Mindfulness is probably the most important practice I have learned (or have attempted to learn) in my entire life. For me these days, it is a way of being. It doesn’t have to be associated with any spiritual or religious pursuit whatsoever, although such associations may rise up naturally from simply being in a place of Mindfulness. This element is closely associated with Equanimity, from my perspective, in that Equanimity is that calm lake of inner peace that serves to allow for the greatest level of Mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the great Jedi mind trick that I believe many can achieve. We have all likely had a taste of it at different times. I think of lying on the beach as a kid with a towel over my head. I was aware of my heart beating, the sand under my back, the noise of waves and seagulls and feeling the heat of the sun. My mind was totally clear and I was in the moment.
As we seek to practice Mindfulness, or allow it to occur, there is a threshold where we can allow it to happen in a continually accessible type of way, although even for veteran practitioners, it is as easy to slip out of Mindfulness as it is to maintain it. The trick that “the masters” have developed is that they can quickly catch themselves when they feel their Mindfulness slipping away─ and get it back on track quickly.
It can be said that the essence of Mindfulness is in catching ourselves in not being mindful. When we are not being Mindful, the wanderlust-laden monkey mind can be in full swing and our emotional state can be jerked around in close proximity. We are caught up with the monkey, so to speak. We are being run by our emotions in contrast to simply observing them.
Mindfulness is a term with many working definitions. I have seen Buddhists discuss the minutiae of what it might entail ad nauseam, to the point where I thought they might come to blows (an interesting visual). Please know that there are exhaustive discussions available on the subject and what I offer here is just a simplified snippet.
A commonly cited definition of Mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, a teacher and author who has done much to bring Mindfulness training into the mainstream. He defines Mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges by way of paying attention on purpose in the present moment and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment-by-moment.”
I experience Mindfulness as varying degrees of the simultaneous awareness of what is occurring in my mind, body and surroundings at any given moment.
This awareness is inclusive of any type of judgment arising within as well. I consider this to be the first stage of Mindfulness. It is in the observation and experiencing of the moment when we Surrender and let go of being attached to any thought, emotion or feeling. It has a lot to do with shining the Light on what is happening with our typically manic monkey minds and it is an action of clearing the table of reaction. A second stage or act of Mindfulness, discussed later, relates to conscious or mindful action after accepting what is occurring.
In this first stage, I am looking at everything happening first and foremost as simply information. What is happening is just something that is being noticed. Emotions, thoughts popping up, sensations in my body, activities and objects around me are also noted and accepted without reaction. For an infinitesimal period of time, the information is just there. It is observed and my default approach is non-reaction and Acceptance of what is occurring.
I take a “professorial” approach to the information received during this stage in that I react like how a professor might react to what is occurring, with keen academic interest. If there is any response on my part, it may be: “Hmm…. that is interesting.” If I have feelings of jealousy, I say: “I wonder where that is coming from?” If I feel anxiety in my body in some form, I say: “Hmmm…. interesting. Good ol’ anxiety is on the scene.” And so on. This approach slows the constant thought and emotion-generating process down and has served to train me in Mindfulness as a curious default response in lieu of automatic reaction.
The simple act of shining Light on what is occurring in the moment is empowering in its own right. It will stop many potential automatic reactions or spin-off effects from happening. Situations that would otherwise ignite us will shrivel and lose their charge when brought into consciousness in this way.
If errant thoughts and commensurate emotional reactions do not shrivel in the light of Mindfulness, we can still consciously direct any action as necessary in the second stage of Mindfulness, which is conscious or mindful action. For example, if we become Mindful that jealousy is an emotion that arises within us on a consistent basis, we might take conscious action to question the response when it does arise and we might even decide to seek counseling to explore any underlying issue which are contributing to this response.
The sense of noninterference and Non-Judgement that Mindfulness encourages within our daily thought patterns doesn’t mean that we don’t have the ability to quickly assess dangerous situations and take action when necessary. Mindfulness would include allowing for those scenarios and for allowing our instincts to take over if they need to. It’s just that we don’t automatically react to all the information and stimuli we are witness to all the time. If we did that all the time (and some people do), then this would be a state of constant mindlessness and chaos. We would be living as a beach ball bouncing in the wind.
