…annoyed by having too much to do?
…squeezed by looming deadlines or financial pressure?
…frustrated by other people at school or work?
…disappointed by a friend or family member?
If you are having stressful experiences, you could be doing a lot of negative thinking and judging. It is human nature to focus on the negative and judge others, which can increase stress and lead to discontent and disease.
Not to worry. There is an antidote to stress in life during the twenty-first century.
The practice of mindfulness can bring many benefits to your emotional and physical health, as well as to the relationships in your life. Research indicates that it can promote health by reducing activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn dilates the blood vessels, and reduces stress hormones. Research indicates that it can increase academic performance, and actually increase IQ scores while decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression.
What is mindfulness?
You probably won’t find one true definition because the experience varies by culture and personal experience. Virtually all cultures around the globe have some version of what we collectively refer to as mindfulness. It might involve Eastern traditions of meditation, Western traditions of prayer, or totally secular experiences of simply living in the present moment. Mindfulness is characterized by non-evaluative and sustained moment-to-moment awareness of perceptible mental states and processes. This includes continuous, immediate awareness of physical sensations, perceptions, affective states, thoughts, and imagery. Mindfulness is non-deliberative; that is, it just implies a sustained focus to ongoing mental content without thinking about, comparing or in other ways evaluating the ongoing mental phenomena that arise during periods of practice. The essence of mindfulness is about:
- “Being” rather than “Doing”
- Quieting the mind
- Non-judgmental noticing
Jon Kabat Zinn is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. His practice of yoga and studies of Eastern philosophies led him to integrate their teachings with those of Western science. He developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction which teaches mindfulness meditation as a technique to help people cope with stress, anxiety, pain and illness. It is offered at medical centers, hospitals and health maintenance organizations throughout the country.
An easy way to begin is to focus on the body starting at one end and moving all the way through to the other while noting breathing and any areas of discomfort. Pay attention to what is going on at that moment. What do you feel, hear, taste, see, and smell? When a thought about the past or future does come to mind, acknowledge, but don’t dwell on it, and just let it go.
Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” His book, “Full Catastrophe Living”, details his program which includes a daily practice of 45 minutes of sitting and watching the breath.
Another mindfulness expert is Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, author, poet and peace activist. Nhat Hanh has published more than 100 books and travels internationally to give retreats and talks on mindfulness and promoting non-violent solutions to conflict.
Nhat Hanh’s approach has been to combine a variety of traditional Zen teachings with insights and methods from other Buddhist traditions, and ideas from Western psychology—to offer a modern light on meditation practice. “Mindfulness helps you go home to the present,” he believes, “and every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.”
There’s a lot of pressure to be a perfectionist in our pursuits. You don’t have to subscribe to a method, attend a retreat, or internalize someone else’s idea of how to be mindful. Mindfulness can be practiced virtually anywhere and anytime and all you need is you. It’s about just showing up to the moment.
Pick a flower. Explore its perfect imperfections. Engage your senses by smelling the flower, feeling its petals, noticing how your feet come into contact with the floor, the entire experience of just being in that moment. You’re not trying to control or prevent your thoughts. Thoughts will pass through your mind but you’re learning that your attention doesn’t have to get carried with them. When you notice your attention has wandered, simply bring yourself back to the present moment.
Next time you take a shower, just notice what it’s like to be under the warm water. Can you become so attuned to the moment that you feel individual droplets hitting your skin? Notice the sound of the water and the temperature. Notice the tension in your body melting away. You’re not placing judgment on the water – it’s not good or bad or ugly – it just is. You don’t label your method of showering as right or wrong, right? You just do it. Exactly. You are practicing mindfulness.
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