What the Heck Is Mindfulness, and Why Does It Matter?
...and why "systematic attentional training" may be a better name for it.
Posted Aug 03, 2019
In the age of misinformation, misconceptions about mindfulness abound. Mindfulness is not making your mind go blank. Essentially, it is not being distracted.
It is being in touch with the vividness of your experience here-and-now. It is learning how to engage your experience without automatically reacting, so you can choose wise responses—responding instead of reacting.
It is paying attention in the present moment, with non-judgment and a degree of compassion. Why is this so important?
As I've written in past posts, the mind is all we have to experience the world; it is the filter for everything we perceive and do. Its quality ultimately determines that of our lives.
Mindfulness meditation is a deliberate form of mental exercise that enables us to use our attention to enhance our lives in almost every imaginable way, from our personal and professional relationships to our capacity for calm, flexibility, creativity, and equanimity.
It opens doors we would not have detected otherwise. It gives us more direct control over our attention—our most precious commodity. It also allows us to let go of what we can't control.
Mindfulness is also not about understanding concepts; it’s about experiencing pre-conceptually, more accurately and deeply. It is "knowledge by acquaintance" in the words of the philosopher Bertrand Russell. It cultivates a form of intelligence that can lead to immense psychological freedom.
So how do you do it? Mindfulness practice is, in general terms, a process of:
1. Intentionally focusing on something, like the breath or sounds. The object of attention isn't so important (in theory, it can be anything); mindfulness is the act of attending itself.
2. Losing focus (this inevitably happens to all of us, even the most experienced meditators).
3. Gently refocusing (the most important part).
4. Repeating steps 1-3 many times.
5. Non-judgmentally noticing how digressive and oppositional your mind can be and often is.
6. Countlessly repeating steps 1-5 with acceptance and curiosity.
Every time you practice, you strengthen your muscle of mindfulness, calmly coming back to the present moment. Because many associate notions of mindfulness with the Buddhist religion, it can discourage secular individuals. Thus "systematic attentional training" may be a more attractive title than “mindfulness.”
What I write about in these articles primarily refers to the scientific and secular aspect. As a society, we seem to value physical exercise, but we don't equally value mental training. Why the heck not?
Aside from being a quintessential tool to witness how the mind routinely and inevitably produces more suffering than necessary, mindfulness training helps us gain control of our attention so we can use it wisely when we need to. It also helps us savor experiences that we often take for granted. It also helps us savor our lives.
In reality, our days are numbered; we just can’t see the clock. Life is too precious not to attend to it moment by moment fully; we can never get our moments back. Happiness is only accessible in the present moment. Mindfulness is the practice of coming back to the present moment.
As you begin to see the fruits of your mindfulness practice (yes, you can and will get much better at this practice with time!), you will likely realize that mindfulness, while not a panacea, can become a "superpower." It can give you the freedom to choose how you respond when others around you seem helplessly tugged around by their automatic emotional responses.
The recent mindfulness boom, not only in psychology, psychotherapy, science, education, but also pop culture (anyone see the recent Black Mirror episode, Season 5, Episode 3, where the CEO of the social media company is on a silent meditation retreat?) and tech has underscored how needlessly unsatisfied, distracted, anxious, depressed, and disgruntled we have become as humans.
Many mental health issues can be traced back to regretting the past and dreading the future when the only actual moment we ever have to feel joy and peace is now. Personally, I noticed that the more I practiced mindfulness, the more flexibility and choice I had in responding to what used to feel so stressful before, such as being cut off in traffic, or something not going as planned.
Taking just 10-20 minutes daily, or even less, 1-5 minutes (yes, one minute can make a difference) one to three times weekly to practice actually made me feel more productive, attentive, perceptive, centered, and happy in my day.
Every time you practice, as brief as it may be, the physical structure of your brain changes. Two basic structural changes are building cortical thickness for preserving vital functions of your brain; aging, unfortunately, thins our brains over time and desensitizes the brain’s fear center, the amygdala, so it is less easily triggered when no real threat is present, thus increasing its accuracy in detecting a threat. This enables you to be alert and calm simultaneously; a rare combination in our culture, as when we're alert, we're usually preoccupied (unfortunately), and when we're calm, we're usually tired (also unfortunate).
In an increasingly mindless, distracted, and agitated world, your mindfulness practice is not only for you; it's a social project at its core. It can be one of the most transformative endeavors you can do for your children, colleagues, friends, neighbors, community, and the world.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: Okrasyuk/Shuterstock