Mindfulness is Being in the Present Moment
Stephanie A. Hendelman Â©
In Buddhist psychology, suffering is the consequence of an untrained mind. The mind is continuously reacting to thoughts by attributing positive or negative emotions and can be compared to a wandering boat on an agitated ocean. It is only with intensive training that one learns how to remain peaceful and steady. The mind settles down and becomes like the deep ocean, barely agitated by the ripples on its surface. Our cognitions shape the way we see the world. We tend to see more through our thoughts and opinions than through our eyes; the Buddhists call it ignorance. This cognitive veil prevents us from seeing things as they truly are. The purpose of mindfulness is to lift the veil of ignorance and help us see how beautiful life truly is. What we see is a reflection of our mind, our own changing mind. When we become mindful and cease to react to the constant flow of emotions that sometimes overwhelms us, we can begin to appreciate things in a new way because our perceptions change. Once we realize the connectedness of everything and stop seeing ourselves as separate, the preoccupations with the self dissolve. This sense of connectedness is crucial for physical and psychological health, because our senses allow us to connect with external reality as well as with our internal states (Davidson et al., 2003, p.565). The ability to perceive wholeness instead of separateness can be cultivated through mindfulness practice. Only when we are able to be fully in the present moment, without losing ourselves in thoughts concerning the past or the future, can we experience true calmness and well-being. Our distorted thoughts fuel anxiety, fear and sadness. Once we realize the fleeting nature of all sensations and emotions, we are able to be in the present moment and free ourselves from suffering. Being connected with our intrinsic wholeness is possible at any time because its very nature is that it is always present. Feeling whole, even for a brief moment, is a source of healing and wisdom when we are faced with stress and pain. With the attainment of heightened awareness and better coping capabilities through mindfulness, flow, or spiritual experiences, human beings possess a self-empowering tool to maintain good mental and physical health. In this paper, the author will demonstrate that being mindful, whether it is by being engaged in meditation or attending to daily routines, is similar to experiencing constant flow. By its definition, flow implies being totally absorbed in the present moment and losing track of time (Snyder & Lopez, 2007, p.255). Thus, flow exemplifies the teachings of mindfulness: being in the present moment. When one is able to perform each daily action, be it: eating, working, or walking, in a constant state of heightened awareness, with no thoughts about the past or the future, fully absorbed in the present activity, then, this is what the Buddha termed â€œmindfulnessâ€. The most effective way to learn mindfulness is by practicing meditation. The aim of meditation is to understand our true nature and be freed from the illusion that causes our suffering. â€œFrom a psychological growth perspective, it is essential for individuals to be able to free themselves from the imaginary boundaries that limit their worldviews and consciousnessesâ€ (Snyder & Lopez, 2005, p.634). By realizing the true fleeting nature of emotions and sensations, one learns not to feel attached to physical or psychological pain, and to let go. The regular practice of meditation teaches one about the impermanence of mental and physical states, helping the person not to react emotionally and to experience more detachment. As a result, meditation induces a state of deep relaxation, inner harmony and heightened consciousness. Mindfulness Meditation (MM) is also known as Vipassana meditation. The origins of mindfulness go back to the teachings of Siddharta Gautama (563 BCE â€“ 483 BCE), the Buddha. The Buddha emphasized the notion of mindfulness of speech, thought and action in order to attain relief from suffering and ignorance. The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to â€œcalm and clarify the mind, open the heart, and refine attention and actionâ€ (Kabat-Zinn, 2003, p.144). The teaching of mindfulness or â€œinsightâ€ meditation focuses on a deep, penetrative nonconceptual seeing into the nature of the mind and the world and continuity of awareness in all daily activities. Mindfulness meditation is referred to as an opening up meditation, where one is to attend to all internal and external stimuli nonjudgmentally (Snyder & Lopez, 2005, p. 633). By analyzing oneâ€™s thoughts or cognitions, mindfulness meditation focuses on a greater understanding through the systematic cultivation of inquiry and insight. MM can be practiced while seated, walking, standing, working or eating. Practicing mindfulness in daily activities means observing the gentle flow of the breath, the constant change of thoughts, and the mental nonjudgmental acknowledgment of body sensations. Mindfulness meditation involves the use of introspection or insight, where cognitions can be observed and better understood. Hence, the path to better physical and psychological health comprises a better understanding of oneâ€™s reactions to all emotions. The main cause of human suffering stems from the way we interpret the world surrounding us. By understanding and changing our cognitions, we can lead more fulfilling lives and experience an increase in well-being. Although mindfulness meditation is usually taught within the context of Buddhism, its essence is universal. Mindfulness is basically a particular way of paying attention and looking deeply into oneself. For this reason it can be practiced without appealing to