If you are looking for an effective way to stop the impact stress has on your life and well-being, mindfulness is your ticket!
But does the popularity of the word mindfulness intimidate you?
Please don’t let it!
Mindfulness, is simply the practice of being a non-judgmental observer of your thoughts and gently directing them back to the present moment. We all have the intrinsic capacity to change the focus our attention.
Simple but not so easy to do.
Our mind hangs out in the present moment less than 50% of the time, as happiness researcher Dr. Killingsworth discovered through his postdoctoral research at Harvard University. As if that is not bad enough, his research also showed that a wandering mind leads to unhappiness in life.
By practicing mindfulness, we can lessen the time we are lost in thoughts and be healthier and happier.
In fact, over the last few decades, research from all around the world has proven that in addition to happiness, mindfulness leads to numerous physiological and psychological benefits, as well as peak performance.
With such strong evidence, why do less than 10% of us take advantage of this wonderful way of living?
A little over a decade ago, I was one of those people.
I remember vividly when the book A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle was the book selection at my book club. I recall rolling my eyes hearing that this book was about “awakening to a new way of being and a new level of consciousness.”
I did not feel I had the time to “let a flower show me the way back home to my true self!”
All was seemingly going well in my life at the time. I was mostly unconscious of the great level of anxiety that I lived with, or accepted it as part of the price I had to pay to be successful.
As it turned out, the seeds that were planted by that coincidental opening to mindful awareness grew into my lifesaving jacket shortly thereafter. When my unconscious state manifested in my life in the form of a series of unfortunate events, mindfulness became my beacon of light, my anchor, and my way home.
To this day, practicing mindfulness provides me with a safe place to find refuge in difficult times, keeps things in perspective, and helps me regain access to my evolved brain so that I can make wise decisions.
But how about you? What are your thoughts about mindfulness?
Are looking for ways to experience more balance and peace in your life?
Do you wish to enhance your ability to prevent work challenges from coming home with you at the end of the day? Would you like to become better at making intelligent use of your emotions?
What if I was to tell you that incorporating a mindfulness practice into your life will open the door to all of the above and many more inner strengths and states of being?
If you are anything like me, you may think that it sounds too good to be true, that you do not have time for it, or that you simply tried and cannot do it.
I would like to challenge your perceptions by sharing with you what I learned from the world’s most prominent mindfulness teachers about my points of resistance to mindfulness.
My goal is to inspire you to open the door to the ultimate form of freedom by welcoming mindfulness into your life.
“Mindfulness is a love affair with life and a possibility for healing.” John Kabat Zinn
1. “The mindfulness hype is simply too good to be true.”
It is hard to believe that mindfulness can transform our life. Even if the strong scientific evidence impresses us, we cannot conceptualize how incorporating even as little as five minutes of mindfulness meditation three times a week can increase our immune system cells or our happiness.
Yet, even with all the scientific evidence aside, we know that our current way of being often does not feel good. We appear to be stressed out and more addicted than ever; we have a hard time sleeping; we are overweight.
What we are not fully conscious of is that our mind’s attention—our thoughts—determine the way we feel, which leads to our actions that create our life experience. Everything in your life today is the result of your thought process. Your career, education, and your relationships are all the result of the decisions you made based on what you think.
The problem is that when we are thinking over and over about events that appeared threatening or made us feel defensive, we neurobiologically lose access to the intrinsic strengths we have to make good decisions.
The reason for this is that fear-based thoughts place us in survival mode. This is good when we are chased by a cougar, but not so good when we are ruminating over and over about a harsh criticism by our supervisor.
Here is why intercepting our thoughts has such a robust benefit on our wellbeing:
When we are in survival mode, this little structure in our brain, called the amygdala, orchestrates our body’s response to threats. Our body is flooded with stress hormones and literally shuts down our higher brain functions to allow energy to fuel all the systems required to survive in the face of a threat.
Let’s face it, if you are being chased by a cougar, you really don’t need access to your innovation and critical thinking skills that allow you to discover a cure for a disease or develop an invention. You need to deal with the immediate threat of the cougar. So, instead, your energy is directed to the appropriate organs and functions that will allow you to fight, flee, or freeze.
However, the more we think about the harsh criticism we received from our supervisor, the more we live immersed in the chemistry of stress—sometimes for hours, days, or even years. Multiply that by several challenging events per day times the 70,000 estimated thoughts we have per day, and maybe you can begin to see why stress is now linked to more than 90% of today’s disease.
This is the power of our mind at work—inadvertently not allowing us to get out of our stress response when our unconscious thoughts perpetuate the need to protect our selves by perceived threats.
And allowing our unruly thoughts to keep our stress response over-activated long-term changes pretty significantly structures and functions in our brain that originally were intended to help us live the most amazing, healthy, and happy life.
Research shows that it takes a minute and a half for a negative emotion to run through our neural circuitry. Yet by interpreting the situation as a threat, we let the negative emotions linger unconsciously, placing us in a compromised state for most of our daily lives.
So, how does mindfulness help? Mindfulness helps us to make our thought patterns conscious. By sorting through our unconscious thoughts and emotions, we are able to become our own neurobiologists and regulate our inner response.
