.

 

The “Now” may be seen as boring, containing little that is new. But, in actuality, “now” is a unique moment that has never happened before and will never happen again. If we just look at it carefully we can easily discern how unique and amazing this very moment is. The fact of our breathing is simply a miracle. We are blessed by the beautiful sensations that are constantly being refreshed. We experience the biggest miracle of all, that we are aware of this very moment. Seeing and understanding that can lead to insight and awakening that can transform existence and it is only available in the present moment.

 

Our lives are the sum total of present moments. Life can only be lived now. Living elsewhere is missing out on all that life has to offer. It’s no wonder people have so many regrets on their death beds. They never truly lived. They never let themselves simply experience the essence of life itself occurring only in present moments. But, living in the “now” is not to avoid regrets. It’s to experience the joy and wonder of interacting with another human being. It’s to be loved and to love. It’s to be awed by how everything arises and falls away. It’s to feel the air on or skin. It’s to hear the music of sounds around us. It’s to see the beauty in everything. It’s to experience the intense pleasures of the flavors of foods. It’s to “smell the roses.”

 

So, practice mindfulness and discover the big deal about the present moment.

 

The mind is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity… The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.”- Samuel Johnson

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

Repair the Damage with Mindfulness

“In today’s rush, we all think too much — seek too much — want too much — and forget about the joy of just being.” ~Eckhart Tolle

 

Mindfulness practices are known to improve people’s physical, mental, and even social well-being. But, why would mindfulness training, learning to pay attention to the experiences of the present moment without judging the experiences, be so good for people? It is surprising that such a simple training would be so beneficial. Why would we need to practice something as obvious as paying attention to what is going on right in front of our noses.

 

It is particularly puzzling, given that we are born mindful. A newborn infant is the epitome of mindfulness. Everything that is going on grabs their attention and they respond only to the present moment. There is no past as the memory systems have not yet developed and there is no future, as planning and foresight mechanisms have yet to develop. For them there is only now.  Even later in childhood, life is experienced in the present moment. There is a sense of wonder and awe at the world and the beings, human and otherwise, that populate it. Play is a joy unto itself, without goal or purpose.

 

So, if mindfulness is our primal state, why do we later in life need to try to recapture it? It must be that we somehow lost it, otherwise why would we need to practice it. Rather than lost, mindfulness is trained out of us. The training that puts mindfulness to the side is ubiquitous. It’s present in the home, in school, at work, in the media, and in friendship groups. It teaches us to strive for a “better” future, for a degree, for a career, to acquire things, to seek relationships, for a family, to look out to avoid difficult issues or people, to make money. It teaches us to be focused on the future, rather than now. It teaches us to see now, not as something to be savored but as a necessary evil to get to the promised future.

 

We are trained to perfect ourselves, to be better at everything we do. This causes us to focus on the past and particularly things in the past that didn’t work, were troubling, embarrassing, or even terrifying. We try to look back at these events and work out what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future. We are trained to try to have a healthy “self-concept.” This notion unto itself in unmindful as there really isn’t anything there, other than an accumulation of labels, thoughts, stories, and experiences that are summarized as the self. Again this causes us to focus on the past and future in the continuous striving to perfect ourselves.

 

By the time we’re adults severe damage has been done to our appreciation of our existence. Our society and culture not only allows it, but encourages it. Messages in the media and in ads constantly hammer home the notion of perfecting oneself and one’s life situation. We become so focused on these unattainable goals that our lives become a treadmill of unsatisfactoriness leading to more analysis and striving, leading to more unsatisfactoriness, leading to …..  It leads to unhappiness that we delude ourselves will be fixed sometime in the future when we accomplish some objective or acquire some object.

 

The damage that has been done is severe. It makes us constantly dissatisfied and unhappy. There isn’t a magical solution. But, going back toward our primal state of mindfulness will help immensely. But, our minds are so trained to focus on the past and future that we literally need to be retrained. We’ve been trained out of it, so we need to be trained back into it. That is where mindfulness practices come in.

 

Mindfulness practices work to undo the damage that’s been done to us by our society and culture throughout our lives. They work to return us to that happy state of appreciation of the present moment, to return, if only occasionally, to the wonder and awe at this miraculous thing we call life, to the appreciation of the other people that surround us. These practices work to teach us to really listen to one another and become compassionate, and to become active contributors to the overall group happiness.

 

It’s no wonder that mindfulness training is so beneficial to us physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and socially. It repairs the years of damage that so blinds us and makes us so dissatisfied. In a different society, with a different culture and values, mindfulness practice may not be so valuable. But, in our modern western culture, mindfulness practice is almost mandatory to ever truly be healthy and happy.

 

So, practice mindfulness, repair the damage, and thrive.

