Thursday, October 4, 2012

Harri Jussila: Mindfulness Stress Reduction: Entering the Now

Mindfulness and Present Moment Awareness

In this article, I will explain the benefits of mindfulness based stress reduction. Let us start of with two examples on mindfulness, in order to explain what it is. By the way, the terms mindfulness and present moment awareness mean the same.

Is it possible to meditate and stay calm during your workday or in a meeting? By practicing mindfulness you come very close to this goal.

Example 1: Imagine yourself driving a car. The weather is beautiful and the traffic is normal. Suddenly, you realize, that you have been driving for at least the last 5 miles completely in your own thoughts. You have been daydreaming. When you think about it, you have not at all been thinking about the driving. In stead, you have been on autopilot, whoa!

The above example has most definitely happened to many of us. Is it mindful to be like that? The answer is no, of course! There is nothing wrong in daydreaming - we all do it, and it can be mostly enjoyable. During daydreaming we are just not being mindful.

You might also be attending a meeting with the same daydream mode on. That would be worse. In such a case, you would actually be showing disrespect to the situation, as you would not really be present. How can you be attending, if you are not present? You cannot. You are not.
You can even be in a one-to-one discussion with a person you care about, and still manage to mentally be somewhere completely else. Try to avoid this. In stead, remember that it is a great gift to anther person, to (really) listen to them. Remember that. It is also a good step towards mindfulness.

Example 2: You are at home in the evening, slightly tired, and for some reason, a little generally irritated too. Your spouse comes home and accidentally says something… that annoys you. “Grrr!”, you think, and direct your anger at them, with a mean comment back. You two end up fighting. The fight is almost identical to the five previous ones about the very same subject. You both end up feeling bad and sleeping badly, as you are not able to make up before bed time.

The second side of mindfulness is to acknowledge that you are not your feelings. As biological beings, formed by time and “survival of the fittest” type of genetic biology, we have strong responses to different situations. For this we should be thankful, it has brought us as a species here. However, sometime our automatic responses go too far, or are triggered unnecessarily.

Our body perceived threats, and react to them. Have you ever thought if it makes any sense to get raging mad at another person in traffic? Let’s face it, we do not have that many threats anymore. The situation was different a few thousand years ago, when these mechanisms were developed.

We all react somewhat differently to different situations. A conflict situation might make you feel angry, aggressive, sad, or depressed. The key is this: When you are mindful, you don’t let your physical response completely take over your thinking. You should choose not to respond to small irritations. We encounter such all the time. You should accept that the world is not an 100% ideal place. Let small things pass by, even when you notice someone is purposely trying to piss you off. Instead, sit back. Enjoy the present moment.

How Our Mind Works

The key to understanding present moment awareness and mindfulness stress reduction, is to understand that the mind consists of two parts. Take a look at the picture below:
The mind, consisting of two parts: The mindful mind, and mind clutter.

One part is the random collection of thoughts and reactions, that constantly whirl through your mind. They can hit you at a great speed, in the scale of dozens per second. These are the hundreds of thoughts and ideas that pass through your mind every minute. They contribute to your stress, at least if you identify with them too often. One random thought might remind you that you were bullied 10 years ago back in school. If you identify yourself with that thought, it will strengthen. It might even temporarily get control of your body, making you angry, thus making your body produce adrenalin…  10 years after the situation! Ask yourself, does this make any sense? Heck no! Most of these random thoughts, should just be let pass by. In stead, you should focus on the present moment. We are after all living in the now, not in a situation e.g. 10 years back.

The second part of your mind is something I like to refer to as the true you. It is the true you who notices the thoughts whirling in your mind. It the true you who can prevent you from identifying with those thoughts time after time. It is the true you who is able to set you free from stress. Simply put, you do this by choosing not to let any random thoughts upset you. Just accept the thoughts or situations as they are. If you want to change them – even if it is impossible – you produce unnecessary pain. Acknowledge the thoughts, but do not identify yourself with them. You will notice that within 5-60 seconds – generally – the thoughts are gone. Hence, you have effectively avoided stress. It is so simple. Yet, it requires a lot of practice.

How Does It Feel to Be Mindful?

How does it feel to be mindful… to have present moment awareness… to be “in the now”?
I like to describe it as spending quality time with your friends. When you are out having fun with your best friends, do you think of yesterday? Do you generally worry? No, you don’t. That is because you are enjoying the situation fully. You are being present. You are being mindful.
When you are living mindfully, you get less often upset. This keeps you more calm. You learn to accept situations as they are. You learn to have less of a need to change what you see around you. You will be less often frustrated, less often angry.

So, you just missed the bus… choose not to get upset.

At the highest level of mindfulness you learn to instantly forgive your friends and family for actions, or things they might say, even when they hurt you. You realize that every now and then they are not being mindful, leaving room for frogs coming out of their mouths. That is life.
You have hurt people too, even when you didn’t want to.
Still, that was advanced level, and not within the scope of this article.

Entering the Now

How do you enter the now? How do you start becoming more mindful?
First, you should start by learning to know your body. Learning to identify feelings in your body is key for success. A good meditation that will increase your ability to acknowledge feelings within your body can be found in our meditation stress relief section.

After doing that exercise for a few times (2-20), you should be able to enter the next level.
In the next level you start to anchor your mind in the now several times per day. Pay extra attention to being mindful when you get to critical situations… a conflict with a work colleague, at a frustrating line at a shop, or bad traffic, to name a few. When you feel that your stress is going up, focus on your breathing, as you otherwise continue normally. Breathe slowly and deeply.

You will constantly be hit by frustrating factors. When you encounter such things, try this three step process for maintaining present moment awareness:
  1. Try to let the negative thought flow through you, not taking it into your conscious processing at all. Forget about it instantly.
  2. If your mind nevertheless snaps it up, and parks it there… try to just accept the situation as it is, and let it be. Don’t fuel any negative thought that now have entered your mind. Focus on your breathing. Remember, you are not your thoughts.
  3. If your mind snaps it, and you accidentally identify yourself with it, producing a physical reaction… just accept that too. Don’t overreact. Breathe slowly. Try to let any negative thoughts go away, which they will do shortly, when you don’t fuel them.
Happy experimenting! By following this advice you are certainly up for a very interesting ride. I warmly recommend “The New Earth” by Echard Tolle, and the “Present Moment Awareness” by Duncan Shannon,  as your guides to go further.

Read more about the benefits of mindfulness stress reduction from Wikipedia.

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