Practicing ‘mindfulness’ helps us live life in a healthy, joyous way

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Sep 24th, 12
Practicing ‘mindfulness’ helps us live life in a healthy, joyous way


Jan Carden, LCSW

Being satisfied with what we already have is a magical golden key to being alive in a full, unrestricted, and inspired way. One of the major obstacles to what is traditionally called enlightenment is resentment, feeling cheated, holding a grudge about who you are, where you are, what you are. Meditation is a process of lightening up, of trusting the basic goodness of what we have and who we are, and of realizing that any wisdom that exists, exists in what we already have.

-Pema Chodron, Awakening Loving-Kindness

I love this quote by Pema Chodron who is a meditation master. Full of wisdom, acceptance, gratitude and joy – she has what I want. And so for the past several years I have made a commitment to practicing and learning about meditation and mindfulness.

Mindfulness is defined as the moment to moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment.

The first time I heard about mindfulness I thought, “Oh, this is really good. Yes, I think I’ll start living that way.” I loved the idea of being present. I wanted to be fully aware wherever I was or in whatever I was doing. I wanted to cultivate a life of being open, present and curious. I had every intention of living my life that way. And then one hour later I forgot my commitment to stay present and I started thinking about what I would prepare for Thanksgiving dinner. And it was the middle of the summer.

The first meditation class that I took I thought surely I was a failure since the whole time we were supposed to be meditating I was obsessed with the idea that I really needed to get up and record something in my planner. I kept thinking about my planner, trying hard not to forget what it was I needed to record. I was so worried that I would forget. Instead of breathing and staying focused on my breath, I obsessed about the event that I needed to record. I decided that meditating just wasn’t for me.

Now I understand that I’m no different from anyone else. This is how our minds are designed - to think. To think ahead, prepare for the worst, worry about what may happen, regret the past, or worry about someone else. Our ancestors’ brains were designed to promote survival. They had to stay connected with the negative in order to stay alive. These systems in the brain continue despite the fact that we live in relative safety. But these ancient survival systems continue to work, frequently preventing us from living more joyfully.

Cultivating mindfulness is a daily practice. I think of this practice of mindfulness as re-training our brains.

I can spend my day worrying about you, about next week or next year. I can get preoccupied with what I think perhaps is a mistake I’ve made. It is just the way my mind goes. If I’m washing dishes then I’m also rehearsing a conversation I think I might have next week. If I’m on vacation then I’m planning next year’s vacation. I strategize, analyze and think. Constantly.

The way we think is very often associated with depression and anxiety. When I’m experiencing thoughts of resentment or regret then I’m likely to feel mad or sad. If I’m having worried thoughts then I can feel anxious. And then if these feelings stay around, depression or anxiety can set in.

Mark Twain said it perfectly, “I am a very old man and have suffered a great many misfortunes, most of which have never happened.”

It is our thoughts which affect our moods. And frequently we have very little control over our thoughts. Our thoughts can impede our ability to live effectively, creatively and joyfully. They can interfere with our ability to experience the joys of life, to problem solve creatively and to respond effectively in relationships.

Frequently, because feelings can be so painful or uncomfortable, we find ourselves engaging in behaviors that take us out of our negative feelings. This is instinctual. We instinctively avoid pain and seek out pleasure. Sometimes these behaviors become habits and we do them excessively. Emotional eating, smoking or drinking excessively are all used as ways to escape discomfort. But then there are other, seemingly less harmful, behaviors that we use to avoid negative feelings such as shopping, cruising the internet, napping or watching television. All of these things can be done as a means to escape. They can become habitual and done in excess can create a variety of negative consequences. So our ways of dealing with negativity just bring about more negativity.

By learning to live mindfully we are able to experience pain without judgment or without reacting. We are able to experience the joys and the hardships in life without grasping or resisting or avoiding. Practicing mindfulness helps us live life in a healthy way.

There is a wealth of research that associates mindfulness with an enhanced overall well-being. Studies find that those who meditate demonstrate fewer depressive symptoms, less rumination, and improved concentration. Mindfulness is associated with enhanced problem solving abilities, improved relationship satisfaction, improved insight and intuition. Health benefits include increase immune functioning and a reduction in psychological distress.

Meditation, yoga, tai chi, and qigong are all practices that can cultivate mindfulness.

About a year ago I was with my husband when the cardiologist informed him of the need for heart surgery. My immediate reaction was horror, shock, disbelief, and worry. Then I remembered to breathe – to practice mindfulness. Because I’ve been practicing this for years now I was able to maintain a sense of calm and be a support to my husband. I was able to remember all that we had to be grateful for – modern medicine, insurance, and a loving family. I could help him during this time by staying present and connected to the moment. This is what I love about mindfulness. It is not about making us better or greater. It is a gift that we can share with others.

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