 

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past.
If you are anxious, you are living in the future.
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
– Lao Tzu

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Get Connected with Mindfulness

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The human brain has 100 billion neurons, each neuron connected to 10 thousand other neurons. Sitting on your shoulders is the most complicated object in the known universe. – Michio Kaku
There are billions of cells in the nervous system that you are born with. Since the number of cells doesn’t increase as we mature, in fact it decreases, it should be obvious that our increased mental capacity is due to the development of connections between these cells. Indeed, the intelligence of a normal individual human is not related to the number of cells in the brain, but rather to how they are connected. It should be clear that the connectivity of the brain is a key to its capacity to perform mental functions.

 

Mindfulness is known to increase the number of cells in certain areas of the nervous system and decrease the number of cells in other areas and also increase the connectivity of some areas to others (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/08/01/this-is-your-brain-on-meditation/). Since the interactions between neural areas is so central to determining the capabilities of the nervous system it is important to investigate exactly what areas and systems are activated together and which do not.

 

In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness is associated with intrinsic functional connectivity between default mode and salience networks”

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1105871936103398/?type=3&theater

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4548211/

Doll and colleagues investigated the relative activities of the intrinsic brain networks. Research has identified three distinct interconnected areas, networks that are associated with different mind states during meditation. When the meditator is focused on present experience the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex, the central executive network (CEN) was activated. During mind wandering the default mode network (DMN) was activated. When the individual became aware of mind wandering the salience network (SN) was activated.

 

Doll and colleagues found that the higher the mindfulness of the individual the greater the inverse relationship between the networks respective activities. That is, they found that the higher the activity of one network the lower the activity of the others. In other words the three networks had tendencies to inhibit each other’s activity. So, when areas associated with increased focus on the present moment were activated there was a reduction in activity in areas associated with mind wandering and detecting salience and visa-versa. The higher the individual’s level of mindfulness the greater the negative relationship.

 

Hence, mindfulness is associated with greater mutual inhibition between the three neural networks. The more mindful the individual is the greater the difference between the networks’ activities. This suggests that mindfulness is associated with neural system interactions, such that their activities become more distinct. When focused on the present moment mind wandering is much less in a mindful individual. Similarly, when mind wandering is present in that mindful individual, focus on the present moment is lower.

 

Thus the neural systems reflect the observations that mindful people have more focused attention on their mental state than less mindful people. Their brains appear better able to separate out and focus on specific mental states. Hence the brains of mindful people are tuned to and probably underlie their abilities to pay attention in the present moment nonjudgmentally.

 

So, practice mindfulness and get your neural networks more connected.

 

The brain is like a muscle. When it is in use we feel very good. Understanding is joyous.” – Carl Sagan
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

Be Mindful of the “Shoulds” and “Coulds”

should

 

Humans torment themselves with “shoulds” and “coulds”. “Things should be this way.” “I could have made a different choice.” “He could have done this for her.” “She shouldn’t have said that.” “I should work harder.” My son should call home more often.” “I shouldn’t have done that.” “I should plan more for the future.” “I could go to church more often.” “I should be doing better,” etc. The list could go on endlessly.

All of these “shoulds” and “coulds” do nothing to change anything except for our happiness. They produce regrets, dismay, and dislike of ourselves and others. Since “should” and “could” imply that we are not acting or feeling as we might, it suggests that we are flawed. This then becomes the source for low self-esteem. Since “should” implies that others aren’t as good as we’d like or expect them to be, it suggests they are unworthy. This then becomes the source for gossip, putting others down, and dislike.

Every time that we say “should” or “could” it is a blatant admission that we’re unhappy with ourselves, things, or others as they are. We want them to be different. The discrepancy between what is and what we want it to be makes us unhappy with the way they are. This is the very essence of suffering. How can one be happy if thing are not right, if they “should” or “could” be different.

The secret to happiness is learning to accept things as they are. This doesn’t mean that we like or endorse what is, we simply accept it as reality. We can see all of the suffering and injustice in the world, not like it, and prefer that it wasn’t there, but recognizing that this is the way it is. This then suggests that the key to our happiness is learning to accept the world, ourselves, and others just as they are.

How can we do this? Mindfulness practice is a key to accepting things as they are. It helps us focus on the present moment. “Shoulds” and “coulds” revolve around the past. Being in the now there can be no “should” or “coulds”. There is only what is at the moment.

If we pay careful attention to the present moment we can begin to see that nothing is lacking. Everything that is needed right now is completely present. There is wonder and beauty in what is present in front of us. Happiness can become a simple constant state. It’s not an ecstasy or a high, but an enduring state of joy. If we can open our eyes without “should” or “could” it is more than possible, it is inevitable.

