You know, as a member of the human race you are blessed with some truly awesome mental capabilities, but like most people you probably take them for granted. Your imagination and your intelligence for example...where would you be without them?
What you may not realize is that there is another aspect of your mind that is just as powerful as imagination and intelligence. You may be unaware of its awesome power. It’s mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a form of self-awareness that I will describe as "a state of being in the present moment and accepting things for what they are without judgement".
This concept was originally taken from Buddhist meditation teachings, but it has been adapted for use in the treatment of depression and for assisting with mood regulation, and has been found to have considerable health benefits.
When you are mindful, your awareness is in the current moment. You become keenly aware of yourself and your surroundings, but you simply observe these things as they are. You are aware of your own thoughts and feelings, but you do not react to them in the way that you would if you were on "autopilot". It’s like a form of alert meditation that you can absorb yourself in at any time, or all the time.
Most of them time we live our lives on "autopilot". Our minds seem to have a will of their own. Thoughts come and go, and it seems as though we don’t have much say in what thoughts turn up in our head.
If each of us were to stand back and observe our own mind, we would notice how easily our thoughts skip from one unfinished idea to the next, constantly interrupting each other and overlapping in a constant stream of pictures, ideas, memories and desires.
Through mindfulness you learn to "take a step back" and observe all this mental activity and all the feelings and impulses that it causes, and you begin to separate yourself from their influence.
This is the essence of mindfulness.
When you are mindful, you become a relaxed witness to your inner life, and you are freed from being constantly affected by all your mental activity and by all your judgements about the world and everything that’s taking place within it.
"Observation" is the key word here. You consciously observe your thoughts and feelings, rather than allowing yourself to swim around in them. The moment you become aware and conscious in this way, you are living in the moment, and not on autopilot.
At first this feels like you are creating a sense of space within yourself. With time and practice it opens up a whole new dimension of freedom, relaxation and stillness.
When you are mindful, you remain in a state of alert attentiveness to the present moment. Instead of judging the things that are going on around you as "good" or "bad", you simply accept them for what they. By not labelling or judging the events and circumstances taking place around you, you are freed from your normal tendency to react to them. Consider this basic example of just how fruitless judgement can be...
Imagine you are driving down a freeway when all of a sudden, another motorist cuts in front of you. Your mind instantly judges the motorist’s actions as "bad" or "disrespectful", and within an instant you begin to feel angry.
Now you have the right to feel anyway you choose about the other motorist, but make no mistake, your anger is definitely a choice, albeit a choice that your autopilot made for you. When you are on autopilot, your thoughts, feelings and reactions just seem to happen to you. But when you are alert and mindful of the present moment, you respond to the world with an openness, and a sense of acceptance, rather than with judgement and automated reactions.
When you are mindful, you get to choose how you react to life.
So often, judgement is not just fruitless, it’s also harmful to yourself. If (for example) you have just reacted with anger towards another driver, then stop and realize that there is nothing you can do to change what has just happened. The event has come and gone. You’d probably rather not be feeling angry, and yet you are. This makes you even angrier. You are probably blaming the other driver for making you feel this way and yet, you are the one who CHOSE anger as your reply to their actions. Remember. . .
"You will not be punished for your anger,
you will be punished BY your anger."
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When you are mindful, you are more keenly aware of everything that is going on around you in this current moment, because you are not so preoccupied with your usual mental wrangling. The "space" that mindfulness opens up gives you the opportunity to observe the happenings of the world in a fresh light and to accept "what is" and leave it at that.
Without mindfulness, you react mentally, emotionally and physically to life, and sometimes the consequences of those reactions are even more damaging that the events that brought them up in the first place!
Mindfulness also applies to your inner awareness, just as much as it does to your awareness of the activities taking place in the world around you. In the same way that a rude motorist might intrude into your life, negative thoughts or troubling emotions may also interfere with your inner harmony.
The practise of mindfulness will help you to observe these inner events, thoughts and feelings, without judgement. You’ll still feel them, but you’ll be aware that that they are not who you are, and that they are temporary.
It is inevitable that life will involve some hard times and that you are bound to feel emotions such as sadness, grief or anger along the way. We can’t be happy all the time. But with mindfulness, you learn to observe these feelings without labelling them good or bad. You can choose to accept "what is", even if it is taking place inside you.
This is such an important concept to understand. When you allow an emotion to "just be" you give it the opportunity to pass on by. We all have emotions, like the tides they come and go, they rise and fall. No feeling that you ever experience is permanent, but by labelling emotions as "bad" and resisting them, then they tend to carry on a lot longer than they need to. Remember. . .
“What you resist, persists”.
Mindfulness is "allowing", and allowing emotions to come and go is one of the most powerful ways to relieve yourself of inner turmoil. As Sogyal Rinpoche writes in his book, "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying":
"The practice of mindfulness defuses our negativity, aggression, and turbulent emotions…..Rather than suppressing emotions or indulging in them, here it is important to view them, and your thoughts, and whatever arises with an acceptance and generosity that are as open and spacious as possible."
Meditation and mindfulness go hand in hand, and the practice of one strengthens the other. But unlike other relaxation techniques, mindfulness can be developed to the point where it can be practiced right in the middle of stressful situations. While being mindful you can still remain alert and respond appropriately to the situation at hand, but without resorting to your autopilot and reacting.
By practicing mindfulness, you will find that you accumulate far less mental noise during the course of the day. You will begin to feel calmer and clearer as you go about your activities, and when it comes time for you to practice your daily meditation, you will find that you are already quiet-minded to begin with.
As a result, you will find it much easier to enter into a state of deep meditation, as you have less mental clutter to work through.
Just as the practice of mindfulness enhances your ability to meditate, the practice of deep meditation strengthens your ability to be mindful, so that during the course of the day, you pick up even less and less mental chatter. Meditation and mindfulness are completely synergistic and complementary.
One of the greatest benefits of mindfulness is an increased appreciation of life. A person who is highly attentive and mindful tends to find that all of life’s activities become more fulfilling.
You may find that intrinsically pleasant experiences, such as eating food or listening to music, are more vivid and satisfying simply because you are more fully "in the moment." Furthermore, ordinary everyday experiences like driving your car or washing dishes can take on a quality of extraordinary vibrancy and fascination.
Some people go to great lengths to enjoy the uplifting feeling that mindfulness provides. For example, bungee jumpers and skydivers (adrenaline junkies as we sometimes call them) experience a form of mindfulness when they leap from bridges or jump from aeroplanes. Many of them describe how their mind "just stops" during the brief moments when they are falling. While adrenaline is probably the main reason for the "high" that they feel, it's interesting to note that most people who perform sports like these speak with great excitement about the feelings of joy and freedom they experience when they are "totally in the moment".
Awareness of the present moment is an incredibly enlivening and liberating experience, but you do not need to jump out of an aeroplane to experience it! The practice of meditation and mindfulness will clear away the dullness of being on autopilot, and free you to live more fully than you ever have before.