To be consistently happy, we need to keep improving within. No other means of happiness is self-sustaining as is the process of breaking free from the habitual patterns of thoughts and actions that run our lives. Whether it is finding freedom from our destructive mental patterns, or alleviating stress, or discovering one’s full potential, mindfulness is the skill that has surfaced in recent times as the answer for our highly demanding culture.
The effectiveness of Mindfulness is that it is a practice that anyone can learn, apply and over time, adapt to their specific conditions and needs. Free from any religious affiliation or from any spiritual energy type of practices, it is the safest and most effective skill that one can train in to reap physical, psychological and emotional well-being. There are various forms of mindfulness practices and honing one’s practice takes patience and in most cases requires proper guidance. Nevertheless as endorsed by neuroscience studies, the results from regular practice are definite and changes can be seen within the brain of every kind of practitioner just within six-eight weeks (numerous research studies results can be found online).
What is Mindfulness and how do we practice it?
Mindfulness is the moment-to-moment awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, words, actions and of one’s experience in an unbiased manner. As such, Mindfulness is a set of personalized practices rather than one specific technique. The nature of any practice is that it could include certain techniques but is not limited by it. Thus the practice of mindfulness is not just a siting meditation practice. In fact, mindfulness is applicable wherever one goes and whatever one does in their daily life.
Mindfulness is where the rubber of spirituality meets the road of everyday life. Although the use of the word mindfulness seems to be integrated within spiritual teachings, it is a tool that almost everyone uses, consciously or unconsciously regardless of their spiritual or non-spiritual inclinations as they go about with any self-improvement initiatives.
One of the most often quoted definition of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, a medical researcher at University of Massachusetts who founded the highly successful Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs. According to him, “mindfulness is…paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” The following video is a good introduction to the scientifically endorsed practiced which has made it the fastest growing area for mental health and emotional well-being in the west.
The basic practice of mindfulness however, is a deliberate application of attention. By training to focus the mind on specific objects, such as breath and body sensations and slowing down our pace of life, we enhance the clarity of our experience of life. This is what the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn extols mindfulness in helping us “touch the miracle of being alive.” In this approach of applied mindfulness, we train the attention to focus on a single object rather than giving in to the multi-tasking demands in our society (thus engaging the pre-frontal cortex in the brain to function effectively)
The Natural Mindfulness of Daily Life:
Attention training is just one aspect of mindfulness training. A much more central skill is that of awareness, or of meta-cognition wherein we are not just aware of the contents of our consciousness but also of the knowing process of the consciousness itself. A common reference to this is the phrase “choiceless awareness.” In such a knowing process we use the seeming distractions inherent in our life situations to bring us to heightened state of Self-awareness (Refer to my guided audio for an introduction on this kind of practice). This is the natural form of mindfulness referred to in several spiritual traditions as the awakening of consciousness.
Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and writer claims: “Only consciousness can know itself—and directly, through first-person experience.” We get a better perspective of this when we consider his definition of mindfulness as, “a vivid awareness of whatever is appearing in one’s mind or body—thoughts, sensations, moods—without grasping at the pleasant or recoiling from the unpleasant.”
In order to truly practice mindfulness however, it isn’t necessary for us to understand its metaphysical reach nor its neurological mechanisms. We can begin by addressing those deeper patterns and attitudes within us that lead to conflicts, challenges and difficulties, repeatedly in our lives.
So from that perspective, mindfulness is the retraining of our attitude, the attitude of how we look and respond to life. The commonly endorsed benefits from mindfulness has been its effect on reducing the gray matter in amygdala and thus improving our “response-ability” in any situation. It’s as though difficult situations in our lives function on a slow motion, allowing us to pause, dodge or respond, rather than react on an auto-pilot mode.
Mindfulness is thus a set of skills that we can all learn, just as we can all learn to swim with the guidance of expert coaching. Once we train in these skills, then it begins to operate whether or not we deliberately allocate a separate time period for its practice (as is necessary in meditation and other spiritual practices). Right within our daily life challenges, we can discover the props for experiencing the true nature of mindfulness.
The attitude toward mindfulness is then not to control or change the nature of our experiences but to welcome them. When we welcome both good and bad experiences in our life we then discover the path to our inner freedom. The poet Rumi highlights this in his poem titled “The Guest House”
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Mindfulness practice is thus promising in that it is scientifically endorsed to reduce stress; it can reduce pain; it can improve emotional intelligence; it can heighten your attention and give you a moment-to-moment clarity in your everyday life; and last but not the least, it can lead you to spiritual freedom. But all these promises fall short if you expect these results without following it up with the practice.
And most importantly, in order to discover the miracle of mindfulness, begin by emptying your cup of the mind. Bring in an exploratory and experimental attitude. It is fine if you are skeptical as long as you are committed to try out Mindfulness practices sincerely, it will work for you.
Welcome to the mindful journey; welcome to this next step in your life’s unfoldment.
Swami Nirgunananda was a Mindfulness Instructor and Life Coach for several years. He has led several Mindfulness workshops and retreats all over the world. Nirgunananda combines his background in contemplative practices in the East with research studies in the US.