No offense to my fellow multitasking mavens, but have you heard? Mindfulness is the new way to health and happiness. Well, not exactly new. In fact, for over 2500 years people of all walks of life have used the practice of mindfulness meditation as a way to achieve well-being, peace, and joy.
It’s really quite simple, yet really quite difficult.
Let me explain….
Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in each moment. Our mind focuses on what’s happening, or what we’re doing at the present time.
Sounds easy enough, right? But try doing certain things with your full attention and you’ll find it’s not so easy.
I know, right now many of you are thinking, “Suzy, you’ve acknowledged how busy we are these days; why would you introduce a new health concept to us while we already have so much on our plates?”
Well, because I can tell you first hand, the practice of mindfulness meditation is the perfect way to ease the stress and craziness that is so much a part of our culture, as well as to slow down your racing mind.
The Zen masters use the example of washing dishes as a place to begin focusing your attention. You can always start with following your breath, but I found it really difficult to begin there. I needed to be achieving something or crossing something off my to-do list if I was going to take the time to focus my awareness. (Multitasking used to be my mantra.)
So I set out to totally focus my mind on washing the dinner dishes. Though this is generally Mr. S.’s job (I cook, he cleans), he was kind enough to allow me to take over his nightly role…in the interest of science, of course.
I focused my mind on watching the soft white bubbles delicately glide over the bright white china plate. I felt the water’s warmth wrap around my fingers and I continued to watch the remains of our dinner trickle down the drain.
Yea!! I did it—for about 4 seconds. Then it happened. My mind went to…. I can’t wait to get into a warm shower…. I hope I don’t miss the season finale of Two and A Half Men…. I feel really bloated…. Why did I eat chips and coffee for an afternoon snack rather than crudité and hummus? I wonder if Cara is going to teach the 12:00 noon yoga class tomorrow…. Will I be able to get there on time? And on, and on, and on.
To become healthy, we must end our struggle of letting regret of the past, and worry, and fear of the future run our lives.
As my good friend Tom B. always reminds me, “Why worry?” He says, “If something bad is going to happen, there will be plenty of time to worry and be sad. Why spend your life being anxious over something that hasn’t happened?” He has a point there.
I became fascinated with his cognitive thought process, yet still had difficulty accepting this idea. So I decided to enroll in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.
For 3 hours, once a week for 8 weeks, our group of 30 adults convened to learn how to better manage our stresses, pain, and hardships, ranging from anxiety, to disease, and misfortune. I felt almost foolish being in the class to learn ways to deal with my constant worry, when there were others dealing with cancer, loss of a teenage child, a leg amputation, and the constant fear of living in North Philadelphia.
The program is based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. We were taught that in order to fully reap the benefits of the mindfulness meditation practice, we needed to understand and accept the Attitudinal Foundations of the work. More on these can be found in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living.
We all carry around critical thoughts of ourselves and others. We need to learn how to observe these thoughts, and then let them go. It’s important to stop judging and comparing ourselves with other people or with some idea of how we “should” be. Jon says, “We are exactly where we need to be at this moment. And so is everyone else.”
When we stop judging and comparing ourselves to others, we will then begin to see that there is no hurry to get anywhere or become anything different than what we are. Again, easier said than done. It’s one thing if situations in your life are going well, but what if all is not well? What if you are trying to deal with disease, or other traumas in your life? It is extremely difficult to be patient in these circumstances. But this is the perfect time to begin a mindfulness meditation practice. When our minds are agitated, or moving at a million miles per hour, we need to rest the mind, and acknowledge that though our minds tend to wander, we don’t always have to follow.
3. Beginner’s Mind
A beginner’s mind is an open mind, which allows us to accept and see new possibilities in our lives. If we keep this beginner’s mind, we can avoid getting stuck in a rut of our own expertise. We may be experts in some things, but if we practice this attitude of humility and sense of wonder, we can then see more of the richness of life, which we may have been missing.
4. Trusting Ourselves
One of the most important parts of meditation training is developing a basic trust in yourself and your feelings. Kabat- Zinn says, “It is far better to trust your own intuition and your own authority, even if you make some “mistakes” along the way, than to always look outside of yourself for guidance.” By cultivating this trust in ourselves, it is easier to begin to trust others and see their basic goodness.
This is my personal favorite step in the mindfulness practice. It doesn’t mean to stop applying ourselves, or to stop making an effort; it simply means letting go of the outcome. It’s the showing up and doing the work, but then releasing the constant striving for perfection. It’s taking the pressure off of trying to get somewhere, trying to become something, trying to achieve something when we are already okay. By practicing mindfulness we begin to let go of the feeling that we are not okay, and we start accepting that we are okay just the way we are. BUT, for instance, this doesn’t mean you should stop eating a healthy diet and exercising. It just means you should continue doing this to feel physically and emotionally well, instead of doing it to become super skinny.
Acceptance means that we are willing to learn how to see things as they truly are. We need to take each moment in life and accept it fully as it is. (You know that saying, “It is what it is.”) We are taught to be open and receptive to what we are feeling, and to accept it.
7. Letting Go
This is a way of letting things be, and accepting things as they are. It’s a way of observing our thoughts and experiences from moment to moment. When we have regretful thoughts of the past or worrisome fears of the future, we need to let them go.
So now that you know the foundations, here is a YouTube presentation of Jon Kabat-Zinn speaking to employees from Google about mindfulness meditation. This clip is over an hour, so feel free to watch it in sections. If you have the desire to learn more about mindfulness meditation, this is an extremely worthwhile way to get started.
Also, if you’d like more information about the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at the Jefferson – Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine, feel free to call them at (215) 955-1376. You can also email me with any questions you have. I’d be happy to help in any way I can.
Until Next Time,
Be Mindful, Be Well