Seize The Moment (A Friendly Message In A Bottle)

A fresh perspective often helps. It is like placing a new operating system into a computer that is not working right. Our older, more habitual ways of thinking and being take ahold of us really quick and before we know it we are sucked in and being held hostage by them. All logic goes out the window and once again we are lost in habitual negative thought (rumination). This is why I thought I would send you this friendly message in a bottle.

Seize the moment! The moment is all you ever really have. If you really examine all those worries spinning around in your mind, how many are actually happening right now? How many of your worries are actually grounded in the reality of this moment? How many of your previous worries have actually turned out that way you thought they would? (Probably none or at least very few.) It is important to ask yourself these questions if you want to seize the moment.

It might sound harsh but believe it or not most people just want to remain stuck and live in despair. Emerson called this a quiet life of desperation. When it really comes down to it, most of us just want to keep doing what we have been doing, just stay stuck. Things seem easier this way. We don’t really want to try. We don’t really want to understand why we feel the way we do. We don’t want to see what is really going on because then we would be forced to change. “Waiter! Can I just have another drink please!”

Why are we like this? Continually just perpetuating our own unhappiness?

Fear.

Fear causes people to prefer consistency, security and practicality. What is that old saying? Fear disguises itself as practicality. Something like that. We prefer the practical. We want to play it safe so we can remain secure. But there is a big problem with this way of thinking. When we make choices from a place of fear and we let fear run our lives, we often end up living lives we are not happy about living. We end up in places we don’t want to be in.

But people seem to prefer security over living the life they really want to live. We want a scripted plan so that we do not have to deal with the uncertainty of the future. The irony is that uncertainty or the absence of security are always here. No one knows what is going to happen tomorrow no matter how scripted your life is. No one has control over the uncertainty of life no matter how good at worrying they are. There really is no security even though we work so hard to create it. Worry is often a main symptom of of the never ending striving to defeat uncertainty.

When we really are seizing the moment, living life fully- anything can happen at any moment. But being present in this moment, realizing that what we are worried about happening is not happening now, frees us up to live more fully in this moment. Whether you need a scripted life or you are able to accept the general uncertainty of life- the future rarely unfolds just how you think it will.

Mindfulness is a helpful practice because it helps us to be able to put fear aside so that we are not making choices from a place of fear. I know that many people think this sentiment is morbid but the truth is that you are going to die. Maybe tomorrow or maybe in sixty years. Whatever the case- it will always feel too soon, so why not do what you want to do? Why not live the life you want to live? Why not seize this moment and live this moment fully? Why keep putting this off because in this moment you insist on continuing to make choices from a place of fear?

Mindfulness practice allows us to sit down with ourselves, ground our attention in the present moment and see clearly what is actually going on now. We are then better able to make a logical and clear assessment of reality when we do this. We are better able to see through all of the worry, self-doubt, self-loathing, fear and push through these negative emotions. It is only by pushing through these more unpleasant emotions that we can then seize the moment and really begin to live the kind of life that authentically feels like a good fit for us right now.

None Of This Is As Real As You Currently Think

This seems to be the most difficult concept for humans to grasp- that none of this is as real as you think.

Sooner than later the life you are living right now and everything going on in it will be the distant past.

Will not exist anymore.

Your life will eventually be a life that was once lived a long time ago.

You are not immortal.

Everything vanishes.

Including you.

Trying to forget about this does not help anyone.

It especially does not help you.

I was made very aware of this while reading Jack Kerouac’s book “Desolation Angels” this morning.

In it he describes an entire world, so full of life.

All these people.

All these lives living in 1950’s San Francisco.

Kerouac masterfully portrays this vibrant and thriving world that was so alive at one time but does not exist anymore.

All these characters that he describes.

All these families, friends, problems and achievements- all of it gone now.

And I am reminded that the same thing will happen to you and I.

Our lives, which feel so important and real right now, will be the distant past soon enough.

And then there will be people in some future time reading about this time in which we lived, thinking that it all seemed so alive at one time but now it too is gone.

It is so important to not get too caught up in things.

Our lives depend on it.

We get so stuck on various day-to-day problems and worries.

We forget.

We treat our lives as if it were something that will last forever.

We treat life as if it were continual tasks to be accomplished.

How misguided we are.

We forget that we too (and everyone else) are mortal.

