You may have noticed a recent proliferation of media attention to the benefits of mindfulness. As a decades-long meditation and mindfulness practitioner, I’m glad to see all this good press. Indeed, Huffington Post names mindfulness as a top trend for 2014.
If Mindfulness is the solution, what’s the problem?
If you’re going to commit time to develop a skill like mindfulness, you need to know not just how you’ll generally benefit, but which of your current challenges it will help you address. Based on what I’ve learned in years of practice and teaching of mindfulness, here’s four areas of your life that mindfulness can positively contribute to.
- We’re on autopilot more than we realize. Have you ever driven a familiar route, only to realize you have no memory at all of the last 10 minutes? Much of our daily lives are governed by routines, things we do without paying much attention. “What’s the problem with that?”, you may well be asking. We can see that operating on autopilot frees up our minds and energy to other things, like plan what we’re going to do when we get home. The flipside of this is that we are training ourselves to live much of our lives, not by conscious choice, but by automatic habit. Like when, after hanging up the phone, we ask ourselves, “Why did I just say that?” All this automatic activity, fuelled by invisible and unexamined assumptions and feelings, may drive us to ways of behaving that do not support us well.
- We’re distracted and overwhelmed with the amount information streaming at us. Social media, 24/7 news, unrelenting requests and demands to be responsive to customers on the other side of the globe. The volume of information that we have to pay attention to is now larger than our bandwidth or cognitive capacity to process it. It’s getting increasingly hard to focus in a world of constant, tempting distractions.
- We’re stretched thin in our relationships. Social media is wonderful for creating lots of connections and “friends”.Our relationships are fluid, some shallow and some deep, context dependent and with a wide diversity of people. The world of work is full of smart, highly credentialed people. And we want to be part of many fascinating communities. The trouble is our ability to develop common purpose and communicate shared meaning with such a diverse and changing group of people. So emotional Intelligence, not cognitive intelligence, is our new leading edge.
- We live longer than ever, but not because we’ve learned to take better care of ourselves. In the rich, developed world, we have access to plentiful cheap food, machines that do the heavy lifting for many of us and medical advances that prolong our bodies and overcome many diseases. In North America, we have addressed many of the external factors of health. Yet mental health, including stress and depression, is on the upswing. We’re just starting to come to grips with the internal factors of our own health.
There is no one right way
So, can mindfulness really address ALL of these problems? The short answer is in part, yes and it depends on you! Mindfulness techniques are simple to understand, and there are lots of online courses available. However, getting started and staying with it are two separate things. The trick is picking something you can stick with and a practice that you can integrate into your unique lifestyle. Even the plethora of choice in meditation techniques adds to being overwhelmed! What is the right approach? Keep looking, and rest assured that along with traditional wisdom teachings there are approaches which focus more on increasing your health, vitality and resilience. There are many good online, group and self-serve approaches. A good mindfulness coach – like a good personal fitness trainer – can work with you to develop a set of practices that help you meet your unique challenges, goals, personality and lifestyle.
Sampler set of techniques
Here is a simple set of techniques that are all variants of a Full Span™ approach to mindfulness practice (based on the Integral model of Ken Wilber). Try a few of the sampler platter, you might be surprised at which you decide to continue!
- If you are drawn to reflection and meaning; try sitting meditation practice, where you train your attention to be calm and clear. Daily, for 10 minutes minimum, sit quietly, turn your attention to a point of focus (your breath, the sensations of your body, a visual object). Whenever you find yourself distracted by other thoughts, gently return to your chosen point of focus.
- If you are drawn to relationships and connection; try compassion practice, where you train your heart and emotions in their natural connections with others. Throughout the day, at home and at work, pause and spend 10 seconds randomly choosing two people and silently wishing for them to be happy.
- If you are drawn to actions and movement; try deep body practice where you intensely focus not just what you do, but how you are doing it in the moment. Whether you’re walking, golfing, at the gym, in yoga class, or eating a meal, don’t let your mind be diverted or day-dreamy. Deliberately monitor and engage in different ranges of motions, be aware of areas of tension and relaxation in the body, cultivate a ‘gut feel’ of when you are at your physical edge, or when your stomach is full. Fully experience the physicality of your existence.
- If you are drawn to nature and systemic processes; try interdependence practice, where you expand your appreciation of the wonder and complexity of our natural and built world. When outdoors, give all your attention to what you are seeing and hearing, opening your eyes and ears to the wonder of the ordinary. When you are at a meal/ laptop/ tablet/ Smartphone, take a moment to consider all the multiple people, factors and intricate global supply chain that have enabled you to undertake the simple activity you are now doing.