Mindful or Mindless?
By Ronnie Biemans, Dec 16 2016 05:37PM
What is all the buzz about mindfulness? It seems like nearly every day I see an article in the newspaper or a magazine about mindfulness and mindfulness meditation.
Several years ago while visiting relatives in England, I was amused by the slogan in the London subway system emblazoned on mugs, t-shirts, and posters: Mind the Gap. Simply put, the slogan meant pay attention lest you fall between the subway platform and the train—mind the gap between the two. Aha! Being mindful means to pay attention, tune in, be present. Okay. I can do that, no problem. Being mindful can keep you safe (no falls between subway platforms and trains), and that’s a good thing.
What is Mindfulness?
What, exactly, though is mindfulness? Is it the same thing as “Be safe, be cautious?” Is it more? According to Brantley and Millstine in their book, Five Good Minutes, mindfulness is “the awareness that arises as you pay attention on purpose with a friendly and accepting attitude.” All of us at some point can recall feeling at one with an activity. Perhaps it was while weeding in the garden, or doing the dishes in the morning, working out at the gym, or taking a run. Athletes sometimes call this being in the zone. Mindfulness is about being fully aware of whatever is happening in the present moment. It is a way of relating directly and more fully to your life. It isn’t something that you have to get or acquire. You already have it within you; it’s simply a matter of practicing to be more present. Being mindful means being present consciously.
Mindfulness is a Buddhist practice, but you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness in daily living. Philosophers and poets such as Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hafiz, Rumi, and Mary Oliver have written about mindful practice, often in nature. Thoreau said, “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink, I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.” Mindfulness is a way of life that can be practiced formally and informally. Formal practice means taking time out each day to intentionally meditate while sitting, standing, or lying down. The meditation focuses on the breath, bodily sensations, sounds, other senses, or thoughts and emotions. Informal practice involves approaching daily activities, such as eating, exercising, doing chores, and relating to others, with an open heart and mind.
More on Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is based on centuries of Buddhist teachings, but similar practices are available in other cultures. In the United States, Jon Kabat- Zinn, among others, has explored, researched, and taught the value of this meditative style for over 30 years. In his book, Wherever You go There You Are , Kabat-Zinn states, “Mindfulness will not conflict with any beliefs or traditions – religious or for that matter scientific – nor is it trying to sell you anything, especially not a new belief system or ideology. It is simply a practical way to be more in touch with the fullness of your being through a systematic process of self-observation, self-inquiry, and mindful action.”
There are two main forms of meditation: insight meditation and concentration meditation. Mindfulness is considered insight meditation, since it brings full attention to the body and mind in the present moment without trying to alter or manipulate the experience. Through this experience a greater self-awareness arises. The task is simply to observe. In contrast, with concentration meditation, the focus is on concepts, imagery, or a mantra. A sense of tranquility is one of the benefits of the mind being deeply absorbed with the meditation object. With concentration meditation, you become one with the object of focus, leading to greater meditative absorption,whereas with insight meditation, you begin to see the ever changing nature of body and mind and the difficulties that can arise from fixed, self-limiting definitions of who you think you are. In time, with practice, insights develop that deepen your understanding of what fuels your stress and suffering, and this can lead to a more balanced and peaceful life.
Avoiding Pain, Seeking Pleasure
Mindfulness meditation can help us to gain insight into how we generate distress and find ways to increase flexibility and calm. As human beings, we operate continuously on a pain-pleasure-sensing continuum. It is completely natural to avoid pain and seek pleasure; we all do it from the moment we are born. Our drive to avoid pain and seek pleasure can drive us to mindless , thoughtless behaviors and habits such as excessive neediness in relationships, self centeredness, overeating, compulsive gambling and sex addiction. Meditation can help us avoid habit-forming , addictive, mindless behaviors that may harm us or those we love. Over time, with regular practice, mindfulness meditation helps develop self awareness that can increase tolerance for pain or discomfort and reduce compulsive, pleasure-seeking behavior. As in all practices that involve addressing difficult behavior or emotions, we must pace ourselves so we do not become overwhelmed. With patience , personal insight will develop.
Responding to others appropriately is an art of clear seeing, awareness, and appropriate response. Through mindfulness practice we can develop greater awareness of our emotions and improve our responses to our own and others needs. In short, we learn to be aware and see ourselves and others more clearly.
Be Aware, Rise and Shine
Mindful meditation is not tuning out. It is not levitating up to the heavens. It is not a dream state. What mindful meditation can be is an opportunity that you create for yourself to practice calmness, find energy, and become more serene, tranquil, and self aware. Perhaps the Indian,mystic poet Kabir says it best:
My inside, listen to me, the greatest spirit, The Teacher, is near, Wake up, wake up!
Run to his feet- he is standing close to your head right now. You have slept for millions and millions of years. Why not wake up this morning?
About the Author:
Informed by over 25 years of professional training and work experience as well as her many years of meditation and yoga practice, Ronnie Biemans, M.A., L.C.P.C., is guided by a core philosophy to focus on strengths, not deficits or pathology. By discovering, restoring and optimizing each person’s unique ability to thrive and meet the demands, of today’s fast-paced, stressful world, those who have encountered physical and emotional health challenges can discover ways to improve their lives and well being. Operating from her home office and in other community settings, Ronnie provides guidance and support to individuals, families and groups seeking to live healthy, balanced lives.