Our minds are very complex. Thoughts come and go, reminding us of tasks to be done, what we would rather be doing, and past events that we still have echoing and replaying in our thoughts. In earlier times, sensory input into the mind happened at a slower, much lower level, our minds learned to function well in this past environment. But today, our surroundings are much more complicated, the mind can adapt to this push to be more multi-tasking, but there is no push for it to learn to slow down. Thus, once becoming used to the accelerated pace, sometimes it does not want to slow down, or is never exercised or trained in the discipline of becoming quieter. Having a racing mind, or errant thoughts constantly visiting us, sometimes can detract from our enjoying the moment, or falling sleeping easily.
Mindfulness is an ancient practice. It can take different forms, but all lead to disciplining the mind. Some practices focus on the sensory, some focus on doing actions with deliberateness, and some focus on clearing the mind of errant, racing thoughts. As odd as it may sound, it is practicing a moment where you do nothing at all. And, as humans are greatly affected by thoughts, feelings, moods, and worries, this allows one to enjoy the environment of the calm, tranquil mind.
Okay, today in the grocery store you saw the angel food cake with strawberry frosting, decided you needed a treat, and put it in your shopping cart. Then, four aisles further, you decide to put it back. What did all this? Thoughts. Thoughts come, thoughts go. Whether we act on them is the question. This happens with over-eating, drinking, worry, anxiety, depression, you name it. We are slaves to our thoughts, until we finally learn what the ancients knew long before us: recognize what is going on in your mind, and you've won half the battle.
Our minds, brains, if you will, are like amazing, high-performance exotic sports cars. We are given the most intricate piece of created architecture, and how do we drive it? We speed it up with coffee, slow it down with sleeping pills, and relax it with alcohol and eating. When the mind spins out of control in an attention dividing high tech world, possibly this accounts for the sudden, rapid rise in Attention Deficit Disorder in all groups; adults, children, men, and women, more likely environmental than genetic. We need to take the time to work with our minds in a way more central to the way it operates. We need to understand depression can stem from living in the past, anxiety can result from living in the future, and a great many thought dysfunctions can stem from mindlessly taking every thought that pops into our brains as having to act upon. We deny ourselves truly living in the actual, wonderful, logical, healthy present.
Concepts to keep in mind before beginning
It's important to really absorb key concepts in mindfulness.
The single most prominent concept is that: our minds notice things at varying degrees. When we eat, we could be talking to someone, barely noticing taste. When we drive, keeping the car in the lane is largely ignored, left to trained instinct. We can even be looking directly at something, and barely notice it. This is an exercise in letting what we notice sink deeper, and fuller into our consciousness. We want our main thinking conscious, to tap the other areas of our brain, thinking about bills, food, or the previous workday, and to say to the areas: -Forget that, look at the candle with me!
Another concept is: subconscious trigger / correcting. A key is to train the mind to expect to be reminded. Like a chirping smoke alarm, our minds can learn to expect stimuli and respond accordingly. This is very parallel to our parents telling us to sit up straight. It becomes ingrained, a subconscious trigger to do better. So urge the mind to want to do well, that it is good to refocus on the flame before being told to do so. This aids the entire process.
A third concept is the idea of how we naturally nourish thoughts in our minds. When they appear from the subconscious, we feed them with worry, we start trying to problem solve, but we play on them, feeding them. It's important to understand that the thought will fade if left alone. The subconscious is used to getting your goat, that's its job. But, it can take it too far, causing worry, anxiety, depression, thoughts of eating, or even enticement to drink alcohol. If you don't latch on to the current thought it gives you, it'll pop out another like a gumball machine. This is what you are up against, quieting this process, learning that you can truly enjoy the moment, quieting distracting thoughts.
The type of Mindfulness outlined in this guide is the 'Warrior Meditation'. It is practiced, achieved, by focusing on a candle. Fire, being an early ancient night time attention holder, is an easy item to focus on for extended periods of time. While focusing solely on the candle in front of you, three stages in ability to focus are pursued. They are listed on page two, following this introduction. To accomplish this exercise, the person is to place a candle in front of them, be seated comfortably, be free of distraction, and allow themselves anywhere from 5 minutes, to one hour to practice this technique.
It needs to be understood that, as simple as the technique seems, it actually takes time and practice to achieve. And once achieved, the student needs to refresh and practice the skill to retain this ability. But once learned, mindfulness is hugely rewarding. It can replace pharmaceutical sleep aides, it can lower ambient anxiety and worry, and it can allow one to enjoy memorable moments in time, rather than them being cluttered and sidetracked by the errant thoughts of an undisciplined consciousness.
