What is Mindfulness?

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Human minds are exceedingly busy. Studies have estimated that we have something like 60,000 plus thoughts a day – without even trying! The stream of consciousness is actually a mighty river. The surprising thing is that we are often not aware of the content of our own stream of consciousness, that is, until we stop and pay attention. Most of us wake up in the morning (there are, of course, teenagers) and thereby become conscious, and then go about our daily routines and activities on a kind of automatic pilot. But stopping to pay attention to what is happening in the present moment is something different, something that we call mindfulness.

Would you accept as completely true that all that has happened in your life, from birth to mere seconds ago, has already happened and is not subject to revision or change of any kind? What has happened has happened. We can know the past but we cannot change it. Would you accept as an indisputable fact that beyond this very moment resides the future, and that the future is not a place or time that we can inhabit, ever, except in our imagination? We cannot know or be in the future, even though we like to think that we can. We often and must plan for the future, but that planning always happens in the present.

If you accept these facts, that the past is a done deal and that we can’t know what will come in the future, then we are left with some pretty interesting implications. One is that we exist and that life is lived only and always in the present moment, here now. We exist in a three-dimensional space, not one that includes the fourth dimension, time. Time travel happens only in our mind, within our imaginings or those of science fiction writers and movie makers. Next time you check your watch, you’ll find that it’s now once again. It’s always now. Check it out!

Mindfulness is the intentional act of paying attention in the present moment, knowing what is happening now, which is literally where you live. However, much of the time our minds mindlessly wander off trying to undo the past, dreading the future, stressing. Our mind can be gripped by any thinking or emotion or gut sense you can imagine and we may not really notice, unless we pay attention.

To be mindful is also to be honest. Whatever is happening in a given moment is indeed what is happening, and so the accurate and honest paying of attention is to note just what is occurring, nothing less and nothing more. To judge or deny is usually to invoke a wish for our mind to be otherwise, to begin to disappear from the present moment into desires, aversions and distractions. To judge is to disrupt attention to what is already here.

Mindfulness is like an internal GPS – we could call it our Grounded Personal Sense. We have this ability to just look and see what’s going on right now. Most of us want the ‘full function’ GPS that effortlessly navigates us to some destination (like to be kinder, sober, rich, famous, illness-free) – good luck with that!

Mindfulness has recently become a huge focus for research, and its application to living well and healthily seems to be limitless. It’s like suddenly discovering that we have muscles, and that there are all kinds of things that we can do with them. This GPS of ours is a big deal. We’ll visit this in more detail next time.

Mindfulness II

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

If you missed class last time (the previous article) we looked at mindfulness and the present moment. Science is revealing that mindfulness, being tuned in to what is actually happening now, is associated with better emotional and physical health. Why?

A huge part of our human sophistication comes from our ability to “know” – Homo Sapiens means “knowing man”. ‘Knowing’ involves being informed, dialled in, up to speed, aware. On the evolutionary road ‘knowing’ helped survival. With knowing one could make a tool, get a meal, avoid danger – live.

Mindfulness is really just about knowing through paying attention, a neurobiological ability that, like a muscle, can be strengthened. Given that the present moment is where and when life happens, it might not be surprising to find that our brain has many subtle talents when it comes to paying attention in the present moment. Research is revealing that many of our most human and wise abilities, such as patience, self- and other-awareness, empathy and compassion, and intuition are all team mates of mindfulness, working together.

One thing that we want to know and to work with is what is true and real. That’s just so obvious. But this mind of ours tends to stray wildly from what is actually going on, unknowingly. Our mind gets stuck on yesterday like there’s no tomorrow. Or we dread the unknowable future, certain of the worst outcome. These tendencies cause stress and great physiological wear and tear. They break down the body and the mind.

By paying attention to what our mind is doing, we can test the reality or the healthiness of what we’re up to. By knowing what our mind is doing, we can self-regulate and choose healthier and wiser perspectives and directions.

You might think of mindfulness as being something akin to eating healthily. A continuous healthy diet – not just a nutritious meal once in a while – provides our body with the right stuff. Learning to pay attention honestly, to what is really going on for you, provides your mind with the most nutritious content possible -reality. The idea is to not just take a bit of reality now and then, but to practice a steady diet of the stuff, even when it’s not so savoury, such as when we’re angry, jealous or envious, scared, sad. It’s really what all growth moments in life are made of – what’s true.

