“All his life has he looked away... to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing.” – Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back
Recent studies (for examples, see here, here, and here) continue to attest to the effectiveness of a special form of meditation, called mindfulness meditation, for the treatment of psychological distress and the cultivation of a greater sense of well-being.
Mindfulness is a word that describes the practice of present-moment awareness.
Without even realizing it, most of us spend a lot of time and energy engaged with the narratives that our minds create about who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. These narratives, or "stories," shape our feelings and color our expectations about the future. For many people who suffer from chronic anxiety, stress, anger, or depression, these stories about the past and future tend to be negative and full of judgments. They have what some psychologists call an "inner critic" - a habit of thinking negatively - and it can be a difficult habit to break. Through regular mindfulness practice, you can begin to break old habits of thought.
Mindfulness has two components: awareness of the present moment, and nonjudgment.
Awareness of the Present Moment:
Most people are busy, and when we are super busy it is easy to take our thoughts for granted. It is especially easy to get caught up in our automatic assumptions about things that are happening. Usually, these assumptions are heavily influenced by past experiences and expectations about the future.
Most of us engage in this sort of automatic thinking without realizing it. You get cut-off in traffic and assume that the person did it on purpose. You stand in line at the store and feel like your line is moving slowest. "Just my luck," you think to yourself. "This ALWAYS happens to me." You get home and your partner makes an off-hand comment about something that rubs you the wrong way. Immediately, you are flooded with negative emotions and fire back with something hurtful.
In a thousand little ways throughout the day, knee-jerk judgments and assumptions about yourself and the world around you cause stress, anger, and anxiety. We often tell ourselves stories about what is happening and then react to those stories as thought they were facts. Like I said, we usually don't even notice we are doing it. Even worse, when this sort of operating becomes a solid habit we can feel powerless to change it.
Where do these stories - these assumptions and judgments - come from? They come from memories about past events and expectations about future events. The human mind naturally stores information about the past and uses it to make predictions about the future. That's how you know the fastest route to work, or that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. But our stories about the past aren't always accurate, and our expectations about the future don’t always come to pass. It is easy to forget that they are just stories - representations of events that we create in our minds.
Think about it. Every moment that passes becomes memory, and numerous studies have shown that human memory is highly subjective. We all distort the past to suit our individual biases. Any good lawyer will tell you that eye-witness testimony is highly unreliable. People are suggestible and vulnerable to a number of cognitive distortions that have been well-established. Memories aren't facts. They are stories about events that happened, and every story has a point of view, a perspective. What about the future? Well, we have our expectations about things that will happen, but they are just that: expectations. The future and our ideas about it aren't guaranteed.
The only thing that is ACTUAL is the present moment. And when we take our stories about the past and expectations about the future for granted, we lose contact with the present moment.
Try this: remember what you ate for breakfast today.
Now notice yourself remembering. Notice yourself deciding if it tasted good or bad and recalling what was going on around you. Maybe it's a weekday and you were feeling rushed to get to work. Or maybe it's the weekend and you got to enjoy a leisurely breakfast. Notice how you feel as you remember it.
This is the skill that mindfulness helps us develop: the ability to notice our brains at work. Through mindfulness we can become more familiar with the assumptions and automatic judgments that our minds produce throughout the day. We can learn to create space to step back from all of this mental noise and realize that we are not identical to our thoughts. Mindfulness is the practice of tuning in to thoughts as they occur instead of taking them for granted and just reacting to them.
What are judgments, really? They are just more stories. Judgments influence our feelings and our behavior. They necessarily collapse experience down to a narrow perspective. The world will not fit into the tiny space created by a person’s judgments about it. No person you will ever meet will be accurately described by anyone’s judgments about them – and this includes your judgments about yourself. Everyone and everything is MUCH MORE than whatever judgments or stories we create to describe them. Mindfulness is about actively cultivating this awareness and learning to keep it at the forefront of our minds.
Please note that I am not saying that all judgments are bad. Judgments can be helpful. For instance, judgments can help us avoid potentially dangerous situations or people. They can help us determine our likes and dislikes. They can help us learn about ourselves and the world around us. There is nothing wrong with having a perspective. The goal of mindfulness is not to stop having judgments. Rather, it is to increase your awareness of whatever judgments you are making, and to increase your ability to recognize each judgment as one of many, many possible perspectives. Mindfulness is about accepting authorship of each perspective and judgment that we create. Such a practice encourages living more consciously and more deliberately.
Consider these questions:
- How many judgments do you have about yourself, the world, and other people?
- How lost do you get in negative appraisals of the future – based on judgments about things that have happened in the past?
- How much beauty and joy do you miss because of mental filters that keep these experiences from entering your life?
- How much time do you spend worrying about things that could happen, but likely won’t?
- How many moments are missed – spent lost in preoccupations about a future that you have filled with ideas about the worst possible outcomes?
- How many opportunities for joy are missed because you try to prevent the future you have made up from becoming a reality?
Practicing mindfulness can help you engage in these behaviors less often. It can help you become more open to joy and to live more consciously.
How to do it:
As a technique, mindfulness meditation is very simple. Just sit silently in a quiet and comfortable place for five minutes or longer. Focus on your breathing. Pay attention to your breath as it flows in and out through your nose. Take the breath all the way down into your abdomen. Don’t force it or try to make your breathing fit some preconceived rhythm. You want to simply watch your breathing. As you do this, your mind will begin to wander. This is normal. When you notice that your thoughts have strayed from your breath, simply notice what you were thinking and feeling. Try not to indulge it. Instead, try watching this part of your mind like a play on a stage. Accept whatever thought or feeling has appeared as though it were a character on that stage. Accept it. Then let it go, and gently (and without judging yourself) redirect your mind back to your breath. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.
At first, you may find it very challenging to stay focused on your breath. Your mind has long been in the habit of being anywhere but the present moment. Judgments about yourself and the world may appear again and again, often beguiling you away from the present moment. Memories about the past and plans/worries about the future will pop up repeatedly. Just notice them and gently redirect your awareness to your breath. With time and practice, you will become more familiar with these thoughts and the feelings of angst that they generate within you. As you begin living more in the present moment, you will likely find that feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression decrease.
By reserving some time each day to sit in silent mindfulness meditation, you can strengthen your ability to be more mindful – more aware - throughout the day. Along with this comes increased empathy, decreased stress, a greater sense of well-being, and greater ability to enjoy and appreciate each present moment.
Try it for yourself and see what happens.
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Mark Ettensohn, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist (PSY 25461) in private practice in Sacramento, CA. He specializes in psychotherapy with adults, adolescents, and couples.
To learn more about Dr. Ettensohn, please visit his website at www.DrEttensohn.com
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