If we can call on an ability to remain present, this increases our options. We can be more resourceful. We can act rather than react. You practice mindfulness so that this state becomes more common in your life.
Mindfulness, as in “mindfulness meditation,” has been defined simply as “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judging.” If you have ever tried this, you might have found that it is not as simple as it seems. The nature of our mind is to be active, curious– to wander—and to always be on the lookout for threats or good things. When we are day-dreaming, our thoughts wander away from the boredom or discomfort and wander toward interest or pleasure. When we worry, our thoughts keep wandering toward towards things that might hurt us, even when we try not to! As soon as we stop paying attention, these processes happen. As a practicing psychologist, I think learning to pay attention is very important. I teach all of my clients to use some form of focusing or meditation technique. Getting mindful is often the first step my clients take to change their lives.
What Good is Mindfulness?
Why practice mindfulness? I think the answer is the same as you would give for the question “Why exercise?” It can feel good in the moment (once you get the hang of it) and it builds your capacity for (mental) strength, endurance and flexibility in the future. And, you look better after you do it! The ability to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judging yourself is very useful. First, it’s difficult to pay attention during stressful situations – public speaking, an intense conversation with your romantic partner, trying to parent an unruly child, or during an accident or crisis. Our emotions and all the stimuli we are experiencing can overwhelm us. If we can call on an ability to remain present, this increases our options. We can be more resourceful. We can act rather than react. (I remember the first rule from my wilderness first aid training: “Stop. Survey the scene. Don’t create another victim.”) You practice mindfulness so that this state becomes more common in your life. For people seeking enlightenment, mindfulness becomes their default.
My Mindfulness Meditation Story
I have a funny story about meditation. When I was in high school, around age 14, I had a physical exam and my blood pressure was high. There was no clear reason. (It was probably stress because I was so shy!) But, in any case, I was told I couldn’t play sports. So, I went to the public library and located a book on meditation and high blood pressure. I sat in my bedroom and I taught myself to meditate. At my follow-up physical, my blood pressure was healthy and I could play. I’m 51 years old now. At my latest physical, my blood pressure was 104/70 and this despite some serious stressors affecting my family that day.
My first serious exposure to mindfulness meditation as it is applied in hospitals and in mental health therapy came during a graduate school training rotation at the Behavioral Medicine Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the late 1990’s. I was an intern in the word-famous Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. As a prerequisite for the internship, I completed a nine-day silent meditation retreat at the Barre Center in Massachusetts. This was an important time for mindfulness in healthcare. Because of evidence of its powerful effects, mindfulness was no longer seen as some new age fad but was taken very seriously for the treatment of many medical and mental health conditions. On our first day as interns, we received a photocopied stack of research papers several inches high to review. (These were still the paper days). People like Kabat-Zinn and psychologist Ellen Langer had already made mindfulness respectable. At the turn of the millennium, researchers like Zindel Segal and colleagues were laying the groundwork for the commonly accepted mindfulness-based treatments for depression that are used today.
A Brief Meditation for You
What is mindfulness meditation like? Well again, it’s simple. I can lead you through a brief meditation while you’re reading this blog post. Wherever you are, sitting or standing, start to be aware of your posture. Notice that gravity is slowing flow down through you. See if you can align your spine so that your head is balancing lightly atop it. Roll your neck slightly to make sure you’re not holding excessive tension. Relax your face. Become aware of your breathing, the cycle of in-breaths and out-breaths. If you like, you can close your eyes and follow a couple of breath cycles. Notice your awareness of yourself, and whatever energy or momentum you feel in your body. Notice also your stream of consciousness, observations you are making, and thoughts that may be tugging at you. This is mindfulness. Imagine that during a crisis or a high stakes situation you can call on this sense of presence.
You might want to learn more about mindfulness. Like most new activities, learning with a teacher or group can be helpful. I recommend you do a retreat if you can. There are many different meditation traditions, and each teacher has a unique style. If you try a few groups or classes, you can find an approach that fits for you.
Here are some mindfulness meditation resources in the Pacific Northwest.
Pacific Northwest Meditation Classes and Retreats
- Portland Mindfulness Therapy
- Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Portland
- Dharma Rain Zen Center – Portland
- Great Vow Zen Monastery – Clatskanie, OR
- Portland Insight Meditation Community
- Oregon Vipassana Meditation Association
- Cloud Mountain, WA
- Northwest Vipassana Center, WA
Be well, pay attention! — Dr. Thomas Doherty