MBSR Wk 1 – The Ability to put our Mind in the Present

The Ancient of Days by William Blake

This is a commentary on Week 1 of the amazing Online Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course run by Palouse Mindfulness and available for free. Yes free. Yay!

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.

William Blake

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.

The Body Scan Meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn

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.”

7 Myths of Meditation by Deepak Chopra

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.

What would it take for you to be still? by Catherine Price

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.

Mouthfuls of Mindfulness by Jan Chozen Bays

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.

MBSR Wk 1 – The Ability to put our Mind in the Present