Present Moment 3 – Spiritual Awareness of Now

The notion of focusing on the present moment is the essence of mindfulness practice. But, there are actually three forms of mindfulness; present moment awareness, ethical awareness of the present and spiritual awareness of the present. Contemplative practice as it is taught in the west often focuses exclusively on present moment awareness. In previous posts

we discussed the second kind of mindfulness; ethical awareness of the present. Today’s essay will focus on the third type; mindfulness suffused with spiritual awareness.

It is important in this regard for us to realize that contemplative practice can lead to spiritual development and awakening. This to some extent requires faith. But, we can look to myriad spiritually realized beings who have preceded us as models of what is possible. We can see in the lives of the Buddha, Jesus, the mystics, and many, many, present day realized beings that spiritual revelation is not only possible but occurs frequently and is available to those who seek it with devotion and sincerity.

Once it is understood that spiritual development is available we must begin to approach contemplative practice from a spiritual perspective. Our mindfulness practice needs to be purposeful. It should be approached with an intention to move toward spiritual development and any action that moves us in that direction should be followed while any that lead away or only toward secular goals should be abandoned.

There is a need to understand that we have within us the awakened nature that was evidenced in the Buddha and Jesus. In our contemplative practice we should seek that awakened nature. The teachings are clear that development of present moment awareness and ethical understanding of our actions are the first steps. Next we need to develop what the Buddha called “right view.” This begins to develop as a recognition develops that what is being sought is already there. It is present in all of us all of the time. We simply need to strive to remove all of those things that are keeping it from it emerging into our awareness.

It is difficult and takes time and practice to move from an intellectual understanding to an experienced reality that we are awareness itself. We are not the experience, but what is having the experience, We are what is looking out through our eyes, what is listening through our ears, and what is feeling, smelling, tasting. It is deep, permanent, and has always been there, we have just become so accustomed to it that we don’t see it. In fact, Jesus states in the gospels that “the kingdom of heaven is spread upon the earth but man does not see it.” The development of spirituality in mindfulness is how we can begin to move towards seeing it.

It should be clear that there is much more than simply being mindful of the present momnt. Actions have consequences and without proper mindful appreciation of those consequences the practice of mindfulness is without a compass to guide actions. Ultimately, we are spiritual beings. Without recognition of how spirituality is present right here, right no, our existence becomes shallow, without meaning or purpose. But with recognition that the present moment is spiritual, life can unfold with deep understanding and meaning. It is clear that the reintegration ethics and spirituality into mindfulness is vital. We need to make our practice focus on the present moment with awareness of its ethical and spiritual nature for us to experience the full power of mindfulness.

So, develop mindfulness, but ethical and spiritual mindfulness as well, be skillful and grow, thrive, and discover the truth of what you really are.


Overcome Attention Problems with Mindfulness

“ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood. It is usually first diagnosed in childhood and often lasts into adulthood. Children with ADHD may have trouble paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors (may act without thinking about what the result will be), or be overly active.” Centers for Disease Control

ADHD is currently epidemic in the US. Roughly 6.4 million American children have been diagnosed with ADHD and 6.4% of American children are being treated with medication. There has been a 42% increase in the diagnoses of ADHD in the last 8 years. It should be emphasized that this increase in diagnoses probably represents an increase in awareness and willingness to diagnose ADHD rather than an increase in cases of ADHD.

What can be done about this huge problem that is affecting such a large proportion of American children and adults? The treatment of choice has been to prescribe drugs, particularly stimulants such as Methylphenidate. But, this is very controversial. Using drugs that alter the brain in children during the time of brain development is fraught with long-term risks, not to mention the short-term side effects of the drugs. Is there a better way?

Today’s Research News article, “Mindfulness Training as an Adjunct to Evidence-Based Treatment for ADHD within Families”

suggests that mindfulness training may be helpful. In this study mindfulness training was not used as a stand-alone treatment but rather as an addition to current treatments. So, it doesn’t completely solve the problem but is very helpful.

Mindfulness training can be a powerful tool to change the lives of ADHD sufferers. It has been shown to increase self-regulation which is exactly the primary problem in ADHD, producing problems with focusing attention. “Individuals with ADHD become more vulnerable to allowing strong psychological processes overpower their present-oriented experiences by capitulating to transient stimuli.” (Cassone, 2015, pg. 154). By increasing the ability to focus attention mindfulness training can help to overcome this central problem.