Know that in the candle exercise, it is good to have some sort of reminder; a trainer, a bell, a chime, some sort of timed indicator that may alert you about every five minutes to re-focus on the candle. As at first, the mind will wander away from the candle, and keeps its attention away, after mere seconds if not reminded to return. This “reminding to return” element is necessary to instill discipline, as soon the mind will expect to be confronted for its wandering.
First Stage: Not interacting with the entering thoughts
When thoughts enter our consciousness like worries, anxiousness, opinions of what we see, we have a natural tendency to interact with these thoughts. Even unknowingly, we interact with them in a variety of ways. We can build on them, actively thinking about the thought in more detail. We can respond with actual anxiety and worry, or we can let the thought race, consuming our minds while we are eating, or trying to fall asleep. In this stage the student must learn to create a kind of 'corner chair' in their minds. Burrow a small mental place where one can sit and watch thoughts enter, stay for a while, and then get displaced by even newer entering thoughts.
Like watching a close cloud passing by, it takes practice at first just to recognize that these thoughts can be just observed. And second, in this stage, one must resist the temptation to interact, or get pulled into these thoughts as they may be near and dear; food, cherished activities, or loved ones. The purpose of this stage is to learn non-involvement with thoughts. As the first step, this can be a challenging stage.
Second stage: Letting thoughts dissipate and evaporate
This is learning not to explore thoughts or not give them mental attention. Not giving them a reason to anchor in our consciousness, the thoughts will soon fade. Although these ignored thoughts will fade, be aware they will be replaced quickly by other thoughts, sometimes by even more tempting thoughts. During this stage, the skill, strength, and focus is to become comfortable with thoughts fading and leaving emptiness. This is a skill that only comes with time, and gets stronger once one sees that they actually do have a choice not to interact with any particular thought.
Third Stage: active closing of thoughts through active focus on the candle
This is the reward of Mindfulness, and this is where the strength is cultivated. When the mind clearly sees that it has a choice not to interact with a free-floating thought, this is when the mind realizes it can speed up the process by actively shutting the thought out. In a way, your mind 'learns' an active way to silence the thoughts bouncing around errantly instead of letting them continue distracting.
This stage is strengthened by the ingrained impulse to returning the focus back to the candle. And, co-learned with this impulse is the active pushing out of distracting thoughts, necessary for focus. You soon realize how errant thoughts play such a big part in distracting us in our daily tasks. Soon, you will not even have to stare at a candle to push errant thoughts out. This is the value of Mindfulness; to train our minds to enjoy calm, undistracted focus.
Advancing: Transitioning the focus on the outside / inducing a distraction-free inside
As the ability to let the image of the candle settle into the whole mind, progressing from just letting the eyes notice it, in the second and third stages transferring the focus can be momentarily practiced trailing the end of sessions. This is done visually by placing a clock with a second hand or a glass of water near the candle. At the intended mark, the individual then shifts their focus to the other item and attempts to maintain the same intense focus. This may be greeted with questions as to - why am I doing this? But it is to be reminded: this is an exercise, and like push-ups, or chin-ups, the action itself may not make sense, we do it for the strength it builds. Auditory transferring should be practiced as well at these stages; shifting the focus to listening acutely to a hum, or natural sounds. Likewise, sensory with breezes or sunlight on the skin. The process is broadened, the learned skill itself becomes more applicable and instinctive, ingrained.
History of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a school of the Buddhist way of life. Although Buddhists may see it a slightly different light than how it is applied here, it is still the same idea: be true to your senses, be present, and take in the completeness of the moment. Although Buddhist in origin, all beliefs and faiths should acknowledge the value of this practice.
In that it is an invaluable concept, it was not overlooked by Christianity. Jesus Christ, in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6, verses 25 through 28, points out that - Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? - He repeatedly mentions in Luke as well not to worry about future situations so much, that they will unfold as they will, and worry will prove nothing. This too, is true mindfulness, just not near as developed as the Buddhists have developed it.
Mindfulness is an ancient concept, the elderly have never lost sight of its purpose. As younger generations rediscover it, we now see that the modern world is an existence sometimes not so healthy to the mind's peacefulness. A tried and true tradition of the past, rebranded, and repackaged, we should acknowledge the wisdom our elderly can give to us. Beneficial to all, no one is above its rewards.
About the Author
Patrick Lopez is fascinated by the human mind, and especially the subcoscious level of operation. Understanding it's structures, processes, modes of learning, hypnosis, and training at the subconscious level, are of huge benefit. He is a proponent of mindfulness applied for the purposes of gaining better wellness, uncluttered, clearer thought, assisting in lessening mental dysfunctions, and strengthening mental discipline. He has studied it for years, further adapted the approaches of Jon Kabat-Zinn, and met with members of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of California San Diego to discuss innovative applications of mindfulness. In a word, he feels it's an overall return to how we should be thinking, how we assimilated our world for thousands of years, before the massive tech explosion of the latter half of the twentieth century.
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