All of this will disappear.

All the more reason to try and be present with it while it is still here.

I too get caught up sometimes and forget.

I treat my life as if it was this thing that will be around forever.

Sometimes it makes me sad that I do this.

I sometimes do not appreciate the passing moment and I create problems that would not exist if I could stay aware of the transitory nature of everything.

The mind often tricks us into thinking that everything is so real.

So important.

But if everything is just going to be a distant memory before we know it, how important are we really?

Why get so caught up in our preoccupations?

Why take ourselves so seriously?

What happens when we stop forgetting that we and everyone we know are quickly passing lived lives, is that we appreciate the moments we do have much more.

We stop trying to make life something that it is not and appreciate what is here now.

A feeling of gratitude and release from pressure and stress arises.

We can settle down and appreciate our time and the people and things around us before it is all gone.

We can do the things we want to do more.

Knowing that it is all just going to pass, gives us the freedom and courage to live the kind of lives we want to live right now.

Without this realization we are just wasting something very valuable.

Valuable only because it can never be gotten back.

Mindfulness and “My” Depression

On Sunday, an old, familiar friend dropped by my house to say hello. I knew he was coming so I had some time to prepare. This old, familiar friend commonly goes by the name Depression. I prefer the name Melancholia but refer to him as Depression. Depression is a feeling of despair, a kind of “what is the point?” Depression feels similar to when you lose a game that you cared about winning. It is a feeling of ultimate defeat, a pain-filled turning inward into oneself because there is no place else you want to go.

There is an aspect of depression which is genetic. Depression runs deep in my family lineage. My grandfather did not leave his home the last twenty years of his life. He sat in his recliner listening to classical music and pretending to play a violin. A defeated classical musician no longer feeling any sense of purpose in the external world.

Depression is also situational. There is much to be joyful and grateful about but there is also equally as much to be depressed about. Depending on which direction the mind leans in will often determine how a person feels. For many like myself, life can be a continual seesaw ride, back and forth between depression and gratitude.

I don’t mind depression. There is a lot of beauty which can be found in this state. Sometimes I feel like it is a very honest assessment of the state of things. Depression can be very fertile creative ground. But sometimes depression can create as much physical pain as any bleeding wound would.

This is where I found myself on Sunday. Why was not nearly as important as the awareness that I was experiencing depression (emotional pain) and then the acceptance of it.

My practice of mindfulness is not about being a happier or better person. Thankfully I don’t have the expectation to feel more happiness, less depression and anxiety in my life the more I practice mindfulness (I did when I first started though). I think that the moment a person has an expectation that any practice will make them a happier, less anxious and less depressed person is often the moment a person gets discouraged with any kind of practice.

In its foundational form, mindfulness is the ability to keep our attention planted in the present moment. To be here. To live in the here and now rather than in the illusory future and past. The present moment is the terrain of mindfulness practice and the more a person practices the more they can hang out in the present moment, no matter what is happening.

Being present does not mean expecting things to be a certain way in the present moment. If I am anxious or depressed in the present moment and I do not like it or fight against it, this will only make things worse. Being present means being aware of whatever is arising in the present moment and accepting it as it is. Not attaching to it more than need be. Like a rainy day, since it is already here why not just accept it? Once we can accept, we can begin to move towards our baseline (a more grounded state of being).

Depression, anxiety, anger and many other difficult emotions tend to be very sticky. They stick to us and cause us to deeply identify with them. We refer to them as My depression, My anxiety, My anger and on and on. The very word My implies a future and a past. My is always attaching to every emotion and thought it has. My is the opposite of acceptance. What a dreadful state My can be!

The moment we are able to bring our attention into the present moment, My loosens its grip on whatever emotion it is carrying around. It realizes, “Oh things are not as terrible as I think,” and then it begins to loosen up.

Saying it is My depression is as inaccurate as the sky saying, “It is My cloud.” Nope! Just like emotions, clouds are continually moving across the sky. I suppose a cloud could somehow be blocked for a bit by the sky, but eventually it would dissipate. No matter how hard it tries, the sky can not hang on to clouds. Same with My and emotions! The moment we call it My depression or My anxiety, we block the emotion and keep it around for A LOT longer than need be. But eventually it passes no matter how attached we want to be. Are you still feeling the same emotion now that you felt last Saturday afternoon? Most likely not (unless you are still attaching My to it).