Mindfulness training helps individuals to simply watch their mental processes without getting caught up in them, without attaching to and getting carried away by intrusive thoughts. This makes the individual with ADHD better able, not necessarily to stop the onslaught of thoughts, but to let them go, to thus allow their attention to become resistant to distraction.

Mindfulness training appears to address the central problem in ADHD. It can do so with a program that costs nothing, can be practiced anywhere at virtually anytime, and has multiple other benefits.

So, be mindful and improve attention if you have ADHD, but even if you don’t.


Age Healthily – Mindful Movement and Cancer Recovery

Age Healthily – Mindful Movement and Cancer Recovery

Arguably the most feared disease is cancer. It is the second leading cause of death in advanced countries. In the US it accounts for over a half a million deaths annually. But, even if cancer is survived the debilitating effects of the disease may so weaken the individual to interfere with further recovery from the cancer or can lead to death from other causes.

Fatigue and distress are common symptoms among cancer survivors. This can lead to declines in quality of life, and poor adherence to cancer treatment. For older survivors, fatigue and distress can become debilitating.  The survivors lack the energy to manage the side effects of the treatments. The fatigue can also impair the elderly person’s ability to stave off other age-related diseases. It can also further exacerbate the declines in physical functioning associated with aging. The joint effect of all of these fatigue related issues  may create a downward spiral towards poor health and functioning. This can threaten their ability to maintain their independence into late life or even their life itself.

In today’s Research News article, “Levels of Fatigue and Distress in Senior Prostate Cancer Survivors Enrolled in a 12-Week Randomized Controlled Trial of Qigong,”

it is discovered that engaging in an ancient practice of mindful movement, Qi Gong, helps to relieve the fatigue and distress resulting from recovery from prostate cancer.

This is a potentially important finding as mindful movement practices are virtually an ideal exercise for the elderly. The slow mindful movements tend to increase mindfulness and also improve muscle strength and balance. The increased mindfulness can lead to marked psychological benefits of greater happiness and engagement in life as well as decreased depression and anxiety.

The increased muscle strength tends to help counteract the deterioration of the muscles associated with aging. While the improved balance aids in preventing falls that can have disastrous consequences given the fragile bones of the elderly. Mindful movement can do all of this and not produce further problems since the practice is not stressful on the muscles and bones. So it can be practiced without fear of injury.

So, engage in mindful movement practice and improve health particularly if your recovering from a debilitating health challenge.


Meditation and Intention

It has been well documented that meditation improves mindfulness which is an increase in present moment awareness. We become more clearly conscious of the stimuli in our immediate environment. So, meditation helps us focus our attention on the sensations of the moment.

But does meditation improve our awareness of our own actions? People are frequently not aware of their own movements even after having been specifically trained to pay attention to them and people often initiate voluntary movements while their mind is wandering elsewhere. Can meditation training help to make us more in tune with our own movements and activities?

In today’s Research News article, “Do meditators have higher awareness of their intentions to act?

brain activity is monitored in association with voluntary movements. It is shown that meditators have a more consistent association between the activity of their brain signaling intention to act and awareness of that intention. This clever method demonstrates that meditators are more consciously in touch with their intentions and actions than non-meditators. In other words, the mindfulness produced by meditation extends to improving awareness of how we are interacting with our world.

It has been repeated shown that meditation can reshape the nervous system. It can result in increased size and connectivity of areas associated with on-task awareness and behavior while reducing the size and connectivity of areas responsible for off-task mind wandering. It appears that this reshaping of the brain extends to the monitoring of intentions and voluntary actions.

This is very powerful. We often engage in life without ever being aware of what we’re doing. Our minds are elsewhere, totally caught up in thoughts that are unassociated with what we’re currently doing. Meditation can help to overcome this and increase our real time awareness of our environment, thoughts, and actions. No wonder that meditation has such profound effects on virtually every aspect of people’s minds and bodies.

Meditation can help us to lead mindful lives. It can help us overcome our preoccupations with our past and future and make us more tuned into what is going on and what we’re doing in the present moment. It can help us break out of our sleep walking through existence and to lead lives in awareness and appreciation of the wonders of existence.

So, meditate and live your life with mindful intention.


How do Mindfulness Based Interventions Improve Mental Health

Mindfulness training has been repeatedly shown to have significant benefits for the individual including improving mental health and wellbeing. It is quite remarkable how ubiquitously effective it is. This suggests that there probably are underlying, mediating, effects of mindfulness that produce its beneficial effects. Although there has been much speculation, it isn’t known exactly what these mediating effects are.

