What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a word which has been used a great deal in recent years, as more scientific studies maintain the benefits of applying it to a range of social issues and behavioral health concerns. Despite its growing prevalence, many people who might benefit from a mindfulness-based substance use treatment program are still not certain as to what exactly it entails. It is not a miracle, and it isn’t a revolutionary concept. It’s certainly nothing new, although it is quite foreign to many peoples’ way of living today. Individuals who are accustomed to the fast pace of a modern lifestyle, and to the usual ideas about power and control that come along with it, sometimes find mindfulness a difficult concept to understand. With a little time and effort, however, this concept can be transformed into a life-saving perspective.
As a philosophy, mindfulness has been conceived of and developed by many cultures throughout history, all of them working independently of one another. They were separated by vast distances in both time and geography. Each of these groups of people had a different name for their idea, and they might have regarded its application in different ways. When modern, western mental health professionals use the term “mindfulness,” they are typically referring to an ideal from several prominent Buddhist traditions. This ideal, represented in Buddhism by the Pali word “sati,” or “awareness,” is the first of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. Right-minded awareness, or “samma-sati,” is the seventh element of the Noble Eight-Fold Path. The Buddhist faith has regarded mindfulness as being essential to the achievement of enlightenment, a state of contented, unfiltered oneness with all of reality, for thousands of years.
Buddhism teaches that, in order to achieve spiritual ascension, one must become attuned to the greater nature of reality. Practices such as meditation and philosophical contemplation are not intended to escape reality, but rather to confront it. They are intended to sweep aside distractions and limiting beliefs, allowing an individual to contemplate the nature of reality without the encumbrance of false, skewed perspectives. By repeatedly facing reality, the Buddhist develops patience, self-awareness, rational perspective, and contentment. That which is beyond their control is allowed to change and develop as it will, and the mindful, self-aware individual faces that which is within their control one moment at a time. The past is something to be learned from, and the future something to be anticipated, but neither should be allowed to control one’s existence.
The Relevance of Mindfulness in Today’s Modern World
Imagine that you are in the bottom of an hourglass, and the moments of your life are grains of sand. They trickle down at a measured, constant pace, never varying, forming a hill in the center of the room at the bottom of the hourglass. You want a nice, flat, even layer of sand that fills every corner of the space available to you; in other words, you want a full and complete life. So, you start re-arranging these moments as they fall, moving them to where you want them to be, setting each grain of sand after the one before it in a slowly rising layer. The problem with most busy modern lifestyles comes into play when you misplace a grain of sand, and you attempt to go back and fix it, so you won’t have that little bump in your life’s experiences. As you’re moving that misplaced grain of sand, others are still falling; now, you’ve got an even bigger “bump” in your life, and the modern emphasis on control says that you must fix that one as well.
While you’re fixing those “bumps,” inevitably, more grains of sand continue to trickle into your space from the top of the hourglass. You start to anticipate this; you begin worrying about grains of sand which have yet to fall. You create a deliberately uneven surface in hopes of influencing where they will wind up. This doesn’t work for all of them, of course; to make matters worse, you’re now neglecting the attention you’d previously been paying to those grains of sand which had already fallen into the wrong place. Before long, you’ve forgotten about staying on top of the current moment, that steady trickle of falling sand, entirely, and you’re at risk of being smothered by it. The truly tragic part of that? Ultimately, the sand evens out regardless, filling every available space. You, the over-burdened modern individual with your unattended needs, are buried somewhere partway down, instead of being comfortably situated on top.
In a greater, Buddhist sense of things, mindfulness is about achieving a state of unity and contentment which leads to the end of personal suffering; it is about being at one with the universe, and accepting all things. Modern, western psychology tends to prefer something a little more specific, however, and the concept is more than capable of accommodating this need. Mindfulness, as it appears in modern practices, is concerned with focusing one’s awareness on the current moment: where you are, what you’re doing, and what is around you. It is not ignorant of the past, or of the future, but it recognizes the nature of reality: attempting to alter the past is redundant. It is what it is. The ink is dry. Attempting to alter the future is an exercise in futility: always in motion is the future. Until it takes shape in the present, the future is vague, shadowy and uncertain. That which is, solidly and definitively, in the here-and-now, is what is most relevant to us. It is the easiest part of reality to influence, in order to accommodate one’s growth and change as an individual.
If you can integrate yourself into the moment, you have essentially wrapped the universe around you like a blanket. It is as if all of reality were created to meet your needs. You’ve let go of trying to adjust the falling grains of sand, and are simply climbing on top of that steadily rising layer as they fall. You seek to change only what you can, while accepting failures and mistakes as being a part of the human experience: in the end, the plane of sand is going to smooth itself out no matter what you do, so you might as well not put yourself into an early grave by trying to control that which is immutable. It sounds logical and straightforward enough, but a little deeper contemplation suggests that achieving this state of contentment is anything but ordinary for a person in today’s society, however helpful it might be.
So, how does one go about achieving a state of increased mindfulness? It isn’t a stroke of lightning, a sudden and immediate transition. However, you can start to make a difference in your life with just a few short minutes every day.
1. Find a Comfortable Place
You have the right to feel safe and comfortable in a personal, private place, somewhere. It should be someplace quiet, without a lot of distractions to pull you back into your usual routine. In your quiet place, there is nowhere else you have to be, and nothing you need to do. It’s just you, and the universe, for some meaningful contemplation. It doesn’t need to be private, strictly speaking. Some people find that the background noise of a busy coffee shop, for example, tends to fade into a soothing neutral tone. However, it’s unlikely that you can count on other people not disturbing you for the duration, and novices are encouraged to use privacy to avoid distractions.