All emotions eventually pass. Whether it is the most painful depression or the greatest joy, it passes! I often think of mindfulness as a practice of hanging on in the present and letting things move through. Mindfulness is the ability to let emotions move through just like the sky allows the clouds to move through (sorry for the cliché analogy but it is early and my mind is not coming up with anything better). Mindfulness has nothing to do with being a happier and less depressed person. Ironically though- a sense of well-being and calm is what tends to happen more often when we are not attached to My emotion.

Ps…..I don’t feel depressed now.

How To Become A Mindfulness Teacher

Recently I have received not a lot, but an unusual amount of emails and phone calls from people asking me how they can become a mindfulness teacher.

I admit, I have been surprised by this since I do not think of myself as a mindfulness teacher. A part of me feels flattered that people are seeking out this kind of guidance from me but another part of me feels perplexed. Asking me how to become a mindfulness teacher is like asking an abstract painter to explain how she or he made that strange, abstract painting. It is not an easy thing to do.

My first inclination is to respond to people by saying, “I really don’t know” or “Read a lot of books on mindfulness and then apply what you learn.” But I recognize that this knee jerk reaction is a kind of unwillingness to talk about how I think a person becomes a mindfulness teacher (although reading a lot of books is important).

I never set my life’s course in the direction of becoming a mindfulness teacher. It is not something that I ever thought possible for me. I have always approached mindfulness in an effort to help myself more skillfully deal with the intense anxiety, depression and anger that I have struggled with much of my life.

Fifteen or so years ago while I was meditating in my small apartment in Oakland, I did have a vision of myself as an older man, sitting in the lotus position with a group of other people also seated in lotus position. We were all sitting in a circle practicing meditation and it kind of seemed like I was the teacher but I was not sure. I remember thinking that it would be nice to be able to be a meditation teacher but I had no idea how that kind of thing could ever happen since at the time I was consuming high doses of paxil, beer and marijuana to get through my anxious days.

Fifteen or so years later and people are asking me how to be a mindfulness teacher. It does feel strange. I do think, “Who, me?” But let me tell you how I think this sort of thing happened.

Professional Development Mindfulness Seminars, Mindfulness Certification Programs, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Programs and other mindfulness courses that you can take are all helpful in developing your understanding of the basic principles and application of mindfulness practice. They are almost always a necessary first step to install in your brain a better functioning operating system than the damaged one you have kept running all this time. But finishing one of these mindfulness programs is really just the very beginning and far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far from the end of your mindfulness education.

How you then proceed to deal with your daily suffering is the much more important part of your education.

Are you aware of your mortality right now? Are you aware that this next breath could really be your very last? If not and you want to be a mindfulness teacher you might want to work on this. The continual awareness of your own mortality is one of the most important understandings you will need to have in order to be an effective mindfulness teacher.

Why? Because when you are really aware of the impermanence that underlies every single aspect of our lives, it allows you to place a much greater value on letting things go and living as fully as possible in this moment. This moment will mean more to you than anything else.

The reason why most of us are not present is because we have forgotten that we are going to die. We are operating under the false assumption that life goes on forever. As a result we refuse to slow down. We take ourselves very seriously.

The moment you become more aware of your own mortality, the present moment automatically takes on a much greater value. You are not as easily caught up in emotions and thoughts about the future and past. You are not as easily seduced by judgemental thoughts of yourself and others. It becomes much easier to accept things as they are, let them go, have some compassion and live more fully in this moment.

Are you noticing that you are breathing in or out right now? 

A mindfulness teacher without a deep and personal understanding of the importance of this breath, of living life from moment to moment, aware of but not attached to everything that is going on, is like a bird without wings. It just doesn’t make any sense. No certification program or class can provide you with this innate and immediate understanding of your own (and everyone else’s) unavoidable end. This is something you will have to come to on your own, through your own life experience. A mindfulness teacher ideally acquires this very real understanding and insight long before they find themselves in a hospital bed.

The present moment is not really a real thing. The moment you become aware of the present moment it is already the past. The future is continually becoming the past, so in a sense there is not really an exact present moment. I use the term present moment in the same way a religious person might use the term God. It is pointing to an experience of something that is never really right here. A mindfulness teacher knows that the present moment just means being aware of the experience you are having right now rather than being completely lost in thought.