We often experience levels of distress that are just through the roof, but if we pay attention to what the distress is about, we’ll often find that we have ‘unknowingly’ freaked ourselves out with thoughts that just don’t hold up under scrutiny. One fine fellow I know was set on leaving his marriage and leaving society at large because it was “hell”. But when we looked for the “hell”, the true problems were at best minor irritants. “Hell” was supplied by his mind, but he was mistaking the content of his mind for what was actually going on in his life. It’s something we all do, some of us more than others. Lesson: Don’t believe everything you think.

Mindfulness isn’t some sort of magic cure-all or an answer to life’s problems. It’s simply how we can look clearly at our life when and where it’s happening. We all have a complicated emotional life and we all tend to not look at it. Mindfulness is not for the weak of heart. To be mindful of what we feel allows us to work with our emotion in a clear way. This kind of honesty takes alot more courage than just stuffing our emotion away.

The Human Problem of Avoiding

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

We shouldn’t avoid this question any longer: What do you do when you feel troubled? Owning negative emotion and briskly bouncing back from problems are the oh-so-desirables. But most of us just automatically put the troubles out of our mind, using abilities such as distraction, thought stopping, denial or numbing. Or we “think”. All of these abilities can be exercised in the service of avoidance.

Hey, look over there!! Shifting our attention away from our problems brings temporary relief. Something must be looked up on the internet, or the kitchen calls, or work beckons. Something just has to get done and there’s a single-mindedness of purpose. Or maybe it’s just getting absorbed by the lives of celebrities. Hey! I recognize that I’m writing this, right now, to avoid painting! Some people are driven to stay busy through much of their life, so as to avoid. But our mind-brain holds critical life experiences forever, patiently insisting, “You have to deal with this”.

Thought-stopping is like our mind covering its ears and going “la-la-la-la”, or pushing the stop button on the DVD player.

Denial, that river in Egypt, is a fluid lie we tell ourselves, quite convincingly. After all, denial only works if we, the liar, swallow the lie. The only problem is that the lie isn’t true. And if it isn’t true then it can never be digested, broken down into the constituent parts of true experience, leaving us the wiser.

And lastly, our troubled mind may instead use a practiced ability to go numb, feel nothing, day dream and lose time.

Our confrontation of the subject of avoidance wouldn’t be complete without also mentioning addictions. This is a huge area, deserving of many columns. Our neurobiological abilities to feel pleasure are a picnic for avoiding. Substances (yes, beer is a substance), gambling, sex/porn, food, work – all can bring about a quick change in our state of mind, getting us away from ourselves, from our lives. Our brains easily develop a deep compulsive taste for temporary relief.

All the flavours of avoidance can be very agreeable. But it can be like using your charge card when you don’t have the money – quick and painless. The problem is that the balance remains due and with a super-hefty interest rate to boot!

The yin and yang of why we get into trouble with avoidance in the first place is a brain thing. On the evolutionary road, the chances of survival increased if our attention was locked on to the creatures that might eat us. Our successful ancestors didn’t forget about the lions and tigers and bears.

And so our mind-brain rivets attention to what’s threatening. The interview tomorrow, the exam, the past trauma, money issues, you name it, stick like Velcro. We tend to automatically zero-in on the scary and threatening, real or imagined, and have a much more difficult time tearing our attention away. We easily get stuck, caught up and preoccupied. It’s no wonder that we scramble for “Serenity Now”.

And so we might see-saw between these two automatic systems, fear and avoidance. Or some people practice worry (fear, anxiety) like Olympic contenders while others make avoidance a lifestyle. We can get so stuck it can feel like there’s no other option. Yuck!

Peace of mind requires a sort of internal referee, some strengthened ability that is independent of the rivalry between these mental siblings, avoidance and anxiety. That’s where paying attention – mindfulness – can play its most beneficial role. Honestly facing and intimately knowing our reactions and problems is a natural third option, healthier and perhaps quite radical in an inside-the-skull kind of way.

Quicksand, Serenity and Acceptance

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

We often think of the pains and difficulties in our life as “problems”. Just thinking about something as a problem might set it up in our mind as something that therefore needs to be eliminated, gotten rid of. The nasty boss, the illness, the past trauma – the voice inside growls, “That pain is not welcome in my life!”

In protest our mind chants, “Why did this happen to me?” Have we ever received a good answer to that question, “Why me?” We ask that question not because we want to know the cause and effect. It’s really more about how unfair and unwanted this pain feels.

What goes on inside when we protest and try to change what has already happened? As we gnaw away on the injustices, abuses, slights, betrayals, and hurts that life inflicts on us, we’re churning and stressing. But when we fight with our private experience, who is the fight with? Trying to get rid of a problem or symptom usually just creates more problems and symptoms, more suffering.

