Mindfulness: Part 1

June 5, 2014

As I grow more attuned to my inner blogger, I'd like to launch a new series of discussions, of which this will be the first. My practice is primarily based in three pillars, mindfulness, balance, and connection. Now, these are by no means groundbreaking or even original. I don't claim to have created some new way of conceptualizing mental health, the human race, or society and culture; however, these three ideologies have certainly been consistent and sturdy concepts from which I have drawn much strength and growth. For the following summer months, I'd like to explore and share each of these pillars with you, and learn a few things along the way. I'll start with mindfulness.

 

Thankfully, the intellectual, innovative, and competitive Western World is finally accepting and owning what ancient Eastern cultures have known for centuries; mindfulness and the capacity to heal oneself through heightened awareness and acceptance. The term mindfulness has been thrown around for a while now in research literature, self-help books, and health circles, but what exactly does mindfulness mean? What do we know and accept now that used to be a foreign concept to Westerners? What are ways to apply mindfulness in our everyday lives, especially in a fast paced, individualistic society? And, finally, how will mindfulness work for me? What benefits will I see, and is it worth my effort? The answers to these questions will be explored over the next few weeks. In short, the answers are heightened awareness and acceptance; a lot; yoga, meditation, and living in the present; teaching you to be open and appreciative; and yes!

 

Let's get at least some understanding of what mindfulness means in a way we all understand it; in context of what we already know. Mindfulness is a concept that comes from Buddhist ideology and practice of meditation. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Simply put, it means paying attention to right now; a sense of self-awareness, and how people and the environment are interacting with and influencing you in this moment. We know that we are all made up of lived experiences throughout our lives that have shaped our perception and understanding of self, others, and our environment; however, mindfulness is the practice of having awareness of those things, while focusing on your presence in the present. You're not regressing to past experiences or fixating on future outcomes. For example, when you drive to work, taking the same route day in and day out, you probably get to work some days without even remembering specifically what happened on the way. This experience is called dissociation. We all do it. Though it's often coined as a negative process, dissociation is necessary to our survival and sanity. When done in a healthy way, dissociation is simply a way of putting our brains on power saver mode to preserve energy. We simply cannot focus on or exert energy on every single event in every single moment. Through recognition of patterns in experience and learned behavior, and developing neural pathways, our brains engage in a state of autopilot when we typically respond to the same stimuli in the same or similar ways repetitively. Going to work is a benign activity, which often requires little processing or problem-solving. Now, the problem with dissociation in this example comes when there is heavy traffic, vehicles weaving in and out of lanes, obstacles in the road, or animals, people, or debris jolting across the road. Complete dissociation in these moments may lead to some unwelcomed consequences, like and accident, etc. I use this as a contextual example of what mindfulness is not. Let's continue with this example to explain what mindfulness is.

 

Let's say you are stuck in traffic (insert empathy for fellow Atlantans). You're in a hurry, because we live in a world of immediate gratification and "ain't got time for this" mentality. Sometimes, we may even resort to yelling, cursing, pounding the steering wheel, honking the horn, etc. I certainly have. Looking back through the lens of hindsight bias, we may rationalize that there was nothing we could do to change the current circumstances, and our obnoxious behaviors, not only didn't help, but may have added to the already irritating annoyance of traffic.

 

Implementing the practice of mindfulness in the above scenario means taking a moment to "be in the moment." What's going on right now? What's coming up for me emotionally? Where are my feelings coming from, and are they actually tied to this event? Using a simple practice of controlled breathing (breathe in deeply, as if you're taking in the smells of your favorite meal or flower, and exhale slowly and fully, like blowing a bubble. You're steady and controlled in order to get the bubble as big as you can without popping it.), will allow you to slow down. Slowing your breathing slows the heart rate and increases the amount of oxygen reaching your brain, a process I will discuss in more detail in a later post. While slowing down to be in the present, you recognize that current circumstances are outside of your control. You accept what you cannot change and find value in what is available to you, such as a great song or audio book, an alternative route, or simply the satisfaction of silence.

 

Mindfulness is a practice, which means in order to achieve mastery, you must practice it. If it were easy, everyone would already be doing it all of the time. Recognize what you have, be grateful for it, accept what you cannot control or change, and let go to be in this moment. This moment is what is available to you. This moment is what matters right now, and sets the tone for the next moment.

 

I hope this post is helpful to you, and that you are able to find at least some meaning and context.

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