Today’s Research News article, “How do mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction improve mental health and wellbeing? A systematic review and meta-analysis of mediation studies

summarizes the research on the nature of the intermediaries between mindfulness and mental health and wellbeing and provides suggestive evidence of just how mindfulness training might work.

One mechanism identified is simple and direct. Increases in mindfulness itself can have direct associations with improvements in mental health and wellbeing. Just being in touch with the present moment appears to be sufficient to help. But it also appears that there are secondary consequences of mindfulness training that also influence mental health and wellbeing.

Rumination is characteristic of a number of mental health issues. The individual constantly and persistently replays troubling events or feelings from the past, maintaining and reinforcing their negative emotional effects. The focus on the present moment produced by mindfulness training is an antidote to rumination. Rumination requires a focus on the past. Shifting focus to the present automatically interferes with rumination and may underlie in part the effectiveness on mindfulness training on mental health and wellbeing.

Worry is also characteristic of a number of mental health issues. The individual persistently thinks about possible troubling events or feelings in the future. Worry requires a focus on the future to project the remote possibility of catastrophic events. The focus on the present moment produced by mindfulness training is an antidote to worry. One cannot be simultaneously paying focused attention to the present moment and projecting into the future. This undercuts the ability to worry.

Mindfulness training also tends to promote self-compassion; having loving kindness toward oneself. This induces greater acceptance for one’s problems. In addition, when feeling loving toward oneself, it is impossible to simultaneously have the self-hatred or low self-worth that is so characteristic of mental health issues.

A final possible contributory factor to mindfulness training’s ability to improve mental health and wellbeing is a mindfulness induced increase in psychological flexibility. The individual is better able to see their issues from different perspectives, producing greater understanding and acceptance.

Mindfulness training produces many positive effects. Sorting through which ones are the underlying mediators to improved mental health and wellbeing is important. But, far more important is that mindfulness training works and can be very helpful to people who are suffering from psychological issues.


Mindfulness and Caregiving

People often choose or are thrust into the role of caregiver.  They are often the primary provider of services for healthy, seriously ill, or special needs children. They may care for elderly, often parents, but possibly for siblings, or other relations. They care for the sick from chronically seriously ill, to hospice care, to temporarily incapacitated. There are a wide variety of situations and contexts. But, in common to all is great stress and hardship on the caregiver.

Caregivers face many challenges that can take a toll on them. Burnout is common. Their own health is often compromised as the stress takes its toll. The modern emphasis on in-home care has increased the magnitude of the problem. It is important to find ways to assist caregivers so that they can continue to provide the needed care without serious compromise to their own health or well-being.

Mindfulness is not a solution, but it can help. This is exemplified in today’s Research News article, “Mindfulness-Based Positive Behavior Support (MBPBS) for Mothers of Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Effects on Adolescents’ Behavior and Parental Stress.”

Mindfulness training for the caregiver with an autistic child is shown to not only reduce caregiver stress, but improve the behavior of the child, reducing the onerousness of the task.

How does mindfulness help caregivers?

Mindfulness training has been repeatedly demonstrated to improve attention.  By being more attentive and screening out irrelevant stimuli the individual becomes more focused on the other person. Being attuned to another makes the caregivers responses better aligned with what the other needs making caregiving more efficient and effective.

Another way that mindfulness training can be of help is through improved emotion regulation. Mindfulness is associated with a heightened ability to recognize and manage one’s own emotions. In caregiving it is easy to react to your own emotions and as a result respond inappropriately or ignore the actual needs of the other person. So, the caregiver can be much more effective by being able to better regulate their own emotions.

Mindfulness training has also been shown to reduce stress and responses to stress. This can be of direct benefit to the caregiver in dealing with the stress of caregiving. This can in turn improve both the caregiving and also the health and well-being of the caregiver.

It should be emphasized that caregiving is complex and very demanding. Mindfulness training is not a magical solution to the issues confronted by the caregiver. It does, however, appear to help, making both the caregiving and the caregiver better.

So, be mindful and be better equipped to provide care to others when needed.


Mindful Negotiations

Mindfulness practice is generally a solitary practice. We venture deep into ourselves. But, mindfulness practice does more than just improve the individual it also improves the individual’s ability to interact with others. There are a number of ways that mindfulness can work to improve interpersonal relationships including by increasing attentional focus.

