Fran Miller, Ph.D. ©
Mindfulness has become a popular topic recently. There are books, articles, websites, and apps related to it; but you may wonder what the primary purpose of mindfulness is and how it can be helpful. Mindfulness and meditation have been practiced for a long time, even preceding Sidharta Gautama, known as the Buddha, who lived around 500 B.C. There are two primary reasons that mindfulness has become popular, though, in recent time.
One is the increase in today’s stressors. It is clear from my psychotherapy practice that people who are coming in to therapy are suffering from more severe levels of stress than ten or fifteen years ago. It appears that anxiety and depression have increased in the general population along with other forms of distress like obsessive compulsive tendencies and social anxiety. This is a period of high stress due to a combination of factors: financial difficulties, high unemployment, the cost of education, the diminishment of the American Dream, international tensions, political stalemate, extreme weather, and the increase of the reliance on technology.
In addition, the teachings and practices from other cultures have become better known and accepted such as martial arts, Oriental medicine, Eastern philosophy, and meditation. Research on the effects of meditation is impressive, and we now know that mindfuless and meditation have many diverse positive effects on physical, behavioral, psychological, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
In talking about mindfulness, it is important to differentiate “mindfulness practice” from “mindfulness meditation”. Mindfulness meditation is one of the three classical forms of meditation. The other two are insight or Vipassana meditation and concentration meditation. Mindfulness as a practice is considered “taking meditation off the cushion”. We refer to mindfulness as a practice that we do “off the cushion” during the activities of our daily lives – brushing our teeth, getting dressed, preparing and eating meals, driving the car. At first mindfulness is practiced during activities like these when you have time to focus your attention on something other than what you are doing. Then slowly if mindfulness practice is pursued, the ability to be mindful will begin to take place during other times as well, until it becomes an habitual and comfortable general way of being.
One of the important changes that can take place with long term mindfulness practice is that habitual negative patterns of thinking are transformed or eliminated so that events can be experienced in their purity without a conceptual overlay. Habit patterns of thinking include evaluations, discriminations, judgments, opinions, analyses, preferences, and distractions. I’ll describe some examples to help you understand what I mean.
When I was working on the dissertation for my Ph.D. program, I lived in a studio apartment on the strand in Redondo Beach, California. Almost every day people would drive up and park out front to watch the sunset. They would wander down to the beach or just simply sit in their car until the sun was down, and then one by one they would go on their way. Now what was going on in their minds as they watched the sunset? Here are some examples of possibilities that illustrate negative cognitive patterns.
Evaluations–”This sunset has too many thick clouds. There is poor light and not a lot of color today.”
Discrimination–”This sunset doesn’t compare to the one we saw last week. Last week the sunset had many colors and was extremely bright before it set. I think I’ll take off and go on home.”
Judgment–”This sunset is dark with blues and greys. Reds and violet colors in a sunset are good, but a lot of blues and greys don’t cut it.”
Opinion–”I like sunsets that move slowly so that you can see all the colors and changes. I don’t like this one.”
Analysis — “The varied colors are made up of fine particulate matter colored by the cast of the sunlight.”
Preference–”I prefer sunsets that are very bright, where you can see the colors in the sky reflected on the water. The water’s too choppy tonight.”
Distraction–”What are those kids doing? Oh, they are running down the beach with a lot of kites. There seems to be high wind today.”
On the other hand, an example of a pure experience of the sunset might be:
”Aaahhh the sunset. Reds, yellow, orange, violet. The suns last rays sparkle and dance on the water.” Or — “Ohhhh, the dark clouds cast a deep shadow over the choppy water.”
There are two problems with negative cognitive habits. One is that the negative patterns often include self critical elements and cause stress, anxiety, depression, and low self esteem as well as influencing many other types of psychopathology. The other problem is that with negative cognitive patterns we are missing out on the full range of our life’s experience. We are learning from neurological research that an increase in calm and mindfulness changes the actual structure and composition of the brain. It reduces anxiety and depression, calms anger and rage, changes the way we perceive and integrate experiences, promotes healthy communication and relationships, increases creativity, increases our capacity for sitting meditation, and increases compassion and equanimity. For the practice of one activity to bring about so many positive changes is truly impressive.
In addition to negative habit patterns, a great deal of our thinking time is spent on the future or the past. We are either planning, hoping, and fantasizing about the future or remembering the past with regret, remorse, or negative evaluations — or else we are dwelling on or wanting to repeat some event from the past. When we are focusing on the future or the past, we are not fully in the present.
