It was when Jim identified the Well-Being ‘blockers’ that I had my ‘Aha’ moment.
‘Immediate Gratification’…..gets in the way…… Boy, doesn’t it just!!
To the best of my ability I try to plan and watch my days. And almost every day I get tripped up by that old chestnut, ‘Immediate Gratification’. If I am tired, hungry or feeling down it’s pretty much a dead cert I’m going to fall.
We all know what’s good for us, and we all devote our good intentions to gazing at the golden rainbow on the far horizon. Instead we should be looking for the snags & snares that lie hidden in our next step.
Before we start nurturing the Five Essential Elements, we should find a ‘methadone’ replacement for our own personal ‘Immediate Gratification’ hit. After all, the pursuit of pleasure is hard wired into the human condition, its neural pathways are the super highways of our brain.
If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Jim wasn’t the first person here.
Life in this mundane world with its craving and clinging to impermanent states and things is unsatisfactory and painful.
Buddha, The First Noble Truth – 500 BCE
While Jim calls it a ‘blocker’, I believe it’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’, it’s the barrier we need to climb over to get to the other side.
There is so much written about success, so much advice offered it makes change sound so easy. Why then do we bomb, botch, bungle and bust every time we try to change?
The simple truth is……. change just isn’t that simple!
I have become rather tired of failing. I fail often and I’m starting to realise that most of us do. It’s about time we redressed the balance and gave failure the credit it deserves.
It doesn’t do us any good to constantly overestimate our ability to change and underestimate our ability to fail. Because when we fail, as we usually do, we get deflated, disappointed and downright depressed.
“Know your enemy”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
It’s about time we got to know our enemy. If we want to make real change in our life, the kind of change that can turn our life around, then we will inevitably come face to face with the combined forces of failure. These are the tanks and infantry that form ‘The Axis of Failure’.
I’ve identified 5 Agents of failure and 5 Anchors of failure.
The 5 Agents of Failure
These are the mechanisms of failure, the bumps and ruts that dislodge us and throw us off the wagon of change.
Change often involves an attempt to suppress what Rick Hanson refers to as the ‘Ancient fires of Desire’. The problem with fighting these fires is that they are never quenched and are prone to reignite at any time.
The flying embers that reignite the ‘Ancient fires’. These are the triggers, the snakes in our path that send us sliding back to our old behaviour.
3. The Great Escape
We meet Stress daily in all its manifestations. Most of us have developed a quick escape route to dull the pain and numb the suffering. Often this is just the behaviour we are seeking to change
4. Tired & Hungry
I read once that we make our worst decisions when we are low. There is no greater enemy than lack of sleep to overrun our blockades and crush our resistance.
5. Stormy Weather
Anyone who observes their thoughts and feelings will know that our moods change constantly like the weather. Low moods lower enthusiasm, motivation and resilience.
The 5 Anchors of Failure
When we fail these are the anchors that keep us stuck in our distractions, bad habits and addictions.
The itch, the hunger, the recurring thoughts that leave us unsettled and distracted until finally we give in.
2. Smoke & Mirrors
We have an impressive ability to deceive ourselves. It’s why the first step in the Noble Eightfold Path is ‘Right View’. The ability to see things for what they really are, not what we have convinced ourselves.
3. The Country Drive
It never ceases to amaze me how I am constantly taken for a ride by my subconscious mind. It starts with an innocuous distraction, and progresses by hidden twists and turns right back to the very behaviour I’m trying to escape.
4. The Cuckoo
What keeps us stuck in our old behaviour is far stronger than the fledgling we wish to nurture and grow. It often feels like a cuckoo clamouring to be fed and intent on dislodging the small fledgling from the nest.
5. The Whirlpool
When we fail we find ourselves back at the epicentre of a whirlpool and in danger of being submerged. It takes a lot of time and effort to work ourselves away from the vortex to a place where the waters are calmer.
“I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem”
– William Blake, Jerusalem
The wish to change is not just admirable, it genuinely holds out the promise of a better, richer and more joyous life.
However, the next time we fail as we surely will, we need to recognize the magnitude of our struggle and appreciate the strength and arsenal of our foe.
Then with a kindness and compassion for our efforts and striving, with a renewed gaze on our objective, once more its time to gather up our resources of strength and enthusiasm, and fight on.
