By Colson Healy, OMS IV
Are you ever so distracted by thoughts that you are unable to focus on the task at hand? So fixated on mistakes of the past or anxiety about the future that you are incapable of enjoying the present moment? All of us experience a wandering mind from time to time; for many, it is a default state. In fact, in a study on this topic researchers concluded that “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind”1. All of us would likely appreciate a way to forego the needless distraction, worry and anxiety that seem to predominate much of our waking existence. Mindfulness is one such way.
The foundation of mindfulness is the concept of selflessness – in other words, that our sense of “self” or “ego” is an illusion. This idea is supported by many findings in neuroscience and psychology and can be discovered subjectively with introspection and meditation2. As one expert puts it: “When I pay attention, it is impossible for me to feel like a self at all: the implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows.”3 Such a state is often referred to as “self-transcendence” and is the goal of virtually every spiritual endeavor. Similarly, the “goal” of mindfulness is simply the realization of this illusion day by day.
This realization is beneficial in many ways. For one, it enables you to stop identifying personally with your thoughts and emotions. Rather than “my” thoughts/emotions, they become “the” thoughts/emotions – a powerful paradigm shift. When thoughts and emotions are seen objectively, it is much easier to simply observe them entering and then leaving your conscious awareness. The all-too-common alternative is to observe them come in, aggressively latch onto them, repeatedly justify and reinforce their existence, and continually suffer from them for extended periods of time. When mindfulness is put into practice, one observes that negative feelings actually have quite a fleeting existence – they do not need to dominate our minds for hours, days, or years at a time.
By objectively observing thoughts and emotions rise and fall from your conscious awareness, you avoid becoming stuck in the realms of daydreaming and ruminating. This allows your focus to stay on the present moment, enabling you to enjoy each experience to its fullest. Just like any skill, mindfulness is something that needs to be practiced and honed. Many people augment mindfulness with meditation, which helps sharpen attentiveness and detachment.
Of course, practicing mindfulness is not ignoring problems that need to be solved or failing to plan for the future. Suppose, for example, that you are a student with an upcoming test. While thinking about the impending test, you objectively observe the feeling of anxiety rise and fall in your consciousness. This feeling motivates you to create a study plan which allows you to be sufficiently prepared. You adhere to the study plan and take the test. End of story. What would be useless in this situation would be to continually cling to that initial feeling of anxiety – repeatedly reinforcing to yourself why you should be anxious – every waking moment of every day leading up to the test despite having created a worthy study plan and despite adhering to it. That is the definition of needless suffering. Similarly, there are countless ways in which we needlessly suffer over things that we are already taking actionable steps to remedy, that are out of our control, or that are simply inconsequential. It is for these things that mindfulness can be an extremely useful asset.
This is only a brief overview of mindfulness and its potential benefits on the human experience. For further guidance about mindfulness and meditation I suggest the apps Waking Up, 10% Happier, Headspace, and Calm and their respective authors’ associated books, websites and content. I have personally experienced significant benefits from incorporating mindfulness and meditation into my life. I sincerely hope you have the same experience.
- Gilbert, Daniel T; Killingsworth, William A. (2010). A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind. Science, 330. 932. DOI: 10.1126/science.1192439
- Harris, Sam. (2014). Waking Up. 81-115. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
- Harris, Sam. (2014). Waking Up. 137. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.