Mindfulness: An Ancient Remedy for a Modern Problem

August 30, 2010
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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.

Morning Meditation 6 August 2010 from Arnold Kozak on Vimeo.

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.

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6 Responses to Mindfulness: An Ancient Remedy for a Modern Problem

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by George Gombossy, Peter H Brown. Peter H Brown said: Mindfulness: An Ancient Remedy for a Modern Problem | Connecticut … http://bit.ly/csdfgH #mindfulness [...]

  2. [...] my last entry, Mindfulness: An Ancient Remedy for a Modern Problem, I discussed the importance of mindfulness and gave an overview of a mindful approach to life. In [...]

  3. Elaine Coleman on September 5, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Thanks, George for the piece on MIndfulness and the info about the Friday morning video classroom. As I search for work, so many employers want people who can “multitask.” Multitasking wastes more time that concentrating on one thing at a time. I’ve multi-tasked all my life. (How many things can YOU do while sitting on the toilet??) Multi-tasking is a precursor to and, often, to failure.

    I am a recovering multi-tasker. The classroom will be a huge support.

    For me, MIndfulness as the opposite of multi-tasking. It’s the only alternative. I just have to remember to keep living it.

    • Valerie on September 7, 2010 at 5:57 am

      Elaine, I couldn’t agree more!
      I too am a recovering multi-tasker and I find it nothing less than absurd as I read some of the “qualfications” and “skills” that employers are requiring for $9/hr. Must be highly motivated, self-starter, multi-tasker, able to take on various challenging personalities while maintaining professionalism and juggling priorities, internet and research savvy, MS applications, and bilingual preferred. All other duties as assigned. p.s. No medical or dental benefits with this job.
      Most anyone that have these qualifications are at least in their mid 30s and cannot live in the contintental U.S. for those wages, nor would give up their sanity to do so.
      Just reading these types of job descriptions would give me a headache. I’m learning to simplify my life and I value my time and peaceful atmosphere above many other pleasures of life. i hope to join the Friday morning video classroom to continue cultivating mindfulness and staying present.
      thanks for your post.

  4. The nature of mindfulness on September 8, 2010 at 11:19 am

    [...] mindfulness, you have some of the best ways to deal with our stressful world. Here is another great article on mindfulness. Below are some gems that I got out of the article. Our capacity for vivid imagination can make [...]

  5. Suryanarayana Chennapragada on September 20, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    One of the ancient techniques for developing mindfulness is ‘Focusing on breathing’. I have been practicing and teaching this since 2002 using several modes, to make it doable anytime, anywhere, any place even by children 4 years old. These are described in this web page
    http://focusingonbreathing.wordpress.com/level-i-focusing-on-breathing/relax-anywhere-any-time-by-focusing-on-breathing/ (non-commercial)

    There is extensive feedback from the practitioners on how it helped relieve several problems of mind, body and relationships in my web site http://countingbreaths.com/. (non-commercial)

    I invite any questions by e-mail from interested persons: csrao1003@gmail.com.

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