Mind the Moment
Posted On Aug 03, 2016
Living in the present means exercising control over our wandering minds. Here, we guide you through mindfulness and its effect on cancer, anxiety, and daily well being.
BY EINAS SALAMIN
Only when your eyes start burning do you realize that you need to blink, to pull your mind back from the distant destination where it has wandered. Sometimes a stern “excuse me” summons your attention to the present. Other times it’s a stiffly coiled back, following hours of squinting at a computer screen. You work, you drive, you watch television. You might even have a conversation with someone. All the while, your thoughts are cast adrift, off in an entirely separate dimension.
Then there’s the flip side—worries and frustrations wash over you with such power and intensity that you lose perspective on what’s possible, likely, and real. Life’s challenges trip you up, prompting thoughts that obsess over the experience. Soon, your mind is stuck tumbling over the obstacle with no end in sight.
Lacking the supervision it needs to operate with purpose, the mind becomes fixated or escapes present moment experiences entirely. Living life at the mercy of an unruly mind is like sailing a ship across the Atlantic Ocean without a trained captain or navigation system—nothing’s in place to monitor and guide its course.
Why is this significant? To those who practice the concept of “mindful living,” understanding the mind’s intricate workings has the potential to offer an understanding of how we live and experience the world. This, in turn, endows us with a great deal of control.
Cultivating this precise, heightened awareness is the goal of mindfulness meditation—a disciplined practice in which you train your attention to staying in the present moment. Any seasoned practitioner will tell you, however, that mindfulness is not limited to a momentary experience of sharp awareness on the meditation cushion. It is a lesson in living.
Originally a fundamental Buddhist practice prescribed as the path to fully realizing our human potential, mindfulness meditation is now a universally applied practice. “Mindfulness is inherent in human nature; we all have the capacity to be aware, connected, and present,” says Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. Winston defines mindfulness as, “paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness and curiosity and a willingness to be with what is.”
Sitting in a quiet environment—in a dignified yet comfortable position—and “being in the moment” is a sophisticated process. It involves fine-tuning your attention away from external distractions and focusing inwards. Yet the bulk of the work is done once you are inside the mind, where you can actually palpate its many projections—the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. The fight to remain present, without allowing your attention to be snagged away, is significantly harder than simply tuning out the distractions of the outside world.
Thankfully, the goal is not to quiet the mind; rather it is to experience it directly. “Buddhism speaks of wisdom—becoming enlightened, wise, strong, compassionate, gentle, insightful,” explains David Cushman, director of practice and education at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. “All of these positive qualities are inherent in the essence of our humanness, yet they are clouded and therefore not cultivated because of craving and fixations of all kinds.” Cushman stresses that mindfulness meditation is about fostering the unconditional confidence that is natural to us, which only arises when we cultivate this clear awareness of our own mind.
MINDFUL LIFE, HAPPY LIFE
Mental fixations, which manifest in myriad ways, are the true cause of our suffering. Our greatest barrier to achieving true contentment, they have an ability to shift our attention away from identifying with ourselves in a clear and direct manner. When happiness is not tied to external conditions, notes Cushman, equanimity can be maintained even when difficulties arise. Conditional contentment is, by definition, impermanent and unstable. We spend so much time engrossed in wants, desires, and wishes, thinking that they are the means to happiness. “If we are willing to relate with ourselves directly and in a simple way, it fully dawns on us that we already are content,” says Cushman. Understanding this is not necessarily sufficient in allowing us to overcome the power of our thoughts. The answer lies in mindfulness—a practical solution to the puzzle.
Meet whatever arises in any moment with acceptance and openness; this is your way to remain anchored in the present. Too often, we cast judgments on ourselves, others, and events without much thought. “The key to mindfulness is staying on the level of bare attention, rather than getting lost in stories and judgments,” explains Winston. “It’s also about bringing a loving approach to our lives—experiencing whatever we experience with kindness, openness, and an attempt to be nonjudgmental.”
Humans have the tendency to behave as though automatic thoughts that arise in our consciousness are stable and fact-based. “When we can be aware of our thoughts, we learn to not take them so personally,” insists Winston. “If you can be aware of a thought without judging yourself for having it—and simply acknowledge that you are feeling anxiety—you don’t have to be in the grip of that thought.”
