So let’s dive a bit deeper into what mindfulness really is, how to strengthen it, and how mindful living can help to reduce unnecessary heartache and suffering in your life.
But before diving in, let’s look at a few common misconceptions about mindfulness:
- It’s something really mysterious
- It’s part of some weird cult
- It’s some hyped-up fad that will probably lose favor like boy bands of the 90s
- It’s not part of my religion
Clearing Up Those Misconceptions
- Mindfulness is actually quite simple and not very mysterious, once we get to know exactly what is it and how to cultivate it. It’s really just about paying attention in a particular way that can help with everything from sleep problems to addiction.
- It is certainly not derived from cult behavior. On the contrary, it is both part of nearly every major religious, spiritual, and philosophical tradition as well as part of a growing secular (or non-religious) movement in the last 30 years.
- The concept and practice of mindfulness has been around for over 2500 years, no one has a “patent” on it, and its widely applicable for everything from being a better driver to having more fulfilling sex. It’s likely not going anywhere soon.
- If we consider that mindfulness is simply just paying attention in a particular way, then it is most definitely not part of any religion. And while it is true that mindfulness can be cultivated through meditation and that many religious traditions of the world (Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, for example) use different forms of meditation to help us to live with more presence, more compassion, and greater fulfillment, mindfulness is certainly not a religious principle or doctrine.
So What Is Mindfulness Really and How Can We Strengthen It?
Mindfulness is the conscious act of paying attention, with intention, to the present moment(s), with acceptance.
- The conscious act of paying attention means that we knowingly (and with full “wakefulness”) direct our mental energy toward something (emotion, thought, person, scene, etc.).
- with intention means that we are deliberately and purposefully paying attention. It’s as if we had the preparatory thought “I intend to focus my attention on _______”. Without intention would mean that something simply caught our attention, and we focused on that object for however long without our express “consent” to do so.
- to the present moment(s) means that we are focusing our attention on the “here and now”, whether it is the anger we feel, our children talking back to us, a friend talking about his day, or the snow falling from the sky. In those moments, that’s all that’s happening. The rest is essentially byproduct or distraction from the past or projection about the future.
- with acceptance is tricky. This really means that we are intentionally paying attention to the present moment(s) with as much willingness to see as clearly as possible what is actually happening, not what we think is happening, not what we wish were happening, or not what we wish were not happening. It’s useful to think of acceptance as a reality and self-respect meter. To deny that you are actually feeling anger when you actually are would keep the reality meter pretty low and indicate that you are not necessarily respecting, at least in those moments, how you actually, truly feel. There are many reasons we all do this, and it is not an easy thing to shed. It takes practice and willingness.
There are many attitudes that help support and strengthen mindful presence, or mindful awareness of the present moment. Here are several from Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990), one of the fathers of secular mindfulness and meditation in the West:
- non-judging (having a curious rather than evaluative lens to view things)
- patience (trusting that things unfold in their own time)
- beginner’s mind (approaching life as if through the lens and spirit of a child)
- trust (having faith in your own experiences and intuitions)
- non-striving (not trying so hard to get somewhere or be something)
- acceptance (acknowledging the reality of what is, but not condoning “bad” behavior)
- non-attachment (not clinging to or grasping at ideas of how things should/n’t be)
Distractions That Pull Us Away From Mindful Awareness of the Present Moment
There are several very common and very human distractions (traditionally called “hindrances”) that can move the mind and body away from being fully present in the moment:
- greed/clinging/grasping (pursuing more; never satisfied; not letting go)
- aversion (pushing away experiences we just don’t like; feeling like things “shouldn’t be”)
- sleepiness (the unclear, fatigued, dull mental state that keeps us slowed down)
- restlessless (physical/mental agitation, mind is over-busy, just want to “do” something)
- doubt (avoiding effort for fear of negative consequence; discounting intuition/intentions)
Putting It All Together (At Least For Now)
Let’s return to those automatic pilot examples from What is Mindfulness: Part I to explore what a mindful approach to talking with a friend might look like.
Your friend is talking about his vacation that he is planning. He is not just leaving town for 3 days, but he is going to Hawaii for 2 weeks. You have never been to Hawaii, and you never get time off from work like that!
You have a daughter who is afraid of flying and no child care even if you could go on such a trip. You start to feel somewhat bitter, pretty resentful of your own boss, and jealous of your friend. And yet this all happens in the first five seconds of your friend’s excited pitch about his trip.
You start daydreaming a bit about what a trip like that would be like. You are increasingly tuning out what your friend is saying even though you are nodding with some sort of a smile.
Your friend asks you for your opinion about one part of his trip, and you are jarred out of your daydream.
Wow! You didn’t realize how caught up in your own stuff you had been. You are not sure if your friend even knows you were “in your own head” and not really listening.
You purposefully decide to take a deep breath and regroup. Although you feel pretty badly about what you were doing, you choose to characterize this as a common set of distractions that your mind placed in front of you. You choose now to let some of that “bad” feeling go and to redirect your attention to your friend. You choose to more fully engage while allowing yourself to feel whatever is it you might feel. And when you feel those feelings of jealousy, for example, you silently label that feeling in your mind “there’s jealousy again, hmm” and try your best to put your full attention back on your friend and his excitement.
Consider what would happen if we brought this kind of mindful awareness to much of our lives. Life is hard, life is full of distractions, life is often not “fair.” And yet we have the capacity – the innate capacity – to intentionally direct our attention to the present moments with as much acceptance, curiosity, patience, non-judging, and non-attachment as we can. And this means that we consciously move our lives toward less constant stress, greater joy, and more opportunities to live a more fulfilling and vital life.
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