Oriental culture. Kabat-Zinn (2003) defined mindfulness as a particular quality of attention and awareness that is cultivated through meditation, and gave the following operational definition: â€œthe awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by momentâ€ (p.145). He further described the origin of mindfulness as being the heart of Buddhist meditation, residing at the core of the Buddhaâ€™s teachings. The Buddha delved into the nature of suffering and the human condition by investigating his own mind. As the result of this single-minded contemplation, the Buddha discovered a comprehensive view of human nature, the origin of suffering and a treatment against suffering. In the Buddhist teachings, the cause of suffering stems from the three â€œpoisonsâ€: greed, hatred (aversion), and ignorance/delusion (p. 145). Therefore, mindfulness is about attention and can be considered universal. Mindfulness is an inherent human capacity. For Buddhists, the lack of mindfulness, which can be compared to an untrained mind, significantly contributes to human suffering, oneâ€™s own and that of others. Through meditative practices that calm and clarify the mind, open the heart, and refine attention and action, it is possible to end all suffering. The teaching of Vipassana or insight meditation originated in the East and follows the principles of mindfulness set forth by the Buddha. In South East Asia, Vipassana is taught during intensive 10-day silent retreats. As experienced by the author, during the first three days, for the entire day, meditators learn how to observe their breathing by focusing on the small area beneath the nose and above the lips. At first, focusing on the breath is quite difficult because of the incessant stream of thoughts interrupting concentration. Memories, hopes, and fears begin flooding in, but with practice, it becomes possible to sense the warmth and the humidity of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. The purpose of this type of exercise is to focus the attention and sharpen concentration. After three days, the mind calms down. By focusing for so long on the breath, the mind becomes so sensitive that it can feel the subtlest flow of the breath. Thoughts become faint and sensations are experienced more vividly. By remaining in silence for the duration of the retreat, the meditator allows the mind to settle down and the internal chatter to slowly fade away. As a result, one enters a state of calmness and heightened awareness. After three days of focused attention, meditators learn how to expand their awareness by paying attention to bodily sensations and surrounding sounds, in a nonjudgmental way. This second step is considered to be an opening up meditation, where one keeps a continuous awareness of sensations without reacting. All the stimuli that enter the body through the senses instantly produce a sensation. The purpose of this insight meditation is to focus on natural sensations such as pain, pleasure, and thoughts as the crucial link between mind and body. Eastern teachings focus on observing the world as it is, and accepting it. In Buddhist psychology, the source of suffering comes from within; we are the prisoners of our own mind, hostages of our anger, fears, and desires. Once we learn to recognize and understand our thought patterns and the ways we react to outside stimuli, we begin to understand our own behavior. By observing the reactions in the body without reacting, and by witnessing emotions, pain, and pleasure come and go, we realize not through the body but through our own experience that nothing is permanent. Therefore, with practice, we come to understand the true fleeting nature of all experiences and learn to let go. As the Buddha taught, aversion and greed are the sources of suffering. By watching the physical sensations accompanying emotions, and by understanding their impermanent nature, one can start changing the habit of blind reaction and find peace of mind. Hence, mindfulness meditation is the key to understanding human behavior. Through Vipassana, one realizes that oneâ€™s own attitudes, addictions, suffering and happiness are not caused by the outside world. Thus, it is the reactions to pleasant and unpleasant sensations the world evokes within oneâ€™s body that dictate oneâ€™s actions and condition the mind. Therefore, the advantage Eastern approaches have over Western psychology is the notion of impermanence as a source of suffering. In the West, we try to hold on to impermanent notions, such as youth, good health, and happiness but we experience aversion toward negative experiences such as pain, sickness and old age. Changing our thought patterns and repressing certain emotions cannot bring peace of mind. What is repressed usually gains in strength. Buddhist teachings emphasize the fact that wanting to hold on to good sensations is a form of selfish greed, and that pushing away negative sensations is a form of hatred. Again, greed and hatred are the sources of suffering. Practicing mindfulness teaches us to observe our greed, hatred, fears, desires, and realize their impermanence. By understanding the impermanence of all sensations, we learn not to grasp and not to identify with experiences. Thus, we learn to let go. The final goal of meditation as taught by the Buddha is the relief from suffering.
References Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 144-154.
Davidson, R., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S., et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570.
Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (2005). Handbook of positive psychology. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.
Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (2007). Positive Psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.