In today’s Research News article, “The Influence of Mindful Attention on Value Claiming in Distributive Negotiations: Evidence from Four Laboratory Experiments.”

It was demonstrated that a brief exercise in mindful attention could significantly improve an individual’s success in simulated negotiations. The authors attribute the improvement to increased attention produced by the exercise.

Indeed, mindfulness has been shown repeatedly to improve attention in many disparate contexts. Today’s article suggests that even in negotiations, heightened attention can result from mindfulness and improve the outcome. How can attention improve negotiating ability?

In negotiations being sensitivity to the nuances in the subtle behaviors of the person being negotiated with can be very helpful. By being more attentive and screening out irrelevant stimuli the individual becomes better able to read the nonverbal cues coming from the other person. These cues are important for understanding the emotional reactions of the other person to each stage of the negotiations and can thereby assist the negotiator in refining offers and counteroffers. Being attuned to another makes your responses better aligned with what the other wants making you more successful.

Another way that mindfulness can be of help in negotiations is through improved emotion regulation. Mindfulness is associated with a heightened ability to recognize and manage one’s own emotions. In a negotiation it is easy to react to your own emotions and as a result respond inappropriately or ignore the most logical negotiating step. So, being able to better regulate emotions would provide a negotiating edge.

Mindfulness has also been shown to improve problem solving and creativity. A negotiation can be viewed as a problem solving task where the negotiator must figure out the optimum strategy to produce the desired outcome. Also, by applying greater creativity to the problem the negotiator can devise novel solutions, optimizing outcomes.

So, practice mindfulness and become a better negotiator.


Spirituality and Alcoholism Treatment

Alcoholism is a terrible disease. It renders the individual ineffective at work. It tears apart families, with one in every four families having alcohol related problems. It makes the individual dangerous both driving and not, with over 33 thousand deaths attributed to drunk driving in the US per year. It is associated with a quarter of all homicides worldwide. It also degrades the person’s health, reducing life expectancy by about 10-12 years.

An effective treatment for this addiction has been elusive. Alcoholics Anonymous has been as effective as any other treatment devised. Why is it somewhat effective, when many other programs fail? Why is it effective for some, but not all? One reason could be the emphasis on spirituality present in AA.

In today’s Research News article, “Spiritual Awakening Predicts Improved Drinking Outcomes in a Polish Treatment Sample”

it was found that undergoing spiritual awakening while in AA was associated with much better outcomes, including increased abstinence or a higher likelihood of absence of heavy drinking.

Why is spiritual awakening associated with better outcomes? One possible reason is that spirituality provides a source of comfort as the individual faces the challenges of stopping drinking. The challenges provided in everyday life can be a source of motivation to drink. An alcoholic uses alcohol as an escape from the pressures, stresses, and emotional upheavals that occur during ordinary life. But the alcoholism tends to produce its own set of stresses that create a vicious cycle where the escape creates the problems to be escaped. Spirituality may provide another way to cope with the individual’s problems. The individual can take solace in the devine instead of alcohol when upheavals occur. This can help to break the vicious cycle, making it possible to deal with the alcoholism.

Spirituality can provide the recognition that they need help, that they can’t go it alone. It helps the individual recognize that they can’t control the drinking without outside assistance. The alcoholic then can allow fellow alcoholics, people close to them, or therapists to provide needed assistance when the urge to drink begins to overwhelm the individual’s will to stop drinking. The recognition that there are greater powers than themselves makes it easier to ask for and accept assistance.

It has also the case that spirituality is associated with negative beliefs about alcohol. Buddhism teaches that intoxication is an impediment to spiritual development. Other religions completely prohibit alcohol while many decry the behaviors that occur during alcoholic stupor.  This provides a cognitive incompatibility between drinking and spirituality. The recognition that drinking is not an OK thing to do might provide the extra motivation to help withstand the cravings.

In addition, spiritual groups tend to be populated with non-alcoholics. So, increased spirituality also tends to shift the individual’s social network away from drinking buddies to people less inclined to provide temptation. It is very difficult to stop drinking when those around you are not only drinking themselves but encouraging you to drink. So shifting social groups to people who either abstain or demonstrate controlled drinking can help tremendously.

Regardless of the explanation the association is clear. Spiritual awakening is associated with more positive outcomes for AA participants.


Stop Repeating the Same Mistakes Over and Over Again

Humans are flawed creatures and often make mistakes. As they say ‘to err is human’. But, humans are also capable of learning and changing their behavior in response to experience. So, once a mistake is recognized we should be able to make adjustments so that we don’t repeat the mistake when the same situation arises again in the future.