Being aware of our present moment experience (sensations in the body, sounds, smells, tastes, breathing) rather than being caught in the web of the wandering mind, is the essence of mindfulness practice.

There are mindfulness teachers and practitioners who are very dialed in to their present moment experience almost all of the time. I have studied with teachers who could be called expert meditators and as a result are not that invested in their egos. When we talk about being caught up in the wandering mind (identified with thought after thought after thought) this just means a person is very identified with their ego. There are mindfulness teachers who have worked hard and thus are not very ego driven. As a result, they suffer much less than you and I.

But this is not the kind of mindfulness teacher I am. I suffer. I struggle. I am still identified with my ego. I kind of like my ego and don’t want to eradicate it. I am just like most of the other people I teach- trying to more successfully and skillfully manage my own physical and psychological afflictions through the practice of mindfulness.

I still deal with anxiety, anger and depression- sometimes a lot more often that I care to admit. But to be a mindfulness teacher I do think it is important to suffer and struggle with these very human things. It is important to humanize yourself by being open about your own personal struggles instead of trying to come of as a person who has all their shit together. People will see through this (hopefully).

Besides, what use is a mindfulness teacher to people who are really struggling with very human difficulties if they are not willing to honestly share how they use mindfulness to deal with their own personal struggles? This is the essence of being a mindfulness teacher. Show people how you do it and let them decide if they want to apply it or not.

I could be wrong, but a mindfulness teacher who has eradicated all anger, anxiety, depression, grief does not exist. This is why it is important not to hide behind credentials, certifications, status and degrees by pretending like you have eradicated suffering, because you will always know this is just not true. As a result you will feel like an imposter.

Be courageous. Talk about your shit. Talk about your struggles and about how you apply mindfulness to the problems in your own life.

When you are angry, depressed or freaking out take the time to apply the basic principles of mindfulness practice. Do this again and again. This will be the most important and never ending aspect of your mindfulness education. No matter how angry or sad or worried or afraid or angry or depressed you get, keep coming back to your awareness of the present moment. Notice that you are breathing in and out. Let it go. If you can do this successfully more often than not- this will be your greatest qualification as a mindfulness teacher.

If you notice that days or weeks go by where you forget to apply the basic principles of mindfulness practice becuase you are all caught up in frantic thoughts and emotions, this is normal. You are human. It is just important that at some point you remember to bring yourself back to the awareness of the present moment and let go of whatever crap you have been caught up in.

If you go away from the present moment a thousand times, what is important is that you bring yourself back into the present moment a thousand and one times.

Remember the importance of being fully alive in this moment rather than being caught up in worry, remorse or judgment. None of it is as important as you think. Let it go. Practice living your life from moment to moment rather than living in terms of tasks you need to accomplish and/or worry about. When you realize you have gotten caught up in thoughts and have been living your very precious and very mortal life from the neck up (lost in your head) bring yourself back to what is happening right now. Do this again and again and again……..

It is the degree to which you suffer and then apply the basic principles of mindfulness practice while being honest with others (and yourself) about your process, which will determine the degree to which you are effective as a mindfulness teacher.

How To Live With Substance, Moment by Moment.

I am here now. The sun is out. It is early morning. I am breathing in and out. Everything is fine. I return my attention to the simplest aspects of what is here now. There are all kinds of thoughts whirling around in my mind. Things that I need to do that I have not yet done. Memories of the past. Thoughts about my parents. Things that I would like to accomplish but have yet to do. Emails that I need to return. Texts that I need to respond to. Things that I want to check out on-line. The thoughts go on and on and on and on. Endless. If I indulge all these thoughts, it will only be a matter of time before I am no longer present and am all stressed out. No thanks. Been there, done that.

The symphony of thoughts that fills my head can get loud. But I am thankfully aware of what is going on upstairs. As a result of noticing all the mental activity in my head I am able to make a choice. Do I want to get on that bus and get caught in all of that or do I want to just wave at the bus and let it go by? It is up to me. It is a choice. Fortunately, I am continually choosing to let the bus go by. I bring my awareness back into the present moment. I notice breathing in and out. I see and hear what is around me and I turn the volume way down.

