Mindfulness practice – What’s the point and where are we going?

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It is often said that human beings are motivated by self-interest. If this is true, then it explains why deep meditation and self-reflection comes so easily to us. But wait… it doesn’t.

Self-interest of this kind, that is, sustained self-awareness of our present moment experiences, is rather elusive and often difficult to do for long stretches. It might not seem so at first, but this is a powerful irony that accounts for a great deal of human suffering.

Losing mindful contact with your thoughts, emotions, and sensory experiences means being stuck in automatic “pilot” mode. Going at this same, frenetic speed, while making judgments, evaluations, jumping from thoughts, emotions, and sensations and back without pausing to pay nonverbal regard to one’s experience comes at a cost. It makes one rigid, inflexible, reactive, and presumptive. What it provides in efficiency it lacks in certainty and clarity. It makes one ready to lash out in frustration at someone, something, or oneself at a moment’s notice. This is harmful whether you’re a person who is healthy and well, or a person with a longstanding health condition.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a quality of attention, an attribute of consciousness, a way of being aware. The practice of mindfulness makes attention tender, consciousness self-reflective, and awareness flexible. If you look closely at the word and break it down into its components, you get ‘mind”, “full”, and “ness”. 

The “mind” is the mode of experiencing, the vehicle that moves us from experience to experience (through attention) and gives us the tools to perceive the experience (through our senses). “Full” refers to the richness in every experience. Jon-Kabat Zinn famously wrote “Wherever You Go, There You Are”. In this vein, “full” means whatever you’re experiencing right now, that is all there is. There is an implicit call then to hold this experience in the mind, and embrace whatever it is, in this moment, with nonjudgment and acceptance. “Ness” simply refers to state, quality, or condition of its subject. On paper, this sounds simple, intuitive, and most importantly, very doable. So why isn’t it?

Language and communication technologies have evolved to make modern lives highly complex, and our minds have not evolved as quickly. Steve Hayes says we need to learn to relate our minds differently if we are to prosper in this modern world we’ve created. Our minds are fleeting, full of wanderlust, and difficult to reign in. Mindfulness practice is hard because we’re constantly conditioned to train our minds to be reactive and automatic in the face of cognitive, social, and physical demands. Mindfulness is also hard because evolutionarily speaking, pre-modern human conditions necessitated brains to be constantly active in evaluating present circumstances, recalling past events, and projecting future prospects to survive. 

The vestiges of the hunter-gatherer brain still rests up in our skulls today, while we navigate the era of information technologies. As we communicate increasingly through text, in fewer and fewer characters, and edited images through screens of various sizes, the mind has even more bite-sized stimuli at its disposal with which to react and judge. 

Cultivating mindfulness in this life is, of course, still doable and not as difficult as one might think. The key is to work on simple things, and do the work consistently. You need not go to a 10-day retreat, or practice for 1-2 hours a day as some traditions recommend. I currently practice something I call “Toward-Away Mindfulness” for 10 minutes in the morning. The purpose is to observe how my mind moves. As Kevin Polk says, there are many different ways human beings move in the world, and the simplest way to describe it is that we move toward what we like and move away from what we dislike. For 10 minutes, I sit and observe where my mind is wandering and see if it’s a “toward” or “away” move. In the first minute of my practice I might notice a prickling feeling on the back of my hand. What often shows up next is an urge to scratch my hand, so I notice that I want to move away from the prickling feeling by reducing it. 

I might notice I’m thinking about what I will be doing during the day, perhaps visualizing plans, so I notice that these actions are something I want to move towards. The content of my mind-wandering is very different from day-to-day. And some days I’m able to catch my mind’s toward and away moves quite readily, while other days my mind is foggy and I’m unable to keep up with my mind’s moves. This doesn’t distress me, I simply take stock of it as another piece of information that I could use during my day. For instance, if I seem to be having thoughts about different ideas and concepts, I notice that my mind may be primed for a day where I do a fair bit of writing. On another day, where I notice my mind is especially reactive and frustrated by physical tension in my body, I make note to be physically active and stretch that day. 

There is no one goal with mindfulness practice. The point is yours to make. Choose whatever is in your best interest. Mindfulness practice allows you the space and attitude to be with your experiences in a flexible and engaged manner. Be prepared for something hard to show up, whether it’s restlessness, boredom, irritation, or physical tension. Noticing what happens next in your mind may just be the insight you need to carry on in the rest of your day.