‘The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui [master of himself] if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.’
William James (1842-1910)
Harvard professor & father of modern psychology
Considering William James’ statement above, now listen to researcher Matt Killingsworth on the connection between mind-wandering and happiness.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is most commonly referred to as a kind of present moment awareness – a process of ‘being here now’. Yet to define it in such simple terms does us all a disservice. While the skill of being ever-present is undeniably part of mindfulness practice, in reality it is only one facet of the complex gem it truly is and to effectively reduce the practice down to some kind of mind-ninja training whereby we rigidly anchor attention in the present moment for it’s own purpose, vastly oversimplifies it and it’s true intent.
The Oxford dictionary qualifies it as …
‘… the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment’
Which highlights the equally important qualities of intentionality, acceptance and non-judgementality, all of which help to bring greater color, depth & warmth to the seemingly, cold & unflinching stare of ‘now’ that the practice might otherwise be.
While many teachers have pointed out that despite our pets being quite clearly capable of keeping their attention firmly anchored in the present, good old Fido isn’t usually troubled about yesterdays car chase or what might (or might not) be for dinner tonight, so is he mindful? Unlikely. For that we require the capacity for all those vital qualities of intentionality, acceptance and non-judgementality, alongside others such as curiosity, patience, wisdom, clear understanding and good old kindness. All of these infuse the practice, adding a deep, rich dimensionality and allow for it to be the radical vehicle for extraordinary and truly lasting personal transformation it can be.
When skillfully cultivated, the practice allows us us to not only truly see, understand and be with the reality of our moment by moment experience, but also to be able to consciously frame the most wise and helpful response to that experience. We consciously respond to what is actually happening rather than unconsciously react to what the mind imagines or projects is going on.
In this simple, present-moment engagement with reality lies the potential ever-present kernel of our own true happiness!
Is it meditation?
Yes … and!
Look the word meditation has been co-opted by everything from How Find Your Soul Mate to Get The Job Of Your Dreams these days so it’s clear that the term can be open to a confusingly broad interpretation. This is the reason you’ll notice I will often refer to it more as a practice (or the practice) though it is undoubtedly meditation. And just to be clear we are not trying to create, manufacture or manifest anything with this practice. It is simply a way of being fully present to all experience, moment by moment exactly as it is, both in formal and informal practice.
As you’ll hopefully discover, all our informal daily life experiences contain opportunities for practice however, mindfulness is undoubtedly taught as a formal meditation practice – mostly by sitting (though also walking, standing and lying down) whilst intentionally directing one’s attention to a chosen point of focus, and then resting that focus within the framework of those previously mentioned qualities of kindness, curiosity etc. Emphasis is placed on the calm, quiet seated posture, and it is certainly fundamentally important to practice in this way regularly (preferably daily), but also we can begin to bring the same awareness to all aspects of our everyday life: meeting and reframing all experiences in more helpful, healing and wholesome ways.
While there are an enormous variety of meditation styles and techniques available, the type of mindfulness meditation I will teach you is a variety of practice drawn from the Insight meditation (or Vipassana) traditions. It is the same practice referred to in the many Mindfulness-Based programs (MBSR, MBCT etc) and also in much of the vast body of scientific research which has revealed its many benefits – an overwhelming proportion of which have used the eight-week MBSR program as the primary research tool. These are a variety of techniques that have been drawn directly from ancient Buddhist practices (please note: you will not become a Buddhist simply by practicing these meditations!), and as such they have been in continuous use for almost 2600 years. So clearly there’s been plenty of opportunity to iron out the bugs!
Finally, it’s often described as a kind of non-conceptual learning, and so all the traditional educational techniques will never impart what is truly meant or intended. There are no mindfulness CliffsNotes, no short cuts and no secret back door hacks. Mindfulness cannot be acquired from a book, a movie, a TV series, workshop or lecture. Nor is it sufficient enough to just do a little mindful cleaning or have a mindful cup of tea, helpful as they might be.
Though the intention is for it to become an integrated whole-life practice, it must be experientially learned and cultivated via formal meditation practice. The proximal cause for mindfulness to arise is in the intentional, moment-by-moment cultivation and while the informal practices are important, you will need to be engaging in the formal practices.
Here’s a short but wonderful clip from Headspace‘s Andy Puddicombe on mindfulness
Why would I do it?
If what you’ve already heard hasn’t been convincing enough about the multiple benefits, including how it leads to greater ease and happiness, then let’s look a little more at what it does and how.
Firstly it helps us meet the rambling nature of our mind as it traipses forward and back though time, vainly attempting to either change events that have already happened or predict ones that are yet to occur. That ongoing chain underpins much of the sense of overwhelm and exhaustion which characterizes daily life for most of us. That we humans have this marvelous thinking box on top of our shoulders is an undeniable bonus but the downside is that the ability to predict also allows us to attempt to predict (and replay again and again!) what may go or has gone wrong. Sadly, we humans seem to suffer an evolutionary quirk known as pessimism bias. In our less evolved incarnation, constantly scanning for danger was a useful evolutionary hedge against an early demise. But in this hectic, modern, always-on age it usually means we wind up mindlessly stuck in an unconscious mental mire, seeing only the downsides and reacting accordingly. This defective default position once activated, underpins the unhelpful ruminative thinking patterns that these days we tend to label as simply ‘life stress’, which consequently delivers the full gamut of health downsides we’re now only too familiar with in our contemporary ever-on age.
The neuroscientist and long term practitioner Rick Hanson has characterized the mind’s default position as: positive emotions are like teflon whereas negative one’s are like velcro and that mindfulness practice is a kind of ‘self-directed neuroplasticity‘. In his book Hardwiring Happiness Rick tells us, ‘… with practice, you’ll learn to light up the neural circuits of positive states even when you’re rattled or upset, like reaching through clutter to get the tool you need.’
A few areas it has been shown to offer greater happiness and wellbeing:
- Improved physical and mental health
- Improved focus, clarity, mental ability (even after an 8 week training it can lead to functional brain change and increases in brain density) and greater concentration
- Improved sleep quality and better energy levels
- Greater levels of physical and mental resilience and significantly reduced symptoms of stress
- Management of chronic pain conditions
- Help prevent CVD and lower hypertension
- Increased emotional intelligence and emotional regulation
- Help manage dysfunctional eating and to develop healthy dietary habits
Below is a short presentation from Harvard’s Sara Lazar on her fascinating landmark study showing how just 8 weeks of mindfulness practice can remake your brain fro the better!