In my last blog I asked, “what is the one thing that will change everything in your life?” Well for me the answer is simply ‘No distractions!’
In this digital age distractions have become a constant background noise, but I want to be more specific and talk about ‘sticky’ distractions.
‘Sticky’ distractions are our attachment to virtual connections, the connections we make when we email, message, post, comment, like, ping, nudge, wallop, whatever. It might be social media, it might be online games, it might be web communities or mobile apps. It’s when we put ourselves out into the virtual world and wait for something to come back in return. It’s attachment, albeit virtual!
The problem with these ‘sticky’ distractions is that they create a ‘peace wall’ that hide us from stillness. They are cyber pied pipers leading us off on a merry dance down the back alleys of fantasy. They block off the few opportunities we get to discover a place of peace and quiet in which to spot what is elusive, but most important in life.
Why the hell are sticky distractions so damn addictive? As a leading Neuroscientist and Sociologist (not!) I have come to the conclusion that it’s not just our brain that talks to us but it’s also our body. And as our sole purpose as a fully paid up member of the human race is to protect and further the species, we are rather drawn to the social and the sexual through our connections with others.
Up until the introduction of the World Wide Web by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, connections pretty much required a face to face communications format. (OK, I admit I’ve conveniently forgotten Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone age from 1876 to 1989). However, the reality is we can now pretty well connect with anyone else on the planet, quote ‘FaceBook friends’, unquote.
When we connect our human drives and desires both conscious and subconscious with the internet, ‘wham’ the whole world suddenly becomes wired. Add a few social psychologists into the mix to design sites, games and apps that become progressively more addictive and suddenly you have more ‘sticky’ distractions than you can wave a wireless mouse at.
I’d like to say that the design of hooks and snares to make websites progressively more addictive is insidious, in fact I think I will. When we are presented with a gallery of our friend’s smiling faces who will miss us ‘if we leave’, it does tug on our heartstrings but it’s just another snare to modify our behaviour.
The problem is I do love my distractions, if only they weren’t so …… well addictive! But as much as I enjoy being distracted I find that when I finally drag myself away, I feel a little bit empty, a little bit queasy, and a little bit disappointed. I regret I didn’t spend my time doing something a bit more fulfilling. It suddenly feels like a waste of time and when it becomes a habit, it feels quite despairing.
I have been journaling more recently, which is a wonderful way of observing my behaviour, moods and emotions. And I’ve discovered that when I go through a period of no distractions I am much happier and strangely I even become a fun person to be around.
Wolf Singer describes the brain as lacking any decision making ‘coherence center’, like an orchestra without a conductor. It seems to me that when we allow ourselves to follow ‘sticky’ distractions we just get a cacophony of noise. But when we stop the distractions we create a stillness in which we can play beautiful music. We nourish our very souls.
By stopping our ‘sticky’ distractions we create time to deepen our relationships with our significant others, to strengthen our friendships, to discover our own inherent creativity, and to enjoy the sights, sounds, and tastes of the world we live in. We raise the tide mark of our own personal happiness and we become more resilient in dealing with the challenges of Life.
It’s why for me, the one thing that will change everything is ‘No Distractions’.
In this 19 minute Ted Talk, Kristin Neff identifies how self esteem can fail and why self compassion is a better option for positive mental health and well-being.
First let’s dispel the myth, self compassion is neither self pity nor self indulgence. When dealing with life’s difficulties its simply the best solution when compared with the toxic alternatives of self judgment and self criticism.
Self esteem is our personal judgment of whether we are a good person or a bad person and is often considered the global indicator of positive mental health, yet it has some dangerous pitfalls.
Self esteem fails us because we set the bar too high. In modern society average simply isn’t good enough and we strive to meet the impossibly high standards of a critical media that perpetuates the fantasy of perfection. These standards might be to do with body image, achievement, or simply staying on a rickety wagon. When we fail, as we inevitably must, our self esteem comes crashing down and the recriminations begin.
A society in which we need to feel better than others in order to feel good about ourselves is a society which is ripe to narcissism and bullying.
The Human Condition
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the World we safely go
William Blake – Auguries of Innocence
The human condition is imperfect and prone to failure. We recognise this and accept failure and imperfections in others, yet we seem unable to accept it in ourselves.
