Mindfulness: A Helpful Tool for Meeting Global Challenges
In the face of unprecedented global challenges, how do we stay centered, focused, and healthy?
Mindfulness practice is one great solution to helping us engage with our world today - without burning out.
And, there's more good news. There are as many ways to practice mindfulness as there are people in the world! The trick is to find what works for you.
However, there are certain core elements that define mindfulness however you choose to embrace it in your life. And it all starts with “ Why”.
Right View - Why are we practicing?
The recent popularization of mindfulness has presented a multitude of self-help promises that declare it as the secret key to "changing your life," "relieving your stress," and "helping you achieve your goals." While these outcomes may arise from mindfulness practice, it should not be the focus of our practice. Unfortunately, we’d be setting ourselves up for simple disappointment. Why?
The real secret to mindfulness is that it’s really about becoming more present in our lives and engaging more deeply with our day-to-day experience - whatever that experience may be.
Hoping to "achieve" something with our practice already assumes some future goal to meet; that we and this moment are not good enough; that reaching some other threshold or way of being is the answer to all our problems. This is actually the source of our experience of suffering.
Indeed, pain has a funny way of inspiring us to do what we can to change our experience.
But there's only one problem. We cannot control the future, the nature of change, or the fact that pain, simply, exists as part of the human experience. This is the first Noble Truth in Buddhism (Dukkha) - that suffering exists.
We can only embrace it. The purpose of mindfulness practice is in fact to increase our capacity to be with what is. Pain happens and change occurs - we suffer precisely because we resist what reality presents to us. This is the second Noble Truth (Samudaya) - that attachment and desire creates our experience of suffering.
Alert! More great news: while we cannot control many things, we can control our resistance, and mindfulness is the tool we use to exercise that control. Guess what that describes? Yep, you guessed it: the third Noble Truth (Nirodha) - that it is possible to stop our experience of suffering by changing our relationship to our own attachments and desires.
Right Practice - So uh, where do I start?
Sounds pretty good right? While mindfulness practice IS simple, it’s not easy.
Essentially, we begin our practice by learning to focus our minds on one object of attention, and to keep it there.
This is where the flexibility and creativity of mindfulness becomes fun. Perhaps the most efficient way to practice mindfulness is a sitting meditation practice, wherein we bring our attention to the object of our breath in each moment. In Buddhism this is called Shamatha practice. Yet, one can choose anything as their object of attention; a bubbling brook, the feeling of your feet walking in a meadow, or, to the delight of all parents everywhere, even eating your vegetables ;)
Right Action - Okay, but how do I DO it?
As you begin focusing on your object or action, you may notice that something happens; you start thinking! “Am I doing it right?” “This is stupid” and “Holy Shit I’m a Mess” are all common thoughts that tend to emerge as we attempt to focus our minds. You may even think “I’m thinking more than usual,” or “this is too hard” (which is also a thought, by the way).
Thoughts will arise, so it’s important we don’t criticize ourselves each time they express. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the early pioneers who brought the ancient practice of mindfulness to western culture, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” In my experience, non-judgmentally is of greatest importance because it takes the most practice to integrate.
This is where the practice really begins; when you notice yourself thinking, or having your attention drawn away from your object or action, simply bring your attention back. In my own practice, I tend to experience this as a “shit I’m thinking!” thought before returning my focus to the object of practice (judgement!).
Doing this over and over is the practice of mindfulness. You may even “zone out” for 20 minutes, caught in the daydream of delivering the perfect comeback to your annoying classmate in the 3rd grade, or the plotting of the next big promotion. The moment you realize you were “zoned-out” and return to your object of attention is the golden moment of mindfulness practice. Ta-da! You’re a bonafide mindfulness practitioner! Congratulations <3
This moment of recognition has been talked about in various traditions as a “gap” in habitual thinking wherein we encounter the raw experience of the present moment. The more often and sincerely we practice, the more “gaps” we will experience. It’s in this “gap” that current science says the benefits of mindfulness come from. It really is as simple as that.
Sometimes people ask, “what happens when your mind really settles and you begin to experience the gap always?” That is a great question. Please let me know when you find out, and drop me a comment on this post ;)
In Summary - IDAF, change my mind!
What is this human journey really about? From what I’ve learned, it’s about courageously facing - as it is - the natural ups and downs of our human experience; the good and bad, right and wrong, confusion and epiphany, etc. While difficult experiences or genuine desires to better ourselves may bring us to our practice, it is embracing what is that will produce real transformation in our lives. It will ultimately lead to the sustained peace and happiness that naturally emerges from aligning our minds with the present moment, and therefore increasing our capacity to handle whatever life throws our way.
This moment (yes right NOW!) is where our real and authentic potential abides and flowers. Experiencing this moment is your birthright as a human being on earth. The earth, and that inner voice in each of our beings, is inviting us - begging us even - to claim our birthright. How can we say no to that? Take your first step and watch the universe conspire towards your growth, whatever that may be.
And finally, don't forget to laugh.
"The Mindfulness Revolution"
Tips to Starting Out
- Pick something you enjoy:
Try picking something you enjoy doing to start, like stretching, listening to music, or making art. Choose something that doesn’t include too much thinking. The important thing is that, whatever it is, you attempt to bring your full attention to that object or action.
- Give yourself a small goal to start
Try beginning with just five minutes, or a guided meditation app like HeadSpace. If sitting in meditation is too intense (a good warning sign is feeling overrun by feelings and thoughts to the point of heightened anxiety), start with a physical action that involves movement, or an object in your physical environment instead of inside yourself.
- Practice for seven days in a row
While you may feel better after your first practice, don’t expect the real results right away. Like anything that takes practice, results emerge over time. Depending on how long you practice each day, seven days should be enough to feel whether a mindfulness practice is a positive pursuit in your life.
- Notes on Mental Health
We are all different, and some of us experience mental health issues such as depression, severe anxiety, or even bi-polar episodes. Mindfulness practice is not always a healthy practice for everyone. Gauge yourself, know your limits and needs, and make decisions accordingly. There is always someone available to help you through any momentary challenge you encounter.
Happy practicing, one breath at a time!
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