2. Set Some Time Aside
Sometimes, it feels like this direction is a frustrating impossibility, even if we’re only talking about a short period of time to be allocated. The modern world compels us to feel externally obligated, all of the time; it encourages us to believe that any five- or ten-minute block of time we choose to spend on ourselves would be better invested elsewhere. Overcoming this inherently uncomfortable feeling is the first real challenge in achieving a more mindful existence. Set a small block of time aside, on a daily basis, and commit to it. It’s best if this happens at around the same time each day, because of how our bodies’ natural rhythms work, but “at what point during the day” isn’t quite so important: it might be before you leave for work in the morning, or before you go to sleep at night, or at any point in between.
3. Make Yourself Comfortable
Meditation is best accomplished while seated upright, on a chair or on a sofa. Your feet should be on the floor, your back should be straight, and your hands should be resting comfortably in your lap. Advanced meditation often involves complicated poses; these, including the well-known lotus position in which many famous eastern figures are depicted engaging in meditation, are rooted in a range of factors (including cultural, psychological, spiritual, and physiological concerns). Individuals who are just learning how to follow a meditative tradition are usually taught to sit as has been described above.
4. It’s Important to Breathe
Breathing is obviously vital, but many people underrate how important it is to regulating the body’s vital systems. A calm, steady breathing pattern can relax the nervous system, soothe cardiovascular stress, decrease muscular tension, and assuage fear and anxiety. This isn’t a response to a meditative state; it’s a physiological consequence of maintaining a slow, calm, and regular breathing pattern, and is one of many things that our modern sensibilities compels us to “stop wasting time on” any time we actually try to focus on it for more than a few seconds. Controlling your breathing can be seen as the second challenge to overcome, with time, through practice. Breathe in, and out, slowly and deeply and steadily; don’t try to “do” anything. Just breathe. Close your eyes after you’ve taken five or six of these slow, deep breaths.
5. Focus Impassively on the Moment
In terms of practicing a mindful lifestyle, “the moment” is where you are currently, when you are, and what’s going on in your mind and your body. You want to take in your surroundings; how does the room smell? Is there a lingering taste in your mouth? Are there any dull, distant sounds you can hear? Contemplate how your body feels: is the room slightly cool, or a little warm? Is there stress in your muscles? Tension? Look at these things, but don’t react to them emotionally. Take note of them, but only insofar as you understand that they exist. Don’t worry about the implications of the thoughts in your head; let them come, don’t try to stop them. Let them play out, like you’re watching an interesting film.
Here, we come to the third real challenge of meditation for mindfulness: Relaxing. Spending five or ten minutes with your eyes closed, breathing, and not acknowledging our inherent impulse to react emotionally and assert influence is difficult! Try to avoid being discouraged. Think, right now, about a typing class in school: there are huge advantages to being able to type properly on a keyboard, right? You can type much more quickly. You don’t have to look at what you’re typing; you can focus on source material. It’s more efficient than the alternative, but how do you learn how to do it? Endless practice and repetition, until (in the purest sense of the word) you understand how it works, on a level which most typists can’t simply describe verbally. Most need their fingers on a keyboard, even a visualized, imaginary keyboard floating in midair, to find specific keys. Mindfulness is about retraining your brain to regard reality in a different way; being unable to do it immediately, or in the short term, is normal. This faults neither the exercise, nor your abilities.
7. Have a Plan
When coming out of your meditative practice, you will need to start thinking about things again: your day, your schedule, what you have to do, where you need to be. Some people find this experience frighteningly jarring; they lose the benefit of the experience in trying to cling to it emotionally, which defeats the purpose. Before you start your meditation, have a small plan in place, preferably one that incorporates a reward: brew some coffee (you can even start the coffee brewing before you go to your quiet place). Have a snack. Hit the gym. Do something to help smooth the transition between two very different ways of viewing the world, but make sure that you reflect periodically on your meditative experience throughout the day. Remember how it felt, and try to slip into that same mindset with regard to making those hundreds of tiny decisions that most of us take for granted.
One More Thing…
The final step in the preceding exercise, like several common pieces of advice about meditation, is something of a cheat. It indulges western sensibilities, ever so slightly, in order to help ease the transition into a different frame of mind. This is a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it;” if the practice works, and it gets you to where you need to be, there’s nothing wrong with it. That idea, in itself, is mindful. Mindfulness is a forgiving and accommodating perspective, we simply aren’t accustomed to embracing it. As with the aforementioned example of learning how to type, this faults neither ourselves nor the concept itself.
Some people might prefer to sit lotus-style while meditating; if this works for you, do it. Bob Ross famously said “there are no mistakes in this, only happy accidents,” and the same concept holds true for meditation and mindfulness. This beloved paragon of mindfulness meditated through painting, and through sharing how he did it with the world, and millions of people react to his underlying mannerisms and demeanor to this day.
Don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t profoundly successful midway through your first time doing this (or your second, or your thirtieth). Just keep it up! It will begin to change your life in ways that are only truly apparent over a long period of time, and as you become more adept at experiencing the bigger picture in the moment, you’ll come to recognize these little improvements more and more.