Most people these days are stressed out by the fast pace of life, economy, and worries about the future. In a recent survey, conducted in the UK, a whopping 86 percent agreed that "people would be much happier and healthier if they knew how to slow down and live in the moment" (Mental Health Foundation, 2010). It is no wonder that mindfulness has rapidly gained attention in the popular press and is one of the few complementary medicine techniques to be offered in hospitals and clinics worldwide. But what exactly is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a mind-body medicine practice, based on ancient Zen Buddhist meditationtechniques, that was popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. According to Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is an internal resource that all of us already have within us. The idea is to channel or direct this resource to transform our relationships with stress, emotions, pain, and illness. Indeed, controlled research studies suggest that mindfulness-based interventions can effectively reduce symptoms in people with chronic pain, recurrent depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, binge-eating, and many other health conditions. Mindfulness interventions have also been shown to change the brain's grey matter and reactivity to emotional stimuli in ways that promote greater conscious control over emotion.
While most people seem to think that mindfulness is a good thing, many people are confused about what exactly mindfulness is. Does it involve emptying the brain of thoughts, inducing relaxation, or going into a trance? Do you have to go live in an ashram and retreat from the material world to practice it effectively? Is it a kind of religion or cult, and is it potentially dangerous? In fact, none of the above have been shown to be true. Below is a description of some key concepts that can help illuminate what it means to have a mindful attitude to life.
Focus on the Present Moment—When your thoughts get lost in thinking about the past or worrying about the future, you bring them back to what you are experiencing right now. You try to remain open to how things unfold in the present, rather than having preconceived ideas about how things will or should turn out.
Being Fully Present—You are spaciously aware of whatever you are experiencing in the present moment as you go through your daily life. What do you feel in your body? What are you seeing, hearing, doing - right now?
Openness to Experience—Rather than dreading and shutting out your own feelings and experiences because you think you can't handle them, you welcome with curiosity any thoughts and feelings that naturally arise, knowing they are merely sensations in the moment and the next moment can be different. You create mental spaciousness to contain these thoughts and fellings. Become aware of your experience as a flow of sensations, thoughts, and feelings and watch how these change and transform naturally over time.
Non-Judgment—You don't categorize your thoughts and feelings as good or bad, try to change them, or feel compelled to act on them. All feelings have a purpose, whether to protect you from danger or open you to love. You watch and accept whatever arises in consciousness with an open mind. You extend this non-judging attitude to other people and things.
Acceptance of Things as They Are—You don't try to force or change reality to fit your vision of what it should be, feel like a victim, or bemoan the unfairness of life. Instead, you try to see reality clearly and let it be as it is, knowing that you can tolerate whatever it is that comes up. You extend this acceptance to others, knowing they are the best judges of what is right for them.
Connection—You feel connected to all living things and nature in being part of a larger whole. You reflect on and feel grateful for the cycle of life and the food, beauty, and protection that nature gives us. You know that all living beings want to feel happy and secure and avoid suffering and you feel connected by similarity of needs and experience.
Non-Attachment—You do not try to hold onto things, people, or experiences, knowing that life is in constant flow. Attachment comes from fear and is the basis of suffering. You learn to surf the wave of life, going with the flow and being confident in your own ability to adapt. When one door closes, another opens.
Peace and Equanimity—You maintain an even-keel, not getting too swept up in life's highs and lows. You know that life is a cycle and you can't see the whole picture at any one moment. When things don't go your way, you stay firmly rooted in your own clear vision and values. You walk with a peaceful heart and adopt a non-harming, non-violent attitude.
Compassion—You deal gently, kindly, and patiently with yourself and others. Rather than judging, or condemning, you open your heart to really listen and try to understand your own and other people's experiences. You allow yourself to feel other people's suffering. You love people not for what they can give you or because you need something from them, but because you connect and empathize with their experiences.
With these concepts in mind, you can begin to introduce mindfulness into your own life, whether it is by deliberately directing attention to your breath and senses at different times during the day, taking a mindful nature walk, or beginning a simple meditation practice. You might want to center your attention on each in- and out-breath, noticing the length, quality, and sensations of the breath moving in and out of your body, without trying to force or change it in any way. You may also begin to become aware of the times in the day that you operate "mindlessly," and on automatic pilot, your head so busy with plans and worries, that you don't even notice what you feel inside or what is around you.
Developing an observing mind that watches your own daily experience, notices your automatic patterns, and gently redirects attention to the present moment is the beginning of growing a "mindfulness muscle" to help you navigate the winds of change and stresses in your life. "As Eckhart Tolle so eloquently said: "Always say "yes" to the present moment. Surrender to what is. Say "yes" to life—and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you."
Melanie Greenberg is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Mill Valley, Marin County, CA. She is also a researcher, author, and national speaker with expertise in life stress, relationships, mind-body health, and effects of society and media on human behavior.
Her website: http://melaniegreenbergphd.com/marin-psychologist/