For numerous reasons, human beings have a very difficult time living in this moment (staying off the bus). A lot of this has to do with past trauma and/or unskillful mental habits that we have indulged and put into daily practice over the course of a lifetime. Every other species (that I am aware of) on earth lives fully in the moment, but because of this sense of a self trying to keep up with mechanical time and because of our brains ability to time travel, living in the moment is a difficult skill for humans to master.

A fundamental aspect of mindfulness practice is making the choice to live moment by moment. As Jon Kabat-Zinn often says, we see life as moments to be lived rather than as tasks to be accomplished. Through the awareness we develop in mindfulness practice we see more and more how it is our habitual negative thinking that causes the vast majority of unhappiness and stress in our lives (not the people, situations or things in our lives). This gives new meaning to the idea that it really is all in our heads. Mindfulness meditation helps us see this and gives us a method or technique to stop doing it when we want to.

In the novel Walking by the great European novelist Thomas Bernhard, as the main protagonist is on a walk he says to his walking partner, “This is an observation that science can always make with regards to people. That they suddenly, at the height of their thinking, and thus at the height of their intellectual capacity, become mad.” Over-thinking or thinking too much is the cause of madness. It is what drives us insane. (Many “insane” people in today’s society are actually seen as high functioning!)

Thought is an inaccurate way to measure the actual substance of our lives. Isn’t it the substance of things that matters most when determining quality? Most of what thought tells us about our future and our past is incorrect but we listen anyways. Most people use thought to get more of what is not here now. We want more money, more security, more status, more power, more justice, more fun, more peace, more freedom, more of whatever we seem to be lacking right now. I am certainly guilty of this. I tend to get caught up in this pursuit of more too much of the time. But I am also aware that the substance of life has nothing to do with money or power or prestige or greatness or any of the things I am in pursuit of. The substance is always right here in this moment. Even though I forget this sometimes, the more I am able to pause throughout my day, the more I am able to remember (I also feel fortunate because I have a friend and teachers who are continually showing me the benefit of this through the way they live their lives).

When we chose to live moment by moment we are prioritizing being alive in this moment over everything else. We are choosing to care more about this breath, these sounds, these sensations, these feelings, this experience of being alive right now over how pissed off we are at someone or ourselves, how many problems we have, how much we have to get done, all of our future plans. Happiness or contentment or non-anxiety is only ever to be found right where you are at in the moment. Keep indulging your troubles, your problems, your difficulties- but please don’t expect to find contentment, relief from anxiety, resolution or happiness there. If you are expecting relief or contentment through indulging in negative thought, that is what is meant by unskillful action. As the character in Thomas Bernhard’s novel suggests, the only place thought ultimately leads us is towards more madness. We must be willing to put it down.

Living in the moment is just another way of saying to ourselves, “This is enough now. I am good with where I am at now. I am ok in this moment. I am breathing and I am alive now, everything else is secondary.” We still get done whatever we need to do but not at the expense of being present with our lives in this moment (in fact it has been shown that we are more productive when we can live more in the moment). We will get to what we need to get to, when we do. Worrying about it or being upset about it won’t help anyone now. When we make our morning breakfast we are just present with doing that. When we get dressed or exercise we are present with doing that. When we make future plans we are present with doing that. When we drive or work we are present with doing that. When we eat, do the dishes, brush our teeth or read we are present with doing that. Moment by moment we continually remind ourselves to be here, that this is enough. Breathe. Just fucking breathe.

As a result, we choose to live more fully (mindfulness is always a choice not a steady state) right now. We experience more freedom from the things that ordinarily weigh us down. We are less angry and worried. Our lives become much more tolerable. Even enjoyable when sitting in traffic or waiting in line. We are more fully alive (and satisfied) in this moment. It is no longer about getting here or there or judging this and that. It is just about experiencing substance (quality) now. Moment by moment.

Six Honest Ways To Create Mindfulness Now.

Mindfulness is an attitude or a way of perceiving reality just like being identified with thoughts and feelings is an attitude or a way of perceiving reality. Just like everything else in life, possessing an attitude of mindfulness is a choice. A choice that ultimately leads to less suffering. Here are six thing you can do right now to create more mindfulness in your life:

 
1) Are you identified with negative judgments right now? Not liking someone or something? Wanting things to be different than how they are? Feeling bad or critical about yourself or thinking that you are right and others are dumb? Being identified with negative judgments is like burning ourselves with a flame. It hurts. As long as we identify with our negative judgments we will be unhappy people. It is not that you will suddenly stop having negative judgments, but see if you can just be aware of them without acting upon them or articulating them. Just leave them alone and notice how when you do this they go away.