When we become painfully aware of the divergence of our expectations from our reality we get to choose between self compassion or self judgment and criticism. All too often self judgment and criticism are the unconscious default mode which trigger our natural stress response.
Our stress response floods our bloodstream with adrenaline and cortisone to prepare us for fight and flight. While this was vital for the survival of our ancestors it is overkill for our modern day disappointments.
Most of us have quite a vicious inner critic and continual lashings from its tongue are more paralyzing than motivating. If our inner critic is continually triggering the stress response we are slowly poisoning our bodies.
Kristin Neff advocates self compassion as a healthier alternative response to the disappointments of the Human Condition and identifies three core components.
Self compassion is not a way of judging ourselves positively, it’s a way of relating to ourselves kindly. Embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all.
Self Kindness v Self Judgment
We believe we need our inner critic to motivate ourselves. We do not believe we are deserving of kindness and we associate self compassion as indulgent, self pitying and a sign of weakness. We verbally abuse ourselves and as a consequence keep firing our natural stress response.
The alternative is to accept we are human, that we are not perfect, and that we will fail, usually quite often. Why not celebrate our successes, acknowledge that to strive is to fail, and understand that self compassion is far healthier and far more motivating than harsh self criticism.
If we can accept this we can cultivate a desire to alleviate our own suffering instead of intensifying it.
Kristin highlights the natural instinct in animals to soothe and comfort their young. In contrast to stress, this releases oxytoxins and opiates into our blood stream which make us feel safe and which is good for our well-being.
The simple act of placing our hand on our heart at a stressful moment can induce comfort and relieve stress.
Common Humanity v Isolation
When things go wrong we experience a sense of failure, a sense that this shouldn’t have happened, we suffer and feel we are somehow different. This manifests as a sense of exclusion and isolation which for social animals like ourselves is threatening and provokes anxiety.
Paradoxically, it’s our imperfections and our constant ability to fail that connects us as humans.
Kristin relates that the biggest insight gained from participants on her workshops is this realization of common humanity, that what unites us is failure, imperfection and suffering.
Failure is the human experience, this is how things are supposed to be. Life is imperfect.
Mindfulness v Over Identification
When things go wrong we have automatic coping mechanisms to suppress the painful experiences associated with failure. We often escape into activities and behaviour that distract us and block out the pain.
Our constant niggling self criticism blends the problem into our perception of our abilities and soon we begin to identify ourselves as the problem.
In contrast, Mindfulness introduces a ‘sacred’ pause which allows us to react with self compassion and kindness instead of self judgment and criticism.
Instead of avoiding, suppressing, or seeking a quick fix we allow ourselves to ‘be’ with our suffering. By acknowledging and experiencing our pain we get to hear its message, we may gain insights into its cause and find healthier ways of accepting, dealing and living with it.
By creating a mindful gap we can break the link between us and the problem and see it for what it is, just stuff that is happening to us.
The trick is to catch ourselves in the act of self mugging.
Next time try a little self kindness and care instead. You might just create the conditions for natural healing and recovery to begin.
I’ve presented all the material from Week 1 below and added a summary of what I’ve learned and the insights I’ve gained. I hope you enjoy.
Summary and Insights
He who binds to himself a joy Does the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity’s sun rise.
It’s the nature of our mind to be constantly wandering in thoughts and fantasies and to live out our lives on autopilot. In our absent reverie we miss the moments of our lives and never savor their fleeting magic.
Our brains are wired and formed by experience which allows us to operate on autopilot and make unconscious decisions based on habit. Change is incredibly difficult because it involves the painstaking work of rewiring the brain and consciously using the new circuitry.
Change is impossible when we are on autopilot because we don’t have the capacity to make conscious choices.
The mind has two distinct functions, thinking and awareness. When the thinking is turned up, the awareness is turned down. When the thinking function is going full throttle there is no awareness.
Mindfulness is the gate to Awareness.
“Mindfulness is the ability to put our mind in the Present”
When we put our mind in the Present our focus and senses are enhanced.
“We allow ourselves to live fully the precious moments of our life; to feel the breeze against our skin, the play of light on grass, and the sound of loved one’s laughter.”
When we put our mind in the present we make change possible.