Mindfulness practice is a way to re-condition ourselves — to train our brain — to reduce or eliminate automatic negative thoughts, to limit the amount of mental time we spend in the future or the past, and it leads to the benefits described above. But how do we go about learning to be mindful and to develop a mindfulness practice?
When we begin to practice mindfulness, we can say simple sentences to ourselves without any judgment or evaluation. The effort is to be aware of your breathing and your sensory input from moment to moment without including a negative cognitive habit along with it. Now I’m brushing my teeth. The toothpaste tastes sharp and minty on my tongue. Now I feel the warm water as I wash my face. I feel the texture of the material as I put on my shirt. I taste the cereal and feel the cold temperature of the milk. The banana is sweet today. As I walk I hear the wind in the trees. The Fall leaves are flying in the wind. As we develop our ability to focus on the present, we can begin to quiet our mind and use less verbiage. For example we can simply say to ourselves, “warmth”, “cold”, “sweet”, “wind”, “leaves”. Or we can simply refer to our senses: “seeing”, “hearing”, smelling”, “tasting”, “sensing” (with a physical sensation) or “feeling” (with an emotion). As we develop skill at being in the present moment, we can experience and unite ourselves with our environment almost without words. Just being and experiencing the present moment now.
Practicing mindfulness does not mean that we don’t make evaluations, judgments or discriminations when they are needed. It means we don’t focus on analysis or negativity when we don’t need to or when it causes unnecessary distress. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t mean you deny negative emotions. When you are having a negative experience, describe the experience just as it is. Make decisions to take action, and to deal with the negative event as is appropriate. With negative emotions: “Now I feel my anger rising up.” “Today I feel less motivated.” “I’m feeling some anxiety.” You simply experience the emotion without any judgment or criticism and with acceptance. Some emotions are positive. Some emotions are negative. It is not the goal to have only positive emotions. The goal is to be accepting of our emotions as they are, positive and negative, and to manage them and make choices about them as needed. In the Sutra on The Four Establishments of Mindfulness, Sidharta Gautama, The Buddha said, (loose translation) “When you are having a pleasant feeling, say to yourself, ‘I am having a pleasant feeling.‘ When you are having a painful feeling, say to yourself, ‘I am having a painful feeling.‘ When you are having neither a pleasant nor a painful feeling, say to yourself, ‘I am having neither a pleasant nor a painful feeling.’” This is a very simple and amazing instruction! (See Article, Pleasant and Painful Feelings.)
With mindfulness, the goal is to breathe slower, to breathe deeply, to move and communicate more deliberately with awareness, and to stay focused on the present without the cognitive distortions described above. Focus your attention on your five senses — seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, sensing, as well as feeling and naming your emotions. Remember to be aware of each sensory input fully and to label it only as its pure experience. Let go of evaluation, discrimination, judgment, opinion, preference and distraction. Experience the sunset just as it is; your day just as it is.
With mindfulness we want to let go of negativity, distractions, and discrimination and to focus our attention on our sensory input and our breath. In the Anapananusmriti Sutta, the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, Section Two, Buddha, instructed: “Breathing in a long breath, he knows, ‘ I am breathing in a long breath’. Breathing out a long breath, he knows, ‘I am breathing out a long breath’. Breathing in a short breath, he knows, ‘I am breathing in a short breath’. Breathing out a short breath, he knows, ‘I am breathing out a short breath’”. And Thich Nhat Hanh writes in “Peace is Every Breath”, “Breathing in I feel my breath coming in…., breathing out I feel my breath going out….” According to their simple teachings, our focus can be on our breath, body, and feelings in each present moment.
Again, these are the most simple of instructions which, with intent and effort, we can easily implement. We are born with our first breath; we will die with our last breath. Our breath is always with us. Our breath is our anchor, our foundation, and our home. With this simple practice of letting go of our concerns and coming home to our breath, we will feel less stress and anxiety and develop a deep sense of inner peace.
As Yasatani Roshi, a Buddhist Master, often said, “Every day is a good day.” Robert Aitken, Roshi quotes Yun-men’s Verse,
Spring comes with flowers, autumn with the moon,
Summer with breeze, winter with snow.
When idle concerns don’t hang in your mind,
That is your best season.