I don’t know if you’re keeping score at home, but this is something that we do all the time. Even so, the wise part of our mind, dressed in shimmering robes or, in my case, an old bathrobe, knows that we’re trying to achieve something we can’t – we’re trying to change history. The really gutsy, courageous, tough and quite healthy way to go is to practice acceptance. From the more trivial (to accept that you’ll never have a perfect body) to the more urgent (coming to terms with trauma or chronic illness), acceptance is a wise and foundational part of being well.

Remember those old Tarzan movies when the bad guy gets caught in the quicksand? If you struggle, which your survival instincts scream for, you’re a goner. But if you patiently accept that you’re in it and relax, you float on the surface.

And so acceptance can feel foreign and even wrong. On the surface of it, acceptance goes against the grain. It may seem passive, submissive or illogical. For physical changes to occur something physical must happen – the garbage doesn’t put itself out. But that logic may not transfer over to mind because there’s lots that gets hidden from our conscious awareness.

Mostly, what gets hidden is our massive wish to not feel pain, our wish for things to be other than how they are. Like a magnet, we’re pulled to what feels good and (with the magnet reversed) repelled by what feels bad. And so our mind might rant about ‘how unfair’ and try to get rid of the dirty deal, searching for who’s to blame – stressing ourselves into more suffering.

These habits of mind can make a bad situation worse. Our mind senses the original pain and then cranks out a whole pile of suffering.

The wisdom of acceptance is embedded in heaps of clichés (think of spilled milk) and offerings such as The Serenity Prayer – “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I’d pick at this a little. I’d argue that in life it takes alot of courage to accept what’s true. I’d argue that only when we accept what is true will we then feel some of that serenity, not the other way around.

So I’d change the Serenity Prayer (is nothing sacred?!) to a Serenity Practice: “I’ll suffer less if I change the things that I can change and intimately accept the things that I can’t, while practicing the wisdom to see the difference.”


– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

“Sit up and pay attention!” Remember those words? For many of us they probably reflect the total of the education and guidance that we’ve received about how to pay attention. And it wasn’t a bad start, were it said just a little more kindly.

The thing is that today’s culture is saturated in technology and habits that further undermine, as opposed to strengthen, our ability to pay undivided attention. This undermining may begin in earnest when we introduce TV and videos to our babies. No wonder, as Jon Kabat-Zinn has said, we live in ADHD Nation.

We all know what we’re like when we don’t pay attention – we’re only able to do things automatically, we get distracted easily, and it’s like we can’t hear or see or plan or know.

Notice that when someone gives you a phone number to hold in mind you can’t do anything else that requires attention. We can still do automatic, skilled things, but not much else. If we’re distracted the number just goes.

Attention is like a spot-light that lets us see, a mental workspace for planning and creativity, the vital energy that animates our intentions. Attention researchers have determined that attention is like the mind’s director, asserting that a goal remain in an active state while pushing away any interference.

What happens if we don’t pay attention to what our own minds are up to?

The evidence indicates that attention is critical for regulating our emotion and stress. Remember that emotions evolved as reactions to threats and losses and are essential to survival. The thing about human emotion is that it turns on in a snap but then it can stay turned on and on and on. And we commonly react to our reactions (I’m an idiot to be so worried).

Furthermore, our human mind-brain can vividly imagine future and past situations. We can run epic simulations and plan accordingly, a tremendous ability to be sure. The big trouble today is that our minds have a strong inclination to wander off and get lost in the simulations of past regrets and future worries. Major psychological problems, including depression and anxiety, can follow from the runaway use of this natural ability.

Because attention happens at the moment of intersection of the past and the future, where life is happening, attention is key to regulating this overused simulation process. Paying attention is a way of seeing what’s on our mind; not to avoid it but to know it. And seeing can open up new ways of dealing with something.

What is a thought? When we don’t pay attention to a thought (This appointment today will be terrible) it can have a power and scope of control that can warp our behaviour and shackle us to a perspective that feels as firm as cement – the thought feels like reality. But when we pay rich attention to what we’re thinking, what does the thought become? It can be become as robust as nothing, evaporating under attention, losing its power to direct and bend us.

Being mindful of our mind can reduce our stress significantly. And what problems might follow if we don’t pay attention to our bodies? To our children? To our partners?

In hindsight it’s quite remarkable that our culture had not hit on the idea of teaching paying attention to kids, teens, adults and oldsters alike. Many varieties of mindfulness training are now appearing and the research examining the application of mindfulness to emotional and physical health is very exciting. Funny that the core of the training is to “Sit up and pay attention.”