“The choice of how we live our lives is ours but we must be Present to choose.”
It is important to remember that the MBSR course is focused on Stress Control. JKZ argues that modern Medicine is all about ‘fixing’ and ignores the powerful ability of the body to heal itself through Awareness and Nurturing.
Mindfulness allows us to become conscious and present and to accept ourselves as we are now. Acceptance opens the gate to self nurturing. Paradoxically, once we stop doing we allow a more powerful, a more authentic, and a more natural healing of mind and body to begin.
“60 Minutes” Special on Mindfulness by Anderson Cooper
This is a 12 minute video and it’s a wonderful introduction to Mindfulness. It follows CNN reporter Anderson Scott as he turns up for a Mindfulness Retreat led by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
You almost feel embarrassed for him as he joins a weekend Mindfulness retreat to experience sitting, eating, and walking, in mindful silence.
“Is this just some New Age Gobbledygook?” he asks Jon Kabat Zinn, who leads the retreat.
“I miss my cellphone”, he quips as all technology is surrendered at the start of the retreat.
Now, here is the really entertaining bit, almost like an out-take at the end of a comedy.
It’s a behind the scenes retrospective from the 60 minutes overtime show as Anderson admits he drank the Kool-Aid, and it changed his life!
“Its a little disappointing to get your cell phone back. It’s the last thing you really want to see again”.
“I was totally skeptical”.
“I realized, sitting in that meditation hall…. this is exactly what I need”
“The thing that really stuck with me from this meditation retreat is….it’s just returning to your breath.”
“It’s not another thing you have to add to your list of things to do….. it’s just being……and… you know… we’re not used to just… kinda being!
Life is Right Now by Jon Kabat-Zinn
As I build a meditation habit I am becoming more and more convinced that we have very little control over who we are and what we do.
Most of the time we are on auto-pilot driven by a brain that has become so conditioned by our habitual behaviour that it has become self directing. We simply keep running on our own little hamster wheel turning it over again and again without even knowing it’s there.
An important finding in Neurology is that the brain learns through experience, it wires itself. This ability is called plasticity and it is how our habits and habitual behaviour become hard wired in our brain.
We are all programmed at birth with human needs and desires, it’s how our species survive. We also live in a technical world driven by an ever increasing level of distraction. The choices we make are driven at a subconscious level by our desires and distractions and as a consequence they wire a brain that repeats and reinforces the same behaviour. Slowly and surely we construct our own small hamster wheel making it more and more rigid.
Is it any wonder that Jon Kabat Zinn believes;
one of the most difficult things in the world, if not the most difficult thing in the world for us human beings to do, is to be present in our own lives, and to be kind and less judgmental of ourselves. That’s why it’s worth doing. It’s worth practicing.
Mindfulness is the Art of being present in our own lives, it’s the quality of nonjudgmental awareness.
If we can accept that we have a brain that we have spent the entirety of our lives reinforcing into its present state, then we can be more compassionate and realistic about how difficult it is for us to change.
What is most encouraging is that the same ability of the brain to wire itself through experience allows us to rewire it through the self directed practice of mindfulness.
In so doing we can achieve what Jon Kabat Zinn explains as:
Which means we have a lot more freedom to transform our organism, and our life experience, and attain some degree of profound well-being and satisfaction than what we ever thought.
What that means for me is, “the most difficult thing in the world” is well worth doing. Even if it means picking myself up and dusting myself down every time I fall off the wagon, which seems to happen a lot.
If only there was a safety belt to keep me mindful. But there isn’t!
Befriending Our Bodies by Jon Kabat-Zinn
There is a simple but important message in this short video.
Traditional medicine is focused on fixing the body. In mindfulness we learn to befriend the body as it is. JKZ argues that when we bring our awareness to our body and accept it as it is we create the conditions for healing to begin.
Healing is very different from fixing because it engages the body’s natural ability to repair itself, this is different from medicine’s solution of prescribing drugs to fix the body artificially.
In befriending the body we come to the realization that we are more than our pain, more than our body image, it is only our thoughts that limit us. And thoughts are only thoughts, they aren’t real.
Managing Anxiety – Rachel Green
Mindfulness is about being non-judgmental, but I didn’t think this 15 minute video added any great insights on mindfulness. It focuses on how to use meditation to deal with exam anxiety.