With mindfulness, you can begin to strip thoughts of their phantom power, and experience mental freedom. When your mind insults you, you won’t be so quick to believe it. Suspending judgment, you trace its source and attempt to recognize why it arose. In this way, mindfulness is a gradual training of the mind.
IDEALISTIC PHILOSOPHY OR PROVEN METHODOLOGY?
Science is heavily concerned with what is observable. Therefore, meditative practices that involve the mind’s elusive nature tend to get overlooked. However, when overwhelming numbers of practitioners report fundamental and lasting shifts in their perception and subjective experience, science becomes intrigued. Studies increasingly attest to the transformative power of mindfulness.
A 2011 study published in Psychiatry Research reported neuroimaging observed structural changes in the brains of meditators who participated in the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts. Led by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, the study compared magnetic resonance images (MRI) of the brains of 16 participants, two weeks prior to and after the program. The results showed an increase in grey matter density in the hippocampus—the brain region associated with memory and learning—and increases in structures associated with introspection, self-awareness, and compassion. Not surprisingly, a decrease in density was observed in the amygdala, the brain center implicated in stress and anxiety, which also correlated with participants’ reports of lower levels of perceived stress. The control group did not exhibit any of the above changes, indicating the results were not produced through the mere passage of time.
Lynn Koerbel, a senior instructor at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at University of Massachusetts Medical School, says certain students report experiencing changes in their physical wellbeing. She tells of a particular student who, after completing the eight-week program, was able to come off of her anti-anxiety medication. Another participant was able to stop her blood pressure medication.
Such stress reduction is a sign of effective emotional regulation achieved through practice. An event is not stressful in and of itself; it is your perception of the event and your subsequent reaction that creates stress. We often respond to events without leaving room for reflection. Koerbel speaks of mindfulness as “putting a wedge of awareness between the stimulus and the response,” effectively creating space that allows you to step out of automatic reactivity.
THIS TOO SHALL PASS
Nowhere is the power of mindfulness so evident than in the case of Elana Rosenbaum. A mindfulness coach, psychotherapist, and seasoned meditation teacher for more than 25 years, Rosenbaum found herself facing a cancer diagnosis in the spring of 1995. While the disease required chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant, radiation, and surgery to tame it, Rosenbaum says it was the practice of mindfulness that saved her life.
Most would have escaped the pain and leapt with their minds into the regrets of the past or the daunting prospects of the future, but Rosenbaum’s mind remained anchored in the present moment, as drugs attacked her cancer. “Without mindfulness I might have given up. I might have fallen into despair. I might not have been able to go bigger and appreciate life itself,” she insists. “It has helped me have perspective, and I think it has helped me receive as well as to give, and taught me patience and perseverance. The more you can actually be in the present, the more control you have.”
Another word for meditation is “remembering,” she adds. Everything is always changing. Meditation allows you to remember where you are, and that is here. “So I am miserable now?” Rosenbaum asks. “It can pass. It will pass.”
HOW TO BEGIN?
According to mindfulness coach Elana Rosenbaum, mindfulness meditation practice starts by simply having the willingness to stop:
Stop. Take a breath. Open, observe what’s happening in the moment. Proceed.
- If you can observe without judging, you are meditating, says Rosenbaum. “It’s like being at the river bank, instead of just floating blindly down the river,” she says. However, Rosenbaum, Cushman, and Koerbel all maintain that having some guidance—or working with a teacher in a situation where you can have a formal daily practice—would be very helpful. Even using online guided meditations or a phone app can immensely facilitate your practice.
- The true key to beginning is giving up your desire to be with the next moment, and have the willingness to stand in this moment, no matter what it has to bring. If we don’t know what the present has to oer, we can only make assumptions about the nonexistent past or future. Leave the past as it left you, and turn away from the empty lures of the future that so often don’t deliver. Live your life as it is unfolding, right here, right now.
- “Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were dierent; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).” —James Baraz, co-author and teacher of Awakening Joy
- When even one virtue becomes our nature, the mind becomes clean and tranquil. Then there is no need to practice meditation; we will automatically be meditating always.” Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras