There are many things I enjoy learning about through reading. Many of them are largely just for the sake of trying to stay some what current with the crazy world that is happening around me. Some recent examples would be articles about Elon Musk and his creations PayPall, Tesla Motors, and Space X, and some of the crazy stuff they are doing, along with things like AI and what that will mean when it happens (which from what I have been reading may very well be within my life time). I find these things to be interesting, but of little practical use in my everyday life, though I do suggest every one go check out the wait but why blog articles about these subjects at waitbutwhy.com.
There are, however, a few subjects I frequently come back to largely because I believe they are extremely important and useful. One of the subjects in this category is the power of thoughts and mental discipline. This particular subject encompasses a few different things but the one I will address in this post is mindfulness.
Now mindfulness is an interesting subject. I originally came across it while reading something relating to Buddhism, though at this point I couldn’t tell you what exactly it was. Mindfulness is a mediation practice of eastern origin, and has been around for a long time. From what research I have done on the subject it was first made popular in the western world by Jon Kabat-Zinn who in 1979 founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The exact translation from original texts is far from perfect, the original texts are all of one mind on the subject either, but I find Mr. Kabat-Zinn does a wonderful job summing up the idea in a way I can understand and relate to: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.”
True mindfulness is a meditation practice; with practice being the operative word. To truly master it can take years, but the great part about it is it’s really easy to get started and to incorporate into every day routines. I am one who believes it is much easier to make a habit out of something if initially it is really simple, so here is how I do it.
A quiet place is preferable, as it limits distractions and makes focus easier, but it is far from required. I practice this on the train to work more then anywhere else, and it is certainly not quiet. Sit down on a chair, bench, ground, or what ever is handy. Get yourself comfortable, preferably with a good back straight shoulders down, head erect posture. The tricky part with the posture is it is very easy to get tense when one is worrying about whether the posture is right or not, so try not to focus on that too much. In the beginning its not terribly important. Grab your phone or what ever is handy and set a timer for 5-10 minutes, or what ever time you wish or have available. The timer is not essential but it is good to have a set time for the sake of practice. Once your timer is started close your eyes. Now comes the actual meditation part. Focus on your breathing. Follow it as it goes in and out, notice the rise and fall of your chest, the feeling of it as it enters and exits your body (Most things I have seen suggest breathing through your nose. Personally, my nose being a bit crooked, I struggle to breathe normally through my nose so I just mouth breath. Remember, its not about the little details, its about the practice.). Now, as you are focusing on your breathing, your mind will inevitably begin to wander; it’s just what the brain does. When you notice it wandering, acknowledge it is wandering, and bring it back to the breath. Then repeat until the timer goes off. Don’t judge yourself when your mind wanders, as it is just what the mind does, it’s normal. Just bring it back to the breath and keep going.
This is about as simple as I can make it:
- Sit, close eyes, breath
- Focus on the breath
- When mind wanders, acknowledge but don’t judge
- Bring focus back to the breath
Of course, at this point your probably saying something like, “Well that’s all well and good Jake, but why should I bother with all this any how?” Why indeed.
A document published by the American Psychological Association lists quite a few benefits of Mindfulness. In this particular article it notes that mindfulness is defined as the state of being mindful, not the practice of mindfulness, though I would say the state is much easier to achieve when practiced. Some of the benefits its lists are: reduced rumination and stress, increased working memory capacity, increased cognitive flexibility, and increased focus. The document lists a few others that are, in my mind, more indirect benefits such as improved health and better relationships.
The reason I practice mindfulness is simple. The brain can do all sorts of crazy things. It can think about the past and future, create and solve problem, imagine things, remember things, do math, etc. But, in the end, life is happening now. Mindfulness is, to me, a mechanism to help myself be present for my own life. Since I was introduced to the concept, I have become much more aware of how often I sort of live in my own head, and miss out on many of the things that are happening around me.
One of the times I am most often guilty of this is when eating. Because of that realization, I have begun practicing something of an eating mediation. Essentially, I try and focus on being aware of the smell, texture, and taste of every bite as I chew. It has helped me to slow down when eating, but more importantly, I am getting a much richer experience from each bite. Simply put, I feel like I am actually enjoying my meals, not just eating them. I am also quite guilty of looking forward to certain events in such a manner that I miss out on what is going on now. It is amazing how fast a weekend can go by when I am looking forward to something that never happens or turns out to be less exciting then I had made it up to be. I can’t help but laugh when I think about it. A whole day plus can go by in such a way that the next day I feel like it never really happened.
The greatest part about it all is the more I practice the more my brain will realize when it is drifting off and will alert me. Then I just close my eyes for a couple breaths, and bring my focus back to the now. Most of the time it works and my brain quiets down a bit, allowing me to be present in the moment.
Of course, some times I forget. Sometimes my mind wont quiet and it will continue to wander. Some times I miss whole days cause I am living in the past of future. It happens. But, and this is partly because of the practice, I don’t get mad at myself. Non-judgment is part of it all. I am human, and as such I will never be perfect; its part of the fun. When such times happen, I just laugh and move on. Its all part of the practice.
To sum it up, for me, mindfulness is largely about being happy. As I said before, life happens in the present, and the more I can be present in and conscious of the individual moments of time, the happier I am. I am able to better enjoy the one and only life I get. And since we all only get one life, and none of us know how long that life will be, being present for as much of it as possible seems like the best answer. In the end, life is good, sometimes we just need to remind ourselves of that fact.