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.