Mindfulness simply allows us to interrupt the stream of thinking about a situation that has activated our fear circuitry and return to our peaceful home base. By bringing awareness to the sensation of the fearful experience, and purposely returning to the present moment, we stop the release of cortisol. We can then redirect our energy to fuel the parts of our brain that are critical for our optimal performance. Further, through repetition of bringing mindful awareness to all that we do, we contribute to growing the parts of our brain that are linked to positive traits such as resilience, confidence, and self-control.
Although mindfulness cannot prevent us from experiencing negative emotions, it enhances our ability to take a break from the negative thoughts and emotions we experience and turn inward for a sense of peace and calm. From there, we can choose our response using the incredible strengths and inner capabilities that we have but that we can only access when we are calm and centered.
2. “I don’t have time to do it.”
It is true that time is a precious commodity these days. Technological advances once designed to improve our efficiency have resulted in a dysfunctional relationship with our devices, which we use to bring work and our to-do lists home, even on weekends or in bed at night! It is natural to present resistance to adding one more thing onto our already full plate.
But how much time do you currently waste in either thinking about the past or worrying about the future?
How much time do you lose waiting for others to do things for you so you can feel fulfilled?
Based on the Harvard research mentioned in the beginning of this article, we waste about 50% of our time in the virtual reality of being lost in our thoughts.
Without conscious attention, which is what mindfulness is all about, our thoughts and the emotions they generate, run our life on auto-pilot.
Our thoughts determine how we respond to life. When our thoughts regularly revolve around fears and worries, we will experience anxiety.
It takes a few minutes to connect with the mental content of our thoughts and the bodily sensations of our emotions. Even investing only five minutes every morning in a formal, mindfulness meditation practice will, over time, allow you to regain control of your mind’s focus. And then the real magic happens, when we bring our new capacity to modify the attention of our thoughts when real life situations take us off balance.
We can then prevent the unnecessary activation of our stress response no matter how many stressors we have to deal with in life. We simply deal with them from a space of wisdom and confidence that can only be found in the present moment.
And what ends up happening is we have more time because:
—We stop living life waiting for something to happen. We’re more focused on our internal world as opposed to external rewards.
—Our creativity and imagination flourishes because our mind is no longer cluttered by negative thoughts.
—We are more resilient. A better regulated mind allows us to bounce back quicker from uncomfortable events such as negative criticism.
3. “I have tried to practice mindfulness, but I am just not good at it.”
In our busy, hyper-connected world almost everything is associated with the need to perform. So, we expect we must perform mindfulness perfectly.
However, mindfulness is this magical break from the never-ending race of meeting expectations.
It is a practice that does not require perfection.
Recognizing the point when our mind wanders is what the magic of mindfulness is all about. The practice is to shift from judging and condemning ourselves when our mind wanders, to recognizing that the moment when we recognize the wandering mind is the moment of power.
We don’t have to be Zen masters to use life as our practice in nudging our thoughts back to the present moment, one thought at a time. Every time we intervene in reactive thinking and choose our response instead strengthens our ability to do so in the future. Additionally, research shows that gray matter increases in the pre-frontal region of our brain. This region of our brain, known as the executive functioning part of our brain, is what allows us to make sound decisions and access valuable data that we can use to bounce back quicker from adverse situations and improve our life experience.
Jack Kornfield, best-selling author and Vipassana teacher, has helped me simplify the concept of practicing mindfulness. Far from a mystical practice, it can be mastered by viewing our thoughts as a puppy that we are trying to train to stay. We tell the puppy “stay”; in a moment it wanders away; we call it back and tell it again to stay. We repeat this process over and over again. We don’t get angry at the puppy. It is simply learning how to stay in one place, just as our wandering mind is learning to stay in one present moment.
Contrary to almost everything in life the benefits of mindfulness are reaped in our moment to moment experience without the need to arrive at a destination. Mindfulness opens us up to a new way of approaching life that shifts our default mode of getting distracted by old stories that our mind has hung onto and are not here right now. The present moment is where happiness, contentment, optimal performance, and life satisfaction can be found.
Our thoughts are incredibly useful as they form the genesis of our emotions and lead to actions that create our reality.
However, often times, the power of our mind results in us becoming servants of our thoughts because of imaginary threats, which activate our stress response and deprive us of our inner capabilities, our creativity, and our natural capacity for resilience and happiness.
When we begin to bring mindful awareness to our thoughts and change the focus of our attention, we expand our perception in all areas of our life.
We realize that when we worry about a staff meeting, a presentation we have to give, or the potential of a relationship break-up, we allow our thoughts to take us to a virtual reality that is not here right now.
With mindfulness, we can begin to cultivate a better relationship with our thoughts. By practicing conscious awareness of our habitual thoughts that do not serve us, we can begin to become the compassionate observer. We can recognize that these fearful thoughts are just habits and become better and better at directing our attention to the present moment.
Although there are plenty of reasons to shun this well-substantiated practice, many of our objections are also just thoughts!
The evidence of the benefits of practicing mindfulness is compelling. You can expect to improve your immune function, blood pressure regulation, and cardiovascular risk, as well as your mood, concentration, focus, problem-solving and self-regulation.
These benefits will improve your work performance, your relationships, and your sense of happiness.
When beginning to learn mindfulness meditation, it is often helpful to practice using a guided meditation. If you would like a guided practice to try, you can click on this link : http://bit.ly/JoinMyndZen to join the Myndzen community and receive a guided, mindfulness practice delivered to your inbox.
By joining a mindful community, you can access the resources, support, and accountability that can help you harness the power of your mind to create a more fulfilling life experience.