There is a central tenet to Mindfulness that says that our thoughts, emotions and sensations are not really who we are. They are all interesting things that are happening around and within us that can have meaning or not. They may be accurate or not and they may or may not serve us. They also may or may not require reaction, energy or attention. At the same time, they are real and valid “things that exist” and, from that point of view, they deserve observation and sometimes discernment and consideration.
Mindfulness is the act of simply being present while these things occur, observing and acknowledging their presence. When we practice Mindfulness, many things quickly fade away and fall by the wayside. Items that require further attention and potential response will definitely make themselves known.
“If you want to know what my secret is, I do not mind what happens.” -Krishnamurti
There is a part of our mind that might keep us awake and worrying, maybe about something like a bill coming due or a lost romance. That part of the mind ruminates and dwells on those thoughts. There is another part of what we call our mind that is witness to all that is happening. It might notice that sleep is not occurring or that the mind is spinning with repetitive thoughts. It might witness that the Body feels agitated and that further worry is arising about not sleeping and that that worry is being compounded by thoughts of having to work the next day.
The witnessing part of our mind is what we wish to cultivate with Mindfulness. The witness observes and simply shines a Light on what is occurring. In the Light, many things will scurry away.
When the witness is not present, we are at the mercy of the thoughts in play that will spin and multiply. When the witness is not present, the monkey mind is the running the show. We are reactive. We are not present. We are jumping from vine to vine, thought to thought, worry to worry. We are not Mindful.
“The highest form of intelligence is the ability to observe without evaluating” -Krishnamurti
I am standing in line at the grocery store. I feel frustration rising up in my body. I feel impatient. Thoughts simultaneously arise as to why this store does not have more cashiers, whether or not I should switch lines, why people are not more prepared to pay and why do people have to use coupons that take forever to process. My jaw is slightly clenched. I am literally trying to will the grocery line to go faster than it is….
And on and on…
With Mindfulness, I notice, observe and witness the first inkling of frustration or impatience rising within me before any of those thoughts, feelings or actions play out. I am practicing a form of play-by-play, noticing and acknowledging each emotion, thought and sensation as it occurs. I have a Mindfulness motto: When in doubt, do a play-by-play.
Impatience is an invitation for Mindfulness.
There are different ways of learning Mindfulness. I am partial to starting with “Thought & Feeling Labeling” as implied by the Play-by-Play description. Some people feel that by giving labels to thought and feelings, judgment is being placed upon them. They might recommend to not attach labels to what is being noticed. For me, however, I like for people who are first learning Mindfulness to be aware of what labels they are already using in their thinking as this information may help them in their Healing work down the road. The practice does require some judgment and classification of what is occurring. On the other hand, a label tends to help depersonalize a thought as well, separating it from the person involved. I ask people to come up with labels that work for them and that describe some of the recurring thoughts they may have, i.e. An Insecure Thought, A Comparison Thought, A Self-Critical Thought, etc.
Shining the Light on these judging thoughts tends to disempower them. Once patterns are discovered, I suggest that people move towards noticing thoughts without a label or any judgment at all, which is a difficult yet wonderful skill to develop.
“Be calmly active and actively calm.” -Paramahansa Yogananda
Intrusive thoughts are random, often irrational thoughts that pop into our minds uninvited. They are “party crashers” that seem to come out of nowhere. They have been studied by psychologists for years and have been found to be pretty normal. People without any type of diagnosis for a mental health issue will experience random intrusive thoughts throughout the day. A straightforward intrusive thought could be something like: What would happen if I jerked the steering wheel of the car to the right really hard right now?
We tend to quickly dismiss thoughts like these, and not share them with others. We think they are weird and wonder from where they come. They are generally harmless if we give them no charge, though. Mindfulness will call an intrusive thought for what it is and give it no power. It will quickly disappear.
There is a type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder characterized by constant bombardment of intrusive thoughts that are disturbing to the individual experiencing them. These thoughts may often be about a course of action that someone may be against and would not want to undertake. For example, someone may have the thought of standing up and urinating in the middle of a church service. These thoughts could occur even if this person has the utmost respect for and really enjoys that particular church. The thought, seeming to come out of nowhere, is confusing. The person involved doesn’t understand why the thought won’t just go away. Greater anxiety is created by this confusion, which accelerates the intrusive thought. The person fights to stop the thought, which seems to give it greater charge and power.
