Do you feel stressed out? Unhappy? Rushed? Do you feel that you are not living your life like it’s meant to be lived, that you are either thinking about what has happened to you in the past or what might happen to you in the future? Chances are that you are not being mindful--that you are living your life in your head instead of truly living. And living in an unmindful way has many negative repercussions like stress, chronic pain and certain diseases…not to mention a lack of joy and excitement for life. So what does being mindful mean? How do we become mindful? Let’s take a look at how bringing about awareness in our everyday lives can truly make us happier and healthier people.
Mindfulness has its roots in the Buddhist tradition. It is one of the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path, a teaching by the Buddha that was designed to end human suffering and to bring about enlightenment. Mindfulness is not inherently religious, however, and can be practiced in concert with one’s religious beliefs or in a purely secular manner.
Mindfulness has several definitions but its main elements include: being completely present in the moment, experiencing every element of your surrounding without judgment, and acknowledging and accepting every thought, emotion, or feeling as it arises.
Mindfulness has been becoming increasingly popular in the West thanks in part to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who, in 1979, founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts for those suffering from anxiety, depression, and stress. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn was heavily influenced by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk who encouraged mindfulness meditation and peaceful living. Dr. Kabat-Zinn saw how the mindfulness teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh could help very sick people feel better without the use of drugs or other invasive techniques.
Today mindfulness programs based off of Kabat-Zinn’s are available nationwide and in many other countries outside the United States. They are present in schools, hospitals, community centers and in therapists’ practices. Typically the programs are eight-weeks long and involve teaching ways to meditate and approach life with a beginner’s mind—seeing things in a fresh and new way with an attitude of eagerness and joy in life.
The benefits in engaging in mindfulness are not only plentiful, but they are scientifically proven. First and foremost, mindfulness allows us to manage our stress levels. Stress is, of course, a life-saving phenomenon that allows us everyday survival. Stress lets us know when there is an imminent danger on the horizon and whether we need to fight it or flee from it. The problem today is our perception of stress is in overdrive and we confuse our worries about the future and disappointments with the past with real danger. We are making ourselves sick with fear when there is nothing to fear. Mindfulness can bring us back to the present and give us the opportunity to see what a real danger is and what is not.
Mindfulness also improves our memory, increases our focus, allows us to react more appropriately emotionally, improves our relationships, and increases compassion and empathy for others. Mindfulness also treats chronic pain and has been known to prevent breast and prostate cancer.
One of the primary ways to incorporate mindfulness into your life is to engage in a regular meditation practice. These meditations can be practiced in any quiet, secluded spot. In these mediations, you are encouraged to focus on your breath while allowing your thoughts to enter and leave your mind naturally. While in meditation, you are merely a neutral observer of these thoughts. You simply accept what comes in and then let it go. By engaging in this way you gain a new perspective on your thoughts. You see that it is possible to have thoughts, good or bad, without reacting to them.
Another way to engage in mindfulness is to be present in everything that you do throughout the day, especially things that you consider mundane and boring. Bringing attention to the sensations of say, brushing your teeth, or doing the dishes, lets you approach life in a playful, joyous manner--almost like that of a child. Small things become more important and more pleasurable.
Still another way to be more mindful is to meditate using a body scan technique. In this meditation, you are encouraged to focus on one part of your body at a time and allow feelings and sensations from that part to rise up. It is a way to listen to your body and be in tune with what it is telling you.
Being mindful takes a bit of practice and it is good to establish a regular routine if you want to reap its full benefits. Just like many habits, it takes some time before mindfulness becomes second nature. That is why many of the mindfulness programs are usually eight-weeks long. To find a mindfulness practice group you can visit the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness webpage and search their directory for programs near you. There are also several excellent books and online classes that teach mindfulness.
It is almost ironic that we spend so much time and money trying to prolong our lifespan, when we barely live. Spending time on being mindful makes our lives richer, fuller and when you think about it, longer.
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