2) Are you reacting to distressing feelings? Do you continually try and push away, deny or get rid of feelings of distress? Feelings of distress are as normal as the sun coming up in the morning. If we do not learn how to skillfully deal with our distressful feelings we will suffer. See if you can notice when distressing feelings arise in you and then just welcome them. Even though distressing feelings are uncomfortable, who said life should be comfortable all the time? Why keep fighting against it? How about just letting the feelings of distress be there? Become mindful of your distressing feelings and leave them alone. Notice how the moment you welcome them (rather than react to them) they lose their potency and are no longer as distressing anymore.

3) Are you accepting your life as it is in this moment? Or are you trying to change or fix things about this moment? Make things how you think they should be? Good luck. This is a mountain that no one ever reaches the top of. Life just becomes a continual climb to nowhere. Not wanting to feel what we are already feeling in this moment is the surest way to make what we are feeling worse. See if you can just be aware of where you are at in this moment. Notice how it feels. Now see if you can just accept it. Leave it alone. Let it be. Stop trying to swim against the current. Acceptance is the key which opens the door to a more peaceful and calm life. The trouble is that most of us can’t seem to find the key. I am handing you the key. Here. Accept what is right now. Leave it alone. Alan Watts said, “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.”

4) Are you in a hurry right now? Do you want to get rid of some uncomfortable feeling in your body right away? Do you need to have things the way you think they should be now? Do you have to have everything all figured out and tightened up now? Good luck again. How about being patient? Isn’t patience a fundamental virtue? So just be patient. Leave things alone. Stop trying to change or fix things. Be willing to accept things as they are and then just be patient. Patient requires a kind of faith or trust that everything will work out. When we are patient we are willing to sit with uncertainty and not knowing. We just leave things as they are and find patience in learning to live with the uncertainty. Another way to think about being patient is be willing to be comfortable with the discomfort. This is a fundamental aspect of meditation practice and of living a good life. Life is uncomfortable so it is very beneficial to learn how to be comfortable with discomfort.

5) Daniel Higgs, a poet, wrote, “Anything outside of the present moment is a form of slavery.” Mindfulness is a way of being that is aware of each passing moment. Life is viewed as moments to be lived rather than task after task to be accomplished. As we grow older years seem to pass by in the blink of an eye but moments or even hours seem to maintain a similar duration as when we were younger. When we create so many problems and issues and things to do in our lives we are no longer aware of the passing moments. We are being pulled into the future continually or dragged back into the past all the time. We rarely seem to tend to the passing moments in our lives and then when we reach 40 or 50 or 60 we think, “Wow, my life went by so fast!” Yes it did. You were not aware of the passing moments. Be present. Tend to the moments of your life if you want to live a life that feels longer. If you don’t want to do this, that is fine, but please don’t be surprised when it feels like life went by so fast.

6) Are you lost in your head right now? Thinking about all kinds of things? Judging what I am writing? Thinking about other stuff? What about your body? What is going on there? Our bodies are always present. Our noses, our toes, our ears, our lips, our lungs, our heart, our knees- they all exist in the present. It is only this small portion of our brain that creates thoughts that usually have something to do with some place other than right now. We have been conditioned to be more identified with this very small section of our brain rather than the other 99% of what is going on with our bodies. Being aware of our senses is an incredible satisfying experience. Notice the various sensations in your body. Notice smells and tastes. See if you can pay attention to hearing, breathing and really notice things that are around you. Mindfulness is a way of fully inhabiting the space where our bodies are already at. See if you can be more in tune with the sensory experience that you are having from moment to moment, rather than ignoring all of this because of being too lost in thought. Sometimes we get so lost in thought that a panic attack seems to be the only way our body can get our attention. It doesn’t have to come to this. See if you can tune your mind into being more aware of your sensory experience as you make your way through your day.

And finally, I forgot who said it but I wrote this quote down in my notebook: “If we love the little moments ferociously, than maybe we can learn to live well not in spite of death but because of it. Let death be what takes us, not lack of imagination.”

The Simple Psychology Of Mindfulness

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.