A remedy for such a scenario is for the affected person to not resist and simply notice the thought and then label it for what it is: an intrusive thought that has no rational basis.
I bring this up as an extreme example of how thoughts can work in general. My point is that the mind can be a free-for-all of random, wandering and intrusive thoughts. It doesn’t mean a person is crazy. The more power, Energy and attention we give to these thoughts, the more they will run our lives as we react to them. The more we step back and witness the scene, the less power this random mental world will have.
“If you correct your mind, the rest of your life will fall into place.” -Lao Tzu
As I practice Mindfulness more and more, the general pace of my mental activity has become slower and less chaotic. My mind is fairly calm most of the time. I do notice that thoughts or feelings still arise that don’t serve me or that are not germane to that moment of time. It seems at times that, via my Mindfulness practice, I am often times playing an extremely slow and subtle game of “Whack-a-Mole” (that crazy childhood game often seen at carnivals and miniature golf courses). Random thoughts or feelings ever-so-slowly poke their heads up. I notice them, which seems to slowly and gently push many of the thoughts away in a very gentle Whack-A-Mole type of way. Instead of a mallet, however, I am using the light of Mindfulness, which is much less abrupt.
With Mindfulness practice, a lot of mental activity simply fades away by observation. You will notice more and more gaps of calm the more you practice Mindfulness. As these gaps increase, you are then left to decide what to do with what remains. This is part of the second stage of Mindfulness.
The second stage of Mindfulness is about making a judgment or preference call in the practice of being Mindful. It is conscious action or choice. For example:
-I might experience a jealous thought and the feelings that arise with it and I might decide that this thought and corresponding feeling is immature, inappropriate and not serving me;
– I might have feelings of sadness while watching a movie. I might notice that an old personal memory is being triggered as I watch. I may then decide that this is a good opportunity to release sadness and tears related to that old memory and so I may cry;
– I might have feelings of Joy over some occurrence and choose to bask in these feelings for a while, letting them flow.
While Mindfulness does contribute to our ability to regulate our emotions, it is not stoicism. We become less reactive when we are Mindful, but we can also exercise more choice in how we react and how we feel. We can choose to feel Peace and happiness more often.
I want to be clear again that with the practice of Mindfulness, we are not suppressing feelings. We want to experience our emotions. By observing them, however, many of them will simply fall away. Those that remain may need attention and processing. We can choose how to let that happen in a Mindful manner.
Once calm, we can set our mind towards a certain place and a certain way of being. We can set the table, so to speak. We can sense our inner Bliss and tap in to our Infinitude. We can see the Divinity in others and enjoy it. This is the Freewill aspect of Mindfulness─ directing where our clear mind goes and doesn’t go. We are being Mindful in that we have the power to hold our mind in a joyful place. It may be a natural by-product of Mindfulness that we naturally settle into a Divine state of mind, but I think we can be proactive in keeping it there.
Random thoughts, commensurate feelings and our reactions to these dynamics are something that separates us from our Divinity. When we remove these obstacles, there is a desire to hold that space open for Divinity to return.
“You realize that all along there was something tremendous within you and you did not know it.” -Parahamhansa Yogananda
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a branch of psychological treatment and is one of the most commonly utilized approaches in counseling for a variety of problems and mental health issues. It is regarded as highly effective. I personally find that CBT is a lot like Mindfulness.
CBT practitioners note that our thoughts are not us. They will say that many of our thoughts are downright irrational but can also play a huge role in how we feel and the behaviors we engage in. CBT teaches us to notice and slow down our thought processes and basically reframe thoughts that are not serving us so that we, in turn, begin to feel better.
It is said that CBT developed independently of any eastern influence or philosophy. I recall the story of Albert Ellis, noted as a founder of CBT, who reportedly stumbled onto the theory as a young man. He was in love, yet the person whom he loved did not return his affection. Ellis was in emotional pain thinking about how much he loved this person and how his life was ruined because she did not feel the same way. He had thoughts that he would never find happiness in love and he would be alone and miserable for the rest of his life.