Raisin Meditation by Bob Stahl
The mindful eating of a raisin is a signature note of the MBSR course.
This 5 minute video takes us through how we can use all senses to experience a single raisin ending with a final mindful swallow.
The real message of the raisin meditation is how we can enrich our lives by bringing all our senses to bear in fully living the moments and experiences of our lives. Whether it is showering, washing dishes or standing in a bus queue.
An article by Jon Kabat-Zinn on the Body Scan Meditation.
“Mr Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” Mr Duffy is a character in James Joyce’s Dubliners and JKZ quips that this is an address that many of us share.
The Body Scan is a guided meditation in which we lie down and systematically bring our attention to every part of our body, starting with the big toe and working all the way up to the crown of our head.
The Body Scan is the toughest and hardest meditation in the MBSR programme. Even JKZ admits The Body Scan “is not for everyone.” Not only do we have to deal with the incessant tendency of the mind to wander off into thought, but we also have to resist the descent into sleep that normally happens when we lie down and listen to a gentle soothing voice.
It is no coincidence that the Body Scan is at the core of the MBSR program. For many of us its the first time we have truly connected with every corner of our body. In the Body Scan we shift our attention from our Mind to our Body. We experience bodily sensations as they are and not as how they are emotionally painted by our thoughts.
It is important to remember that the MBSR program started out as a Hospital program to help patients deal with the stress of physical and emotional pain. As JKZ explains, “The awareness of pain is is a different realm from being caught up in pain and struggling with it.”
This is an interesting article for anyone new to a meditation practice. It takes off the fuzzy new-age label that inadvertently got stuck on meditation. It also gives some practical advice on how to prepare for meditation and what to expect.
For anyone new to meditation it’s not about stopping our thoughts. We can’t control them but we can decide how much attention we give them. Through meditation we can begin to open up “gaps” between our thoughts which is where pure awareness and peace reside.
Rather than being a long term bet, the benefits we can gain from meditation are immediate. It creates a greater feeling of calm, reduces anxiety, improves focus and memory, and helps improve empathy and our sense of self.
I loved this article by Catherine Price. Both Catherine Price and Anderson Cooper bring a wry sense of humor to their introduction to Mindfulness.
Interestingly enough, ‘Beginner’s mind’ is a core concept of the Buddhist philosophy that underlies MBSR. The ability to bring our awareness to a familiar thought, object or emotion, as if it was the first time.
In contrast to Deepak Chopra’s article, Catherine reminds us that the fuzzy new-age label that got stuck on Mindfulness is there for a reason. To sit with others in silence for an extended period of time does seem a little weird when we experience it for the first time.
However, Catherine’s article captures two important points.
First, one of the greatest benefit of MBSR is to allow us to live fully the precious moments of our life; to feel the breeze against our skin, the play of light on grass, and the sound of loved one’s laughter.
Second, we can learn to take short mindful snacks in the day by taking a few slow conscious breaths to bring our attention back to the present moment.
Overall this is a very eloquent article and captures the essence of Mindfulness and the benefits it brings.
What I loved about this article is how it takes Mindful eating and nails the whole reason for Mindfulness.
First, the very personal experience is that when we don’t feel satisfied we search around for an escape. It might manifest as raiding the larder, but we have many more unhealthy habits and addictions.
The advice of course is to catch ourselves when we feel unsatisfied and before we find an unhealthy escape. Awareness helps us to recognize our dissatisfaction and to check in with our mind, then with our emotions, and finally with our body.
Often the cause for our ‘hunger’ is fatigue, anxiety, or low mood, and nothing to do with hunger at all.
In this way we replace self-criticism with self-nurturing, anxiety with curiosity, and shame with respect for our inner wisdom.
The mind has two distinct functions, thinking and awareness. When the thinking is turned up, the awareness is turned down. When the thinking function is going full throttle, we can eat an entire meal and finish it with a cake and coffee and not taste more than a bite or two.
Whereas, when we engage Awareness we can bring a richness and enjoyment to our meal which we simply wouldn’t taste otherwise.
Introduction to Mindful Eating by Michelle DuVal
This 9 minutes video is much more than a video on mindful eating, it is also a convincing and compelling argument for mindfulness, or as Michelle puts it:-
“the ability to put the mind in the present.”
