Often, especially during times of stress, we feel a strong urge to feel calmer, de-clutter our minds and approach the world in a more mindful way. Mindfulness has become a popular and employed stress reduction tool and has become something of a buzzword in recent years.
What does mindfulness mean? Daniel J. Siegel, in his book, “The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being,” defines it this way:
“Mindfulness in its most general sense is about waking up from a life on automatic and being sensitive to novelty in our everyday experiences. With mindful awareness, the flow of energy and information that is our mind enters our conscious attention, and we can both appreciate its contents and come to regulate its flow in a new way. Mindful awareness, as we will see, actually involves more than just simply being aware: It involves being aware of aspects of the mind itself. Instead of being on automatic and mindless, mindfulness helps us awaken, and by reflecting on the mind we are enabled to make choices, and thus change becomes possible.”
In other words, mindfulness involves more than awareness, but a certain quality of awareness – there is a directed, focused purpose, that is, living a more improved, serene and meaningful life. A more peaceful life involves having a more active say in what our minds attend to rather being at the mercy of our minds’ often wild and unruly ways, governed as they often are by our past experiences and conditioning.
We often associate so deeply with our wayward thoughts that we lose sight of a profound fact: minds are something we have and not something we are. We have the ability to learn how to step back and observe our minds to gain control over our thoughts. But we have to learn to recognize how are thought patterns work. There are several ways we can come to encounter our minds to this end using mindfulness, and I would like to briefly explore two of them here.
Some regard meditation as a move away from the real world into a more abstract realm divorced from social concerns. In fact, meditation, when done with the right intention, has the exact opposite effect. Following the adage of “know thyself,” meditation works under the assumption that a fully conscious and engaged human, which we can become by exploring our minds, is one who has a high level of self-awareness, which we can use to become more empathetic and compassionate people.
“Meditation is the discovery that the point of life always arrives at in the immediate moment.” – Alan Watts
Meditation can be as simple as sitting in a comfortable position, with closed eyes, and focusing on the in a breath and the out breath. As we still the mind and try to hold onto one object of awareness, we watch without judgment as thoughts and emotions arise. With practice, we learn about the transient nature of all things. We observe our thoughts come and go, and learn not to attach to them. We begin to find joy in the immediate and transitory nature of our experiences and to respond to challenges with equanimity.
As Thich Nat Hanh writes in “The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation,
“Everyday we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child – our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”
Through meditation, we develop a more peaceful nature and wonder for the world around us, as we learn to be more mindful and present in each moment of our lives, aware that this moment has come, and that it will go. Just a few minutes of sitting in a quiet space each morning and evening can be a very effective way to cultivate these qualities.
“When we put the pen to paper, we articulate things in our life that we may have felt vague about. Before you write about something, somebody says, ‘How do you feel?’ and you say, ‘Oh, I feel okay.’ Then you write about it, and you discover you don’t feel okay.” – Julia Cameron
The path to peace and mindfulness necessarily involves some digging into the darker places within that we all share but that are unique to each of us. It is important that we learn the narratives that have formed over the course of our lives and that continue to shape them.
Just like we can begin to unravel the workings of our minds through meditation, so too can we use journaling as a useful “feedback tool.” We can get to know ourselves as we learn which emotions and past and present events are at the forefront of our consciousness. The more we learn about our stories through writing them down, the more we come to realize that they are not fixed entities, that we have the power to change the course of our lives.
Like meditation, keeping a journal helps to sharpen and refine the mind while providing us with an excellent system for monitoring our feelings and reactions to the world. Equipped with this knowledge, we become both more mindful as we engage with the world and with ourselves in it, and better able to form better choices about how we want to live.
There are no rules for journaling. Follow your heart! You might want to write in free flow, whatever comes to mind, which becomes easier and easier with practice; or you might want to make lists, such as, “10 Things I’m Grateful for” or “10 Things I’d Like to Change About My Life.”
Both meditation and journaling serve to calm anxious and stress-ridden minds as we come face to face with our stresses and their root causes. This attention that we focus on ourselves works toward cultivating mindfulness that helps us to slow down, enjoy the moment, and come to a happier state of being.
“The future is completely open and we are writing it moment to moment.” – Pema Chodron