As an aspiring student of the mind, eventually he gained some composure, observed his thoughts more academically and decided that they were completely irrational. Yes, he loved this person and, yes, the feelings were not returned. Yet he could not assume that he would never love this way again nor that he would be condemned to a life of solitude. He reframed his thoughts to something more rational─ while this romantic relationship did not work out this time, the next one may. He would survive to love again and maybe even with someone who also loved him.
CBT counselors will ask their clients to a keep a log of their thoughts: what triggered them, what emotional reaction occurred and how the thought might be irrational and could be reframed to be more realistic. Clients will typically notice patterns like tendencies towards catastrophic thinking, that the worst case scenario will result in any situation or All-or-Nothing thinking (i.e., because I did poor on that test, I am a total loser).
CBT clients learn that their thoughts are not them, that their thoughts can be inaccurate and that they don’t always serve them. They learn about their own mental patterns and they learn to reframe their thinking to enjoy life more.
“If human emotions largely result from thinking, then one may appreciably control one’s feelings by controlling one’s thoughts – or by changing the internalized sentences, or self-talk, with which one largely created the feeling in the first place.” –Albert Ellis
Breath is an element that can be fundamental for achieving Mindfulness on an ongoing basis. It is an instantly obtainable monkey-mind tamer. Deep Belly breaths with extended exhales tend to ground us, take us out of our minds and put us back into our Bodies and into the present moment.
Mindfulness is one of the “3 M’s.” Meditation, Mantra and Mindfulness work hand in hand. Meditation is practice for Mindfulness. Being Mindful daily helps one Meditate better. Mantra crosses over into each as a protector of the mind, keeping it from wandering too far outside of the Mantra itself.
With Non-attachment, we practice the concept of “Our thoughts are not us” and we do not cling to them. Furthermore, with Non-judgment we let that thought (that is not us) just be what it is.
Acceptance helps us to accept what is occurring around us without resistance. Non-Judgment further serves to not grant the majority of thoughts that arise within us any power or charge, keeping us in a professorial-like, observational stance.
Freewill directs the focus of our minds to be Mindful, to focus on breath and to pull out of judgment as necessary. With Energy, we watch the charge we give any thought and the potential power it has over us. We lean towards a positive charge of Energy for our overall mindset.
Stillness encourages an overall deceleration of our life so that all processes of the Body and mind can be more readily observed.
- Slowing down in general and watching our thoughts in a detached manner as much as possible are the main practices for Mindfulness. Attention to breath, Meditation every day and use of Mantra are cornerstone practices for Mindfulness.
- Keeping a journal or log of thought and emotional reaction patterns may be helpful for some. Journal anxious/worrisome/intrusive thoughts that occur, what may have triggered them, any emotional and bodily responses that occur because of them and how the thoughts might possibly be reframed to be more rational and less black-and-white or catastrophic.
- Seek Cognitive Behavioral Therapy by a qualified professional for persistent difficulty in managing thought patterns.
- Practice yoga. Physical yoga teaches us Mindfulness, as our monkey-minds protest a posture, we observe these thoughts and they eventually fade. We surrender into the pose.
- View specific situations, such as waiting in line or sitting in traffic, as excellent opportunities to practice Mindfulness. Practice Play-by-Play as discussed in these situations.
- Watch for “Rehash and Rumination.” With these, we get stuck in a spin cycle of beating some old conversation or situation to death with repetitive thoughts and attention. Shine Light on it. Breathe slowly.
- Survey yourself at the end of the day in regards to moments when you were not mindful. Review what occurred and how you may have responded differently.
- Practice Conscious Breathing (See Breathe element).
- Use the analogy of keeping the mind in “Neutral Gear.” Notice when you shift Forward (anxiety about the future) or Reverse (worry or regret about the past). When this happens, slowly shift the mind back into Neutral.
- If you are a parent, investigate Conscious Parenting.
- Randomly select any element on the Periodic Table of Spiritual Elements and be particularly Mindful of that element for a day. For example, if you pick Gratitude, be extraordinarily Mindful of noticing feelings of and opportunities for Gratitude throughout the Day.
My Mind is Not Me; I Am an Observer of My Thoughts.
My Thoughts Are Clouds Floating by; My Breath is Home.
I Notice My Mind Spinning; My Breath Calms Me.
I Am Pure Energy, Peace at this Moment; Courageous and Willfully Present.