A Bit of History and Research on Mindfulness...
- in the form of meditation, has been the central practice of Buddhism for thousands of years.
- Transcendental Meditation was introduced in the United states by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late 1950s with empirically demonstrated health benefits to those who practiced regularly.
- Thich Nhat Hanh created the Order of Interbeing in 1966 to bring Mindfulness Practice to the western world. He has lead the world in bringing peace, happiness and spirituality more fully alive on our planet.
- Since the 1970s, Mindful Living training has been used in medical contexts to speed recovery (Jon Kabat-Zinn) & now increasingly in business contexts for stress management.
- Mindfulness has been found to reduce stress (blood cortisol), high blood pressure, serum cholesterol levels, & chronic pain.
- It activates areas of the brain associated with happiness & contentment
- and it lessens activation of areas associated with negative emotions, in addition to lessening the impact & speeding the recovery from negative events.
Empirical research of mindfulness practice indicates that it's use as a complimentary treatment approach leads to positive effects on some medical problems:
- Stress (Williams et al., 2001)
- Improved immune system functioning (Psychosomatic Medicine, August 2003)
- Addictive behavior (Marlatt, 2002)
- Enhanced management of chronic pain (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1987),
- Cancer (Speca et al., 2000),
- Eating disorders (Kristeller & Hallett, 1999)
- Fibromyalgia (Goldenberg et al., 1994)
- Psoriasis (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1998)
Mindfulness is accepted among psychiatric and psychological professionals as an effective, approach to the management of many mental health difficulties.
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT - Marsha Linehan)
- Anxiety disorders (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1992),
- Relapse to depression (Segal et al., 2002).
The Practice...or...Why I Can't Meditate
So often, my clients will say that they can't meditate. When I ask them what they mean, they usually say that they have tried it and they...
- can't sit still for that long.
- can't keep focused and have thought after thought going through their mind.
- didn't achieved a state of mind they expected.
- Didn't have time.
- Don't have a quiet place to do it.
This is when I know they can benefit from just a little bit more information about meditation and mindfulness. All of these "obstacles" are not actually obstacles at all in the practice. Nor are they some shortcoming on the part of the person attempting meditation. Like any practice, it must be learned.
Not only do some people find it difficult to sit for 20 minutes straight, but there are some who simply are unable to sit due to physical and medical limitations. Although we are nearly always presented with a picture or photo of a person sitting on the floor in a cross legged position, or even a lotus position, when we are shown meditation-in-action, this is only one posture in an infinite number that are available to us. We do not even need to assume a posture, but can be in motion when we meditate. Until we open our minds to the unlimited possibilities of how to practice meditation and mindfulness, we will continue to tell ourselves "I can't". Happily, it just isn't so. You can!
People usually do get the idea about focusing on a object, phrase, sound, etc... as being part of meditation. The part they sometimes miss out on is that the thoughts that distract us from our focal point are a crucial part of the meditation process. It is how we respond to those distractions that some folks have not learned. It is this response process to distractions that is the heart of meditation. The thoughts are completely natural for us humans and don't mean we can't meditate!
I have often heard clients say that they "failed" at meditation because they never achieved an empty mind or some other state that they thought they should be experiencing. There is no doubt that there are times in meditation that one can go into an extremely different state of consciousness - like an empty mind; yet these experiences are not the definition of meditation or mindfulness. Nor are they a requirement... When we try to achieve a certain state of mind that we are not currently experiencing, we ensure that we will not be able to be in the present moment - which is the essence of meditation. If we can not be in the present moment because we are thirsting for something else, we will just be watering the seeds of discontent. This is a paradox for you to meditate on...
Not enough time? We only do things that we have made a commitment to ourselves to do. But, perhaps a person really is extremely busy... Perhaps a full time job plus a part time job, young children and no partner make it very difficult to even imagining how meditation could be squeezed in! Unfortunately, our culture is very hard on us, and we often do feel that we beyond our limit. This is when we need meditation the most, of course. There are a couple of ways to approach this difficulty. One is to learn mindfulness that can be practiced while doing something you are already engaged in, whether it be listening to your child, doing the dishes or brushing your teeth. Another is to work with a counselor who can help you with your specific situation to creatively bring mindfulness into your life in a manner that reduces stress rather than adding to it.
Meditation does not require quiet. If you could be on a pedestal (so you don't get hit by a car!) in the center of the busiest intersection in NYC, you could have a perfectly wonderful meditation. Quiet can indeed be lovely, but it isn't part of what you need in order to meditate. Remember all those distracting thoughts that come into your mind when you are meditating? Well, there are lots of other kinds of distractions that come our way to. Just to name a few... the ambulance going past our window with its siren wailing, an emotion that wells up in us, a pain we feel in our body, an itch...
All of these distractions are handled in the same manner as our distracting thoughts. They are part of meditation. Meditation does not exist without our personal distractions.