So, why is it that history seems to repeat itself? Why is it that we make the same mistakes over and over and over again? Why do we not learn from these mistakes and change?

The primary reason for repeating errors is that we do not recognize the true cause of the mistake. We attribute it to something outside of ourselves and reason that when it goes away the mistake will not reoccur. Hence, an abused spouse continues to stay in the relationship because they believe that their partner will change. An employee believes that a new job will result in the long sought promotion. An investor believes that bad luck and outside macroeconomic forces are the causes of their repeated losses. A student believes that if the professors were fair their grades would be better.

We continue to make mistakes because we don’t look at ourselves accurately. The solution to most repetitive mistakes resides within the individual not outside. The abuse is allowed to continue because the individual has low self-worth and fears leaving the relationship. It’s the self-worth that needs to be changed not the abusive spouse. The promotion is not forthcoming because the individual does not know how to truly listen to others. It’s the listening skills that need to be fixed, not the employer. The investments are not working out because the individual is responding to the ups and downs of the market with greed and fear. It’s the individual’s response to emotions that need changing, not market forces. The grades are low because the student has difficulty paying attention. It’s the attentional process that need strengthening, not the professors’ fairness.

It’s rather simple in that the solution is to be found inside not outside. The failure to see this results in seeking solution outside, resulting in repeating the same mistakes over again.

Contemplative practice is the medicine that can cure the problem. It focuses the individual’s attention inside making the individual become more sensitive to their own psychological and emotional state. Through practice the abused spouse can come to see the underlying self-worth issue, the employee learns to listen deeply, the investor gains emotion regulation, the student improves his/her attentional abilities.

Engage in contemplative practice with patience, dedication, and energy targeted at what’s inside, not outside. Over time this practice will allow you to truly understand the source of the problem and to stop repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

Contemplative practice can stop history repeating itself!


Present Moment 1 – Awareness of Now

The notion of focusing on the present moment is the essence of mindfulness practice. In common modern usage it refers to an awareness of the sensations and thoughts that are occurring in the immediate moment. But, in more traditional usage coming out of the Judeo-Christian or Buddhist traditions that form of awareness is only one form of present moment awareness. In addition there are two other forms of mindfulness; an ethical awareness of the present and a spiritual awareness of the present. These latter two will be discussed in future posts. For now we will focus on the modern notion of mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn proposed what is probably the most widely accepted definition of mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”

In this definition mindfulness involves intentionally distributing attention to the present moment. It’s something that we actively choose to do. The requirement of volition makes it different from orienting to a sudden stimulus in the environment, which is reflexive. It is also different from mundane everyday present moment awareness that occurs as we navigate through our everyday lives. This usually occurs without an active distribution of attention and frequently is done without thought as we execute well learned behaviors on “autopilot”, e.g. driving. Most importantly, it lacks the focus that mindfulness brings to bare on the present moment.

The attentional focus of mindfulness is expressed in two forms of mindfulness practice, focused attention and open-monitoring attention. Focused attention involves paying close attention to a single object of meditation, e.g. the breath, a mantra, a prayer, etc. While open monitoring involves simply, quietly watching everything as it arises and falls away and not specifically focusing on anything. Both of these forms of mindfulness particularly as practiced in the west are focused on the physical world with no reference to ethics or non physical, spiritual phenomena.

Where mindfulness of the present moment as its practiced diverges radically from everyday mental content is that it’s performed non-judgmentally. Our everyday observations of experiences are fraught with judgments. We’re constantly classifying things as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, liked or disliked, etc. We rarely see hear or feel anything without some our minds proclaiming some kind of judgment on it.

Ceasing judging in mindfulness is challenging. Our minds are programmed to evaluate everything. That’s an adaptive strategy and helps us detect problems and prevent issues from arising. But, it is strongly embedded in our thinking and trying to stop it can be very difficult and can take years of practice. This can be devilishly tricky as our minds get involved in judging whether were judging or not.

This is what we try to do in our contemplative practice, to develop mindfulness of the present moment without judgment. But, this is where it ends in modern mindfulness practice. It obviously can produce great benefits for the individual’s health and well-being, but somehow this seems to be lacking something. We are left better, but somehow not fundamentally changed. Somehow we’ve neglected to develop morally or spiritually.

Regardless, practice developing mindfulness and reap its rewards.