Mindfulness is everywhere these days. I was at our local Kroger store yesterday, sampling its magazine section and, sure enough, there were two mindfulness magazines. Go to Whole Foods, it’s the same.
Mindfulness has taken off in the medical community as well, where it’s become increasingly a centerpiece in psychological therapy, helping patients cope with stress, anxiety and depression. (For a sample listing of leading medical schools offering mindfulness curricula, see Medical schools.)
It’s also proven a boon to helping cancer patients live with their pain and the stress of chemotherapy.
Last week, I completed an online course, housed at Leiden University in Holland, called “Demystifying Mindfulness.” According to the university’s figures, some 8000 students have now taken the course, which introduces you to mindfulness and its origins and contemporary applications–psychological, cultural, and political, with a look at its future.
You also get right down to practicing it, listening to guided MP3
sessions, generally 30-40 minutes.
To me, that’s the hard part, finding a time for practice removed from the distractions of daily life, compounded by living in a digital age. Of this, I’m well aware, so I try to get at it right out of bed in the early morning.
Mindfulness practice can take on a myriad of formats, as it teaches you to focus, and you soon discover you can focus on just about anything. But it isn’t easy.
Our minds are wanton wanderers. Buddhists call it the “monkey mind,” where your thoughts just seem to jump randomly, or like a monkey, from tree to tree.
I’m okay with that.
The trick is concentrating on some sensory aspect, i.e, taste, sight, smell, etc., and when the chatter comes, as it surely will, getting back on track. You do this by returning to a focus on your breathing, no mantra or chant needed as in most meditation.
Ultimately, mindfulness helps you live more fully in the present, unburdening yourself from the past with its nostalgia, self-pity, regret, and perhaps anger; likewise, helping you toss your worrying about the future.
Mindfulness teaches you how to get on with life, even in the hard places.
You can practice it in so many ways, like focusing on a candy in your mouth, or intently listening to a loved one, or even while walking or listening to music.
If I were to sum up mindfulness, I’d say it primarily aims, not merely at increasing your awareness, but helping you become more insightful as its reward. In turn, you’ll respond more positively to those around you.
Properly done and practiced daily, mindfulness increases your capacity for empathy, or compassion, for others. After all, when you become more mindful of others, that is, when you really start listening to them, you begin to see yourself as kindred in life’s journey.
As my instructor at Leiden put it, the evidence of your having effectively done mindfulness ultimately exhibits itself in an ethical response to your fellows, along with an effort to ameliorate their life contexts, often imposed by seemingly inherent cultural injustice.
Think about it: Just maybe if we’d all get down to mindfulness we could ultimately bring about a world of fraternity. The revolution I’m talking about doesn’t derive from armed struggle, but the collective, incremental empowerment of reconciliation fostered by a salient awareness of the human kinship that bonds us.
Mindfulness even features exercises that have a direct bearing on helping you achieve greater empathy, or what I like to call emotional intelligence (EQ).
An example of this comes from Dr. Ronald Siegel, a mindfulness therapist at Harvard Medical School:
Cross your hands over your heart.
Think of someone you love, or even of someone who’s brought stress into your life.
Visualize them and say the following:
May you be happy.
May you be peaceful.
May you be free from suffering.
Do this several times.
But keep this caveat in mind: You can’t really love others fully without
self-esteem, resulting in your needing others to validate yourself.
Now say to yourself,
May I be happy.
May I be peaceful.
May I be free from suffering.
While mindfulness won’t cure all of life’s ills, it helps you cope with them, making you aware we’re all in this together.
Discovering yourself and becoming more mindful of others leads to that reciprocal joy Judy Collins famously sings about, and–yes–it can be yours:
Open the door and come right in
I’m so glad to see you my friend
You’re like a rainbow coming around the bend
And when I see you smilie’
Well, it sets my heart free
I’d like to be as good a friend to you
As you are to me.