So perhaps you actually can meditate. I am smiling because I know you can.
We all want happiness in our life and the lives of those we love. How do we find this elusive state called happiness? People take all sorts of paths to find happiness...they may even travel to very distant places, go to meet enlightened ones, search diligently for the right partner, work long and hard to earn enough money so it is no longer a worry, get plastic surgery... and yet they still do not say that they have found happiness!
We are looking in the wrong place when we follow these paths with a goal of happiness. The focus, in these cases, is on something outside ourselves. We say to ourselves "If only this would be, then I would be happy..." Happiness can not be found in these places outside of ourselves. Other things can be found, but this is not where true enduring happiness lies.
So, if not outside ourselves, then we must look inside ourselves. That is where happiness has been all along. And it is there now. It is always there, available to us any time and any place. How do we experience this happiness? We can become this happiness by following certain practices.
Mindfulness/Meditation is such a practice. Mindfulness is a form of meditation.
When we practice mindfulness, we focus on the present moment - the here and now. We find happiness in the here and now. It is in the spaces between our thoughts of the past and the future. It is right at this moment. We do not actually have the past or the future, and when we are busy thinking about them, we miss the happiness of this precious moment...the only moment we have! In the here and now, we can be truly happy to be alive! What an amazingly precious thing this is! We can practice gratitude for our heart! It is a wonderful thing to have a heart that is working. We can practice gratitude for our breath...that our lungs work well enough to keep us alive to see (with our wonderful eyes!) the beautiful flower in front of us. Perhaps we practice gratitude for our sense of touch and smell as we feel the warm breeze and smell the smells of springtime. There is so much to be happy about, and we already are all of these things... We are sight and smell. We are a beating heart and working lungs. We are the sunshine and the stars. We are the minerals and the water. We are connected to all things in our universe and this is truly a wonder and a happiness.
To read about these things is not enough to experience happiness. That is why it is called a practice. If we are willing to spend 20 years working 60 hours a week to achieve the happiness we think it may bring us some day, we can be willing to spend time savoring each moment. Savoring each moment is where the happiness is.
we loose contact with the messages our body and spirit are sending to
us in the here and now, we find ourselves engaging in all sorts of
behaviors that may actually hurt us. One such behavior is the unhealthy
consumption of food. Mindful eating is nothing like the diets
you may have tried. It is just as much about how we eat as what we eat. It
is a simple practice that can transform your life in many ways.
Preach not to others what they should eat, but eat as becomes you and be silent.
Epictetus, Greek philosopher
Mindful eating has been demonstrated to help individuals lose weight and develop a healthier eating pattern. Typically in our culture, people eat using only one sense and they do so in a very superficial way. Binge eating, at the extreme, bypasses all the senses and is - in effect - mindless eating.
Engaging all the senses while we are selecting, preparing and eating is an important skill in our development of health on all levels - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. In mindful seeing, we can look deeply at our food's color and shape with single minded focus. Mindful smelling brings consciousness to the depth and richness of smells of all our cooked and uncooked food. Mindful taste is cultivated by holding the food in your mouth for a longer period, lingering over chewing your food, and focusing on all the different tastes that exist in each small mouthful of food. The sense of touch is engaged in preparation and eating, both through your hands and in your mouth. This is where texture, that we never even noticed before, comes to life in in richness and complexity. Mindful listening also involves preparation and the actual eating of our food as do all the other senses. There are the more familiar sounds of crunching & snapping, but the previously undiscovered sounds will amaze you. Mindful knowing is what we do to bring our eating into a deeper spiritual realm.
Mindful knowing is the tuning in to our forgotten knowledge of all that has gone into our food... Let us think of broccoli as an example. You have a beautiful piece of green broccoli on your plate. What has gone into this broccoli on your plate? Everything. The sun nourished the plant along with the air, rain, soil, minerals... Someone worked to harvest the seed that it grew from, and someone else harvested the head of broccoli. The farmer sowed the seed, and his wife made him a breakfast to nourish him for his work. The farmer's mother and father can not be forgotten! Without them, we would not have the farmer who sowed, tended and harvested our vegetable. ...and the individuals that made the equipment that the farmer uses; the metals and other fabrics and substances that make up the equipment; the gas that was used to transport the seeds, the equipment and finally the broccoli bunches... you get the idea!
Below are some of the elements of learning to eat and live mindfully:
- Curiosity about how much food it will take to feel full
- The issue of distraction pulling us away from mindful eating
- A non-judgmental stance in observation
- The positives of true nurturing of oneself with food
- Your own unique and healthy relationship with food that is there for you
- Heightened awareness of hunger and satiety cues
- Freeing oneself from reactive eating
- Reality acceptance
Mindful eating is a distinct set of skills that anyone can learn. Not only will it help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight, but it will help you lead a happier life in general.
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