Mindfulness is a very simple practice. It is a practice of generating more present moment awareness by shifting out of being so tightly identified with various thoughts and feelings and more aware of and interested in where we are at in the present moment (the right now). It is hard to say exactly how many thoughts the average person has from day-to-day, but from what I have read it is estimated at somewhere between 30,000-70,000 thoughts per day. That is a lot of thoughts! If most of these thoughts are negative (worry, remorse, judgment), which they normally are, that is a continual toxic cloud hanging over our lives, every minute of every day.
And yet we continue to pursue finding answers, fixing various issues, being happy in our lives, even while this toxic cloud follows us around. How is that supposed to work out? It is the hamster going around and around on the hamster wheel syndrome. All we have to do to stop going around and around on the wheel is step off to the side, but instead we keep going around and around believing that eventually there is some better place we will get to where we will figure things out. In a sense, this is the current human condition.
Mindfulness can be an incredibly difficult practice for those who struggle to step off to the side (even for just a minute). The vast majority of people tend to believe that there is some better destination up ahead where everything will be fixed and figured out if they can just think about things more. Shunryu Suzuki, the popular Zen Teacher, made the analogy that living like this is like being a bug stuck in a sticky spiders web, anxiously struggling to find a way out, but never really finding one. It is counterintuitive to most people, but from the mindfulness approach the way of getting unstuck from the web is to just step aside. We do this by slowing down and accepting that we are currently stuck (lost in thought). Then we stop being so focused on all the thoughts running through our brain by becoming more aware of breathing, sounds that are around us, feet touching the ground, sensations in our hands and feet, noticing our chest expanding and contracting with each breath, noticing objects that we are seeing. By becoming more fully aware of and interested in where we are in the present moment, we can step off the hamster wheel.
As a psychotherapist, I work everyday with individuals who really struggle with various difficult issues. As painful and life interfering as these issues are they are almost always a result of being too tightly identified with thinking (a mind that will not slow down). As the people I work with learn to not be as tightly identified with their thoughts, as they learn how to more and more pull themselves out of the web created by negative thinking, I witness radical changes in a person’s life. Again and again. So there must be something innately balancing to our brains and bodies by being able to be more present.
Difficulty sleeping, heavy depression, panic attacks, being overly stressed out about the future, chronic insecurities and self doubt, general unhappiness with life situation, addiction, chronic anger and worry and various other difficulties; all these difficult states seem to greatly lessen when a person is willing to step aside more and more in their day-to-day life. A person’s external life situation does not change much, but their inner way of relating to life changes radically. They are able to pull themselves out of the sticky web more and more often.
Traditional psychology says that we need to analyze thoughts and emotions (think more), go deeply into the issues that disturb us and as a result we will make certain connections, learn more about ourselves, resolve certain life long issues and then overcome our psychological duress. When this does not work we are offered a pill to take the edge off, while still engaging in traditional self-analysis. Then (maybe) we feel a bit better. In my graduate psychological training, this was the standard medical model of psychological care that was taught to students and which most psychotherapists advocate for as professionals. I feel that, in the long-term, this just makes things more complex (and profitable) than they really need to be. As much as talking about how you feel and what you have been through with someone who is deeply listening to you can be very healing, I feel like the benefits are short term. Cathartic at best because we are just engaging and articulating the thing that is the source of our problems- negative thoughts. It is not long until a person will find themselves tightly identified with habitual negative thoughts and emotions again.
The psychology of mindfulness is a simple psychology. It is a psychology, which rather than engaging a person’s thoughts and feelings as much, also puts an emphasis on engaging their ability to focus and be more aware in the present moment. Over time the result is that the person is able to be less identified with thoughts and emotions and more aware of what they are doing and where they are at in the present moment. The value is no longer placed so much on “figuring things out” or “resolving issues” but is instead placed on being more present with your life as it is, from moment to moment, breath by breath. This is often called self-regulation.
When we do this more and more, what we experience is that various psychological issues resolve themselves. The web becomes less sticky and we are able to climb out into a better, more present place (even if just for a minute at a time) made less unhappy by that toxic cloud following us around filled with all of our worries, remorse and judgments.