Unfortunately, there always seems to be this inner voice reminding us of what “should” or “could” be or have been. It is hard to be happy when we’re being constantly reminded by ourselves that things would be better if they were different. To find that happiness that is always there inside us, we need to quiet that voice or recognize that it is only a thought and let it go. This is where practice comes in. We must work at it. We have too long a history of busy minds and listening to the inner voice. It will take a while to learn a different way.

Stick with the practice. Be persistent. It will slowly begin to quite the mind. We will gradually learn to recognize that the inner voice is only a thought produced by a deluded mind and learn to ignore it, just let it pass through like a piece of dust in the wind. Remember, that if we’re willing to invest this time and effort we can indeed find the peace and happiness that is always present right here and right now.

So, practice and learn to find joy in things as they are.

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Meditation Techniques – Body Scan Meditation

 

“It’s amazing to me that simultaneously completely preoccupied with the appearance of our own body and at the same time completely out of touch with it as well.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

In prior posts we discussed Breath Meditation

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1057076937649565/?type=1&theater

http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/24/beginning-meditation-getting-started-3-breath-following-2/

Open Monitoring Meditation

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1057568944267031/?type=1&theater

http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/25/beginning-meditation-getting-started-4-open-monitoring-meditation/

and Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM) practice.

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1057979894225936/?type=1&theater

http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/26/meditation-techniques-loving-kindness-meditation/

Today we will discuss another meditation technique, Body Scan Meditation. This technique is excellent for bringing present moment awareness to all of the sensations throughout the body. It can help to increase your awareness of precisely how each part of your body is feeling at the present moment. We’d appreciate hearing comments and suggestions from others. There are many paths!

Many people go through their day with very little awareness of the feelings and sensations from their bodies. This can be a major problem as these sensations carry important messages. They can reflect your state of health or even reveal emotions that you were unaware were affecting you. It can make you much more aware of when you’re experiencing stress, allowing you to better manage it. It can heighten your awareness of the non-verbal cues that you may be sending others, allowing you to better understand other peoples’ responses to you. As the proverb goes “know thyself” and Body Scan meditation can help.

To begin the meditation lie down on the floor on a mat or pad on stretched out on your back with your hands alongside your body. Gently close your eyes. There will be a tendency to fall asleep during the practice as the deep relaxation takes its toll on your awakeness. Don’t be concerned if you do fall asleep, many people do. But try to “fall awake” and really focus your attention. If you can feel yourself getting very sleepy you might try opening your eyes.

For a couple of minutes just relax and move your attention to the sensations from throughout your body, skin, muscles, joints, and internal organs. Feel the energy of life throughout. Now move your attention to the toes on your right foot. Feel the sensations from your toes, noting any tension, pain or discomfort, but particularly just become aware of everything you feel from your toes. Try to watch your breathing and imagine the air moving into and out of your toes on its way to the lungs with every breath. If you don’t feel anything, don’t worry, just note it and move on.

Now do the same thing for the bottom of your foot, moving your attention to the sensations from the top of your foot and then breathing through it. Take your time and fully appreciate the sensations. Then move on and repeat the process for the bottom of the foot, then the ankle, followed by the lower leg, the knee, the upper leg and thigh, the pelvis, and the hip. The entire process is then repeated for the left leg moving from toes to hip.

After completing the scan of the left hip repeat the process for the abdomen, the lower back, the upper back, the chest, the shoulder blades, the armpits and the shoulders. Then moving on to the sensations from the fingers on both the left and right sides simultaneously, back of the hands, front of the hands, wrists, forearms, elbows, and upper arms. Then move your attention to the sensations from the neck, the throat, the jaw, the lips, the nose, the cheeks, the ears, the eyes and eyelids, the forehead, the top of your head, and the back of your head.

After completing the scan, just relax like you did in the beginning, feeling the sensations from throughout your body. Just lie there for a few minutes silently enjoying the peace and quiet, with full awareness of your body and all the sensations from all over it. Experience the wonder of your body. Experience the awesome vehicle of your life. Feel the life everywhere throughout. Luxuriate in the sensations and simply enjoy being alive.

There are many variations of the body scan. You might do well to find a guided body scan meditation on the web and use it to guide you initially. But, eventually move on to doing your own body scan as you find it works best for you. Remember that this is a practice and must be repeated on a regular schedule. But if you do, you’ll be amazed at the relaxation and stress relief it brings, the ongoing awareness of the sensations from your body, and the appreciation for your living body.

So, practice the Body Scan meditation and get in touch with your body.

“Through practising body scan awareness meditation, we can greatly reduce the detrimental effects of stress and make our working lives pleasant and enjoyable.” ― Christopher Dines

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies