Mindfulness has become a common word in today’s world. This is good news but also brings along many questions about how it really can be integrated into one’s life and how it might impact one’s outlook. I began meditating over 30 years ago but throughout the years my practice has gone through a variety of permutations. At times I had a committed practice and at other times it was less available. However, for the last 10 years I have been sitting nearly everyday. So why does this matter?
What I have learned is that the concentration habits, i.e. formal meditation, we establish, allow a perspective that is more open and friendly to others and myself. I find that when I include formal meditation practice in the morning, (for me this is sitting meditation for 30 minutes and some form of mindful movement) I am able to remember to be mindful more moments during the day. What this does, is bring a moment of pause into whatever it is I am doing. Whether I am walking somewhere, preparing a meal, doing laundry, changing my clothes, brushing my hair, having a cup of tea, etc., I know that is what I am doing. This simple awareness, knowing what I am doing when I am doing it, is a big part of mindfulness.
So how does this change or help me? The reality is, things are always changing and being able to be with the changes, especially the ones we don’t like, is what makes being mindful such a gift. When I just acknowledge, “OK, this is the way it is right now” I find space and less clinging to wanting things to be different. This applies to the things I am enjoying, too. Because I know those things won’t last either. A big part of this mindfulness practice is simply accepting that things are the way they are without resisting them. A common expression used is ‘pain x resistance = suffering’.
Mindfulness and Mental Health
There is an abundance of research available that supports the use of mindfulness practice in therapy. As a counselor, I have come to believe that my own consistent meditation practice has provided me with the skills to offer a deep listening presence with the person seeking support. I have moved from being the helper, the one with the knowledge of ‘how to’ change or fix something that is perceived as wrong or unhealthy, to a participant in the relationship. It is based on awareness and interaction supported by generosity, balance, and especially, compassion. This relationship foundation allows for growth and wellness as an evolving, emerging process. My guidance is offered as a structure or a container for the needed steps an individual decides to take.
Neuroscience offers a model for understanding how meditation practices actually change the brain. The basic understanding is that the more moments spent in a calm and easeful awareness, the more neurons are firing and wiring together to enhance that state in times of stress and challenge. As humans, with evolved brains, we have a system that sends signals to protect us from danger by fighting or fleeing, as well as allowing us to connect and feel empathy, and that keeps us thinking, doing, planning and remembering in order to support our idea of self. By knowing about the relationship of stress to the body, even in a simplistic way, we can learn how to respond rather than react. Reacting is only necessary in times of danger so bringing a moment of pause into our daily experiences, or having the intention to slow down and pay attention, will allow for less time spent in a state of arousal. This allows the stress response of the sympathetic nervous system to take care of the body without living in the stress response for hours, days and years, which can result in many health related problems. The stress response is necessary in times of danger, but what happens for many people is that we stay in an aroused stressful state or anxious mood due to the thoughts we have about events that have happened in the past or might occur in the future. The practice of meditation allows us to be in the present, in a place where things are just as they are for now. By remembering that “I am OK right now” and that everything will change whether I like it or not, I am experiencing a sense of wellness, for just that moment, and each moment of remembering, or mindfulness, is emerging into the next moment. Which in a way, is accepting any particular situation or feeling as temporary and allows for a fluid experience rather than a sense of being hooked or caught by a thought, feeling, or desire for things to be different.
Mindfulness practice is a straightforward and simple practice but it is not easy to do. We have more practice being human doings than simply human beings, being with what is. So it is helpful to have a support when learning to slow down, pay attention and be present. This is especially important when life experiences or traumas have increased the state of the body/mind to be anxious or self-critical, or to be living with the pain of loss or ill health. Primarily, practice consists of making a commitment to learn some skills (how to position the body, what to pay attention to- such as the breath, and how to be with direct experience as it arises and passes away) and then having the intention to be the best one can be in maintaining the skills. It is like any other endeavor we undertake as humans, we do our best and we see what happens. Mindfulness is remembering to be awake and present moment by moment without judgment.