We spend most of our lives on automatic pilot allowing habits to dictate our eating habits as well as how we spin out our lives. In short we spend most of our lives in a rut. While a rut has negative connotations it is also a smooth polished channel which provides the easiest and most comfortable path of least resistance. In actual fact it’s not possible to “get stuck in a rut”! That’s why they are so compelling.
The problem with being in a rut is that when we are on automatic pilot we simply can’t and don’t make conscious choices. Our choices are unconscious, the automation makes the choices for us from habit.
This is why change is so hard, because we can only change in the present. If we don’t have the ability to put the mind in the present then we can’t change. Change is only enabled through high awareness.
In itself this is also a wonderful definition of mindfulness, the ability “to put the mind in the present.”
“The choice of how we live our lives is ours but we must be present to choose.”
When we go home in the evening, if we walk into the home in awareness we can choose how we want to turn up for our loved ones.
As a lesson in mindful eating it is important to remember that when we are hungry the body is depleted in nutrients and we start to feel bad and low in energy.
Eating restores our energy levels and makes us feel good. When we eat we feel better.
However, in a world of plenty is it any wonder that it makes sense to us to overeat to make ourselves feel better when we are under stress.
As Michelle says, often when we are hungry it has nothing to do with food. This links into the previous article about the importance of checking in with our mind, heart and body to find out what is the real source of our ‘hunger’.
“Nutrition can mean a heck of a lot more than what’s on the plate.”
Most of us eat on automatic pilot and this happens when we are not present with our food, we may be watching telly, listening to music, or talking. People who do other things when they eat are 18% heavier than those who don’t.
When we eat automatically we don’t decide; what to eat, when to eat, or how much to eat. As we have seen before we can eat a large meal and only taste a few bites.
Of course the other pleasure of bringing mindfulness into our food is the ability to be aware and enjoy the full richness of taste which is denied to us when we are lost in our thoughts and other distractions.
An Apple as Past, Present and Future by Susan Kaiser Greenland
This is a beautiful short and simple 2 minute video which shows how an Apple can represent, Past, Present and Future.
What I love about this analogy is that we can only taste the apple in the Present.
At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.
If mindfulness has a purpose, it is to find calm. It is the way back to our center, to the place of inner peace that lies within us all.
This is not an easy path. Most of the time mindfulness will only make us aware of how far we have wandered from our center. We will see the shadows of suffering cast by the distractions, bad habits and addictions that have grown within us.
But until we recognize and accept our life as it is, we cannot begin the journey back to our center, to our place of inner calm.
Mindfulness is like a bowl, it is both what the bowl is and what the bowl does.
The bowl is nonjudgmental awareness, an ability to watch our thoughts, words and actions without judging them, to become an impartial observer of ourselves.
What the bowl does is to hold our thoughts, words, and actions in this state of nonjudgmental awareness and allows them to marinate.
Meditation is the intentional practice of mindfulness where we sit without distraction for a set period of time. However, this formal practice of meditation can be both a barrier and a limitation in developing a mindfulness practice.
After all we are human and the routine of a busy working day leaves few of us with either the time or the inclination for formal meditation practice.
Instead we can aim for a few nutritional mindfulness snacks throughout the day. Not only will this help us to develop mindfulness, but it gives us a few precious moments to pause, refocus and allow the dust of the day to settle.
In a busy and demanding working day I have found three simple mindfulness practices.
Commas, full stops, and carriage returns. If every day is a page, then it has no definition without commas to add a pause, full stops to take a break, and carriage returns to end one activity and begin another.
We actively need to punctuate our day if we are to prevent it from becoming one long mad blur. I visit calm.com a couple of times a day while I’m at work This takes me for a few wonderful minutes to a distant beach to watch the sun setting, or to dawn in a misty forest to listen to the dawn chorus.
A Walk. There is no better way to draw a line under one part of the day and prepare ourselves for the next than a walk.
Something happens when we step outside the door, context returns and we become part of something bigger than ourselves. Perhaps it’s the sound of the world getting on with its own business without a care for us. Whatever it is, it usually brings perspective and well-being back into our lives.
