Mindfulness: A Practical Guide Toward Personal Peace And Resilience

September 18, 2013

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Topics: Healthy Living, Stress

For many mindfulness, or meditation, conjures up the image of a bearded guru cross-legged in a mountaintop cave.

And yet, for all the self-help fads that have come and gone, the ancient practice of meditation has transcended a role in many ancient religious practices to become mainstream. The reason? Because it works!

The practice of walking persists because walking is a skill that is as relevant today as it was when we stood up on two legs. The key is that for any behavior to remain active and persistent in a culture, it has to be useful and practical.

Various types of mindfulness training, such as meditation and yoga practices, are ways to produce calm, clarity and grounding in the `present moment,’ thereby freeing the mind from fears, depression and distortions.

What Is Mindfulness?

At the core of mindfulness is the practice of awareness and focused attention in the present moment—the here and now.

Sure, we have all had past traumas and conflicts. But, many of us can fall into the trap of dwelling on past injustices and clinging to them, desperately fearing the future. And, that is where we may just get stuck. None of us can undo the facts of the past, and naturally, they may produce powerful feelings like anger or sadness. But, living with these emotions and not knowing what to do about them just increases our suffering. We all may worry that past events will recur in the future; this is not to say that they won’t happen, but many times, we act and feel as if they already have. That is just plain harmful—it may result in a self-fulfilling prophecy! Then we suffer now, and pave the way for more suffering in the future.

The Benefits Of Being Present

Everything about us is impermanent. Everything! We are aging, leaves are blowing, the sun is rising, atoms are vibrating, and neurons are connecting. Suffering occurs when we act as if things are permanent. Try to think of one thing that has been exactly the same as it was in the past—nothing is exactly the same.

The process of change is constant and enduring. This is also true of emotions and behaviors, even if they feel as if they will never end or change. Being present is a way of noticing that things have changed; so, for instance, rather than feeling that anger will always be there, it’s a matter of noticing that anger is sometimes there and sometimes not, or at least not always as intense. Being present and noticing the changing nature of things is also a way to be more compassionate for yourself and the people you love.

The Practice Of Mindful Meditation

Here is the simple practice you can work on to be more compassionate, diminish emotions and behaviors that get in the way, and become more resilient:

The important components in these exercises are:

  • Focused attention in the present
  • Bodily relaxation

The combination of clearing your mind of distractions, and concentrating while allowing your body to relax, puts you in a special state of mind that has immense healing potential. Neuroscientific studies have confirmed this, and have shown you can actually re-wire and change the structure of your brain. It’s simple, but takes lots of practice. Don’t worry if you lose focus, if thoughts about daily tasks and worries jump in. Just keep trying to focus.

Repeating Behavior

Like all things, practice makes perfect.

If we think about the acts of walking, eating with a fork, or brushing our teeth, these are behaviors practiced over so many years that we hardly consider the hundreds of elements that go into each of them. They are hard-wired and habitual; the brain simply knows.

But, let’s say you tried brushing your teeth with your opposite hand or walking sideways. You would become very aware that you are doing things differently, and the new way of doing things would not feel natural—at least not without a lot of practice. New habits can be difficult and frustrating, so you might just end up going back to the old ways of doing things. This is true for all behavior, whether we are working on our golf swing, or correcting destructive thinking and negative emotions that ruin our day.

Loving Compassion

On a daily basis, think of someone, anyone, you truly care about: a parent, sibling, best friend, or romantic partner. Let your mind be immersed by a feeling of love, of wishing well for that person. Allow compassion, the act of wishing freedom from suffering, to dominate your thoughts about him or her.

Practice this for 10-20 minutes a day. You don’t need to sit in a dark room with incense burning, like that image of the guru. Simply find a quiet, comfortable place—whether it be in your office, on the bus, on a park bench, taking a walk. After some practice, extend this feeling to others, and continue the practice until all living beings are incorporated, including those you might not like as much. AND, most importantly, include yourself in such compassionate thinking.

You might also try to just sit for 20 minutes and focus on your breathing—the air rushing in and out, or the rising and falling of your chest. Try to let everything leave your mind except the focus on breathing. You might also say the number “one” each time you exhale; this sets the stage for focused attention. It also will help your body relax. It may sound hokey, but it works. Try it!

Then, proceed to the exercise on compassion, as you have now set the stage for mindfulness meditation and loving compassion.

Two Important And Related Ideas:

a) Getting Rid Of Judgments

Think about judgments, and whether or not they are helpful to you. Judgments are short-cut ways of describing something, and they often just end up exaggerating emotions unnecessarily. This is not to say we should not pay attention to our values; it’s just that when you’re working on meditation, you want to calm yourself from the harsh opinions that stir up emotion. For example, you might say, “That was an awful movie,” but this statement does not convey much. What you really mean is, “In my experience, that is not a movie that I liked because it had too much violence, and ended in a predictable way.” Perhaps someone else would have enjoyed the movie.

Describing without judging is firstly just describing: “The movie had a lot of violence, and many people were shot.” Then, state the impact it had on you: “And, as I don’t like violent movies where people get shot, I thought it was awful.”

Practice Point:

Many people feel they are not judgmental, so here is a small exercise. If you’re conservative, spend 30 minutes a day watching MSNBC; make note of the judgments that arise. Conversely, if you’re liberal, watch a Fox talk show and notice your judgments. We all have them! Next, to try to find the truth in what the political pundit is saying, particularly when you vehemently disagree. This may not seem like a meditative experience, but it helps free your mind for clarity and mindful meditation without judgments clouding your experience. We all judge ourselves and others; however, what we ultimately want to achieve is self-acceptance. We are who we are right now, regardless of where we came from. And, we need to move on.

b) Thoughts Are Not Facts

All of us struggle at times with separating thoughts and facts. You might think, “I am a terrible person,” and therefore think it to be true. Or, you might say, “I am really stupid,” and state it as fact. If it truly were the case that you’re stupid, then there would be little you could do—there is no cure to date for stupidity. However, saying instead, “What I did was a stupid thing,” and thereby separating the “stupid thing” you did from “being stupid,” you have a chance to then work on ensuring that in the future, you don’t do that “stupid thing” again.

Mindfulness allows you to notice the thought that you are having, and label it as simply a thought (not necessarily a fact). In this way, you’re able to tune in to some of the things we do automatically without realizing the problems they can cause.

Bottom Line

Emotions, judgments, racing thoughts, thoughts of the future or past, and many other experiences are all functions of an active brain doing what it does. Many of these thoughts and feelings simply seek to make our lives more difficult. However, it really doesn’t matter what happened in your past, whether you had minor problems or major ones, like living through a home with, say, domestic violence and trauma.

The way out, the way to alleviate some of the suffering you’re enduring is through mindfulness. There’s no better time to start than the present—take a breath and begin to see the world anew!

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Ellen Braaten

Ellen Braaten, Co-Director

Ellen Braaten, Ph.D. is co-director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at Massachusetts General Hospi...

To learn more about Ellen, or to contact her directly, please see Our Team.