Mindfulness is an ancient technology that has relevance to today’s problem of chronic stress overload.
Part of the reason we are chronically stressed is because there is a mismatch between the environments our stress systems evolved within and the challenges of contemporary life (see my previous entry on “Stress is Crucial, So Is Learning to Decrease It”).
Our capacity for vivid imagination can make things worse if our thoughts run towards worried concerns for the future or regretful ruminations over the past. When our mind is “unsupervised” it can get into a lot of trouble, creating stress overload. There was a cartoon in The New Yorker that showed a stressed looking man clutching the arms of a chair. His wife says to him, with a look of pity and concern, “You should never engage in unsupervised introspection.” This is a good definition of the target for mindfulness. Such unsupervised introspection can cause distressing emotions and automatic reactive behavior leading to stress. Mindfulness shows us how to supervise our minds.
The father of American psychology, William James, said 100 years ago that our intellectual life consists almost wholly in our substitution of a conceptual order for the perceptual order in which our experience originally lives. He points to our tendency to live in concepts and stories and how we can be out of touch with our actual lived experience that is occurring right now.
The definition for mindfulness that I used in my book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness is, “an intentional and curious directing of attention to our experience as it unfolds in the present moment, one moment following the next — the very happening of our experience as it is happening without commentary, judgment, or storytelling.”
Mindfulness is not about suppressing thinking but recognizing that it is occurring and not elaborating it automatically and without choice. Mindfulness is the ability to cultivate awareness and the ability to retrieve attention from the future or past, or commentary about the present to bring it into intimate contact with what is happening right now.
Sounds rather simple, right? Well, it is. While mindfulness may be “simple” in the sense of being uncomplicated, this does not mean it is “easy” to do. Our minds don’t want to stay in the present and will keep going to the future and past or talking about the present rather than being with the present. These are long-standing and strong mental habits.
To better realize the “simple” nature of mindfulness, most of us need to train our minds and for that reason we practice mindfulness meditation. We practice coming back from the future and past to the very being of this moment, training awareness to disengage from telling stories to attend in this experiential way to what is actually happening.
The more we practice coming back, the more adept we’ll become at catching ourselves in a place we’d rather not be and coming back to now. With mindfulness practice we learn to supervise our minds in a gentle and skillful way. We learn to undo the exchange of the conceptual for the perceptual and dwell in the ordinary perceptual experience of this moment. And by doing so, help ourselves to reduce stress.
You can practice mindfulness meditation with me every Friday morning live and online in the eMindful.com video classroom. These guided meditations are offered free of charge from 8:00 to 8:45 AM. If you can’t make it on Fridays, there is an instructor in the classroom everyday of the week. To see a previously recorded session click on the link below.
Arnie Kozak, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, meditation instructor, and author of Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness(Wisdom, 2009). He also the founder of the Exquisite Mind in Burlington, Vermont and writes a daily blog entitled Mindfulness Matters: Tools for Living Now!
As an expert in stress reduction, wellness, and mindfulness, Arnie will present weekly practical wisdom for transforming stress. His award-winning writing will help you to lead a richer and happier life.
- DESTRESS: Spring is a Time to Notice Transitions
- DESTRESS: There is No Time Like the Present
- Mindfulness of Breathing :: Becoming and Dissolving as an Antidote to Stress
- Inviting Silence to Quiet Stress
- Mindfulness :: Human Being Versus Human Doing
- DESTRESS: Don’t Just Go With The Flow, Make Your Own Flow