A deep breathe. In yoga and meditation, the breath lies at the center of mindfulness. We have access to it at any time and in any situation. In the words of Thich Nhat Hahn, “When we breathe in a miracle happens, we stop the thinking. This is the miracle of mindfulness”.
These three simple practices all have one thing in common, they create a pause in the day, a gap in which we can fill our bowl of mindfulness with precious moments.
It doesn’t matter how we develop mindfulness. What matters is that we find our own way back to our center, to reclaim the inner calm that nourishes our very soul.
Mindfulness is defined as nonjudgmental awareness, but what does this mean?
It’s the ability to be aware without the instinctive need to attach our opinion or feeling to the experience. Its developing the skill to become an impartial observer of our thoughts, senses, and experiences.
Here are six reasons why mindfulness is important.
1. To change. The Holy Grail of all personal development blogs, books, and courses is the ability to change ourselves. So many of us seek to become happier, healthier and wealthier, yet even the smallest change is elusive and remains just beyond our grasp. In contrast, change is not an objective of mindfulness, indeed a core principle of mindfulness is to stop our incessant striving. We are always running after one thing or running away from another. Paradoxically, when we stop striving and find stillness, metamorphosis begins.
2. To learn to live with ourselves. Do you live with an underlying dissatisfaction of your life, a sense that if only a few things could change then it would be much happier and more fulfilling? This sense of dissatisfaction is real, it has a bitter taste, it sits heavily on our stomach. It can weigh us down even when there is no apparent cause. In developing mindfulness we learn acceptance, gratitude and compassion. These three gifts dissolve dissatisfaction and can bring joy.
3. To heal our wounds. As we go through life we pick up physical and emotional knocks and bruises. The truth is that few of us make it far through life without experiencing pain and hurt. These experiences stay with us, we keep them in our scrapbook of slights and injustices. Emotional pain can often be felt as acutely years after the event as it was felt at the time. Mindfulness is a tool for dealing with suffering. It’s a poultice that we can apply to a physical or emotional wound. It allows us to experience it as it is, and by bringing our attention to pain we softens its intensity and create the conditions for healing to occur.
4. To deal with distractions, habits & addictions. The smartphone in our pocket is a means of instant communication and information, but it can also be a source of constant distraction. When we repeat distractions we form habits, and habits that are out of control become addictions. The fight for our online attention is now a trillion dollar business. It’s no wonder that every form of psychological trick is used to hook and hold our attention. What is more scary is that we are unaware of the traps that are set for us. Mindfulness can bring us to a place of stillness, a respite from the constant distraction of our modern, technical world.
5. To discover who we are. In many ways who we are is hidden from us. We can look out but rarely do we look back in at ourselves. We can describe in detail our friend’s personalities and their endearing and annoying quirks, but can we describe our own? It is remarkable that the person we know least about is often ourselves. By becoming an impartial observer of our thoughts, words, actions and feelings we begin to get glimpses of our true self. Not who we think we are, but who we truly are.
6. To live another life. There is another life out there waiting for us. It’s much simpler and involves a lot less doing. It requires us to find moments of stillness throughout the day. It means learning to just be and this is much more difficult than we can possibly imagine. For thousands of years the way to this alternative life is to simply wake up. Mindfulness helps to open our eyes to a richer, peaceful and more fulfilling life.
“The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” Henry David Thoreau
Does this resonate with you? Thoreau made this observation in 1847, I see its echo in the shops and on the commuter trains, on the streets and in the workplaces. It resonates with me because I know the fog of despair is like a mist that can engulf you at any time.
“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.” – Henry David Thoreau
“I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is the victory over self.” – Aristotle
“One who conquers himself is greater than another who conquers a thousand times a thousand on the battlefield” – The Buddha
“Real success is success with self. It’s not in having things, but in having mastery, having victory over self.”
– Anwar Sadat
In Walden, Thoreau writes of the power of words. Words, unlike great words of art, never fade. They retain the vigor and vitality of the moment they were first spoken.
We often feel as if we are the first and only person to experience the challenges, mysteries, and suffering that life throws in our direction. However, great minds have pondered these very experiences since we first found symbols to record our thoughts and words.
So to Aristotle, Buddha, Sadat and Thoreau I say thank you. I hear you loud and clear.
It is in mastery of self that we achieve our greatest victory.