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Mindfulness: The practice of being "here"

As I mentioned in a recent Lifehacker interview with Matt, I've been casting about for a good way to work in my newfound interest in mindfulness, or the ostensibly Buddhist practice of bringing your attention and focus back to the present moment, primarily through breathing and awareness.

Well, here you go: one rank Western novice's collection of blurbs and excerpts on an ancient (yet oddly timely) method for easing yourself back into this moment -- any day, at any time, and in anything you choose to do.

Mindfulness is this and here

Mindfulness is the practice whereby a person is intentionally aware of his or her thoughts and actions in the present moment, non-judgmentally. Mindfulness is applied to both bodily actions and the mind's own thoughts and feelings. In Buddhism, the second kind of mindfulness is considered a prerequisite for developing insight and wisdom. Right Mindfulness is the seventh path from the Noble Eightfold Path, which is in its turn the fourth of the Four Noble Truths.
-- Mindfulness - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Fundamentally mindfulness is a simple concept. Its power lies in its practice and its applications. Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives but also fail to realize the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth, and transformation.
-- Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. p.4 [ ISBN | Amazon.com ]


From the Buddhist perspective, our ordinary waking state of consciousness is seen as being severely limited and limiting, resembling in many respects an extended dream rather than wakefulness. Meditation helps us wake up from this sleep of automaticity and unconsciousness, thereby making it possible for us to live our lives with access to the full spectrum of our conscious and unconscious possibilities.
-- Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. p.3 [ ISBN | Amazon.com ]

Just seeing

The question "What shall we do about it?" is only asked by those who do not understand the problem. If a problem can be solved at all, to understand it and to know what to do about it are the same thing. On the other hand, doing something about a problem which you do not understand is like trying to clear away darkness by thrusting it aside with your hands. When light is brought, the darkness vanishes at once.
-- The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. p.75 [ ISBN | Amazon.com ]


Breaking the grip of ignorance and craving comes with just seeing, not with doing something particular about it. Once you see, your course of action will naturally follow.
-- Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen. p.37 [ ISBN | Amazon.com ]


While practicing mindfulness, don't be dominated by the distinction between good and evil, thus creating a battle within oneself.

Whenever a wholesome thought arises, acknowledge it: “A wholesome thought has just arisen.” If an unwholesome thought arises, acknowledge it as well: “An unwholesome thought has just arisen.” Don’t dwell on it or try to get rid of it. To acknowledge it is enough. If they are still there, acknowledge they are still there. If they have gone, acknowledge they have gone. That way the practitioner is able to hold of his mind and to obtain the mindfulness of the mind.
-- The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. p.39 [ ISBN | Amazon.com ]


Don't ponder: You don't need to figure everything out. Discursive thinking won't free you from the trap. In meditation, the mind is purified naturally by mindfulness, by wordless bare attention. Habitual deliberation is not necessary to eliminate those things that are keeping you in bondage. All that is necessary is a clear, non-conceptual perception of what they are and how they work. That alone is sufficient to dissolve them. Concepts and reasoning just get in the way. Don't think. See.
-- Mindfulness in Plain English

Being here for this

Try reminding yourself from time to time: “This is it.” See if there is anything at all that it cannot be applied to. Remind yourself that acceptance of the present moment has nothing to do with resignation in the face of what is happening. It simply means a clear acknowledgment that what is happening is happening.
-- Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. p.16 [ ISBN | Amazon.com ]


There's also mindfulness of mind. Until we deliberately listen for it, we usually pay little attention to the fact that there's the constant chatter of a monologue -- often idiotic -- running in our minds. When we really lose ourselves, we can even work it up to a dialogue.

Our minds jabber to themselves much of the time...
-- Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen. p.102 [ ISBN | Amazon.com ]


What is the use of planning to be able to eat next week unless I can really enjoy the meals when they come ? If I am so busy planning how to eat next week that I cannot fully enjoy what I am eating now, I will be in the same predicament when next week's meals become "now."

If my happiness at this moment consists largely in reviewing happy memories and expectations, I am but dimly aware of this present. I shall still be dimly aware of the present when the good things that I have been expecting come to pass. For I shall have formed a habit of looking behind and ahead, making it difficult for me to attend to the here and now. If, then, my awareness of the past and future makes me less aware of the present, I must begin to wonder whether I am actually living in the real world.
-- The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. p.35 [ ISBN | Amazon.com ]


The art of living in this "predicament" is neither careless drifting on the one hand nor fearful clinging to the past and the known on the other. It consists in being completely sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive.
-- The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. p.75 [ ISBN | Amazon.com ]

"Real life" mindfulness

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face? We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.
-- Walden by Henry David Thoreau.


Henry David Thoreau's two years at Walden Pond were above all a personal experiment in mindfulness. He chose to put his life on the line in order to revel in the wonder and simplicity of present moments. But you don't have to go out of your way or find someplace special to practice mindfulness. It is sufficient to make a little time in your life for stillness and what we call non-doing, and then tune in to your breathing.
-- Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. p.24 [ ISBN | Amazon.com ]


PP: Besides the techniques [you teach to your patients], what else do people come away with?

JK: A lot of people drop the formal practice but maintain the mindfulness in daily living. They've developed it as a life skill. In times of great stress or pain, they know how to go to their breathing, to use it to calm down and broaden the field of perception, so that they can see with a larger perspective.

PP: People somehow internalize, not simply the technique, but where it's coming from.

JK: Exactly. And that's our emphasis. We don't want a group of imitators when we get through with them, nor a group of super-meditators who are all tripped out about meditation. What we want are people who are basically strong, flexible, and balanced, and have a perspective on their own inner being that is accepting and generous.
-- Mindful Medicine - An Interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn


I am learning slowly to bring my crazy pinball-machine mind back to this place of friendly detachment toward myself, so I can look out at the world and see all those other things with respect. Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper. So I keep trying gently to bring my mind back to what is really there to be seen, maybe to be seen and noted with a kind of reverence.
-- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. [ ISBN | Amazon.com ]


So, mindfulness will not conflict with any beliefs or traditions -- religious or for that matter scientific -- nor is it trying to sell you anything, especially not a new belief system or ideology. It is simply a practical way to be more in touch with the fullness of your being through a systematic process of self-observation, self-inquiry, and mindful action. There is nothing cold, analytical, or unfeeling about it. The overall tenor of mindfulness is gentle, appreciative, and nurturing. Another way to think of it would be "heartfulness."
-- Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. p.6 [ ISBN | Amazon.com ]


While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first, glance, that might seem a little silly. Why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that's precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I am completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There's no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.
-- The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. p.3 [ ISBN | Amazon.com ]


So, why here?

The question will naturally arise: what does all this stuff have to do with manila folders, Getting Things Done, Quicksilver, and the rest of the usual smorgasbord on 43F? And I'll confess that my answer for today is "I have pretty much no idea."

I do know that the more time I spend observing how people improve their decision-making at home and at work, the clearer it is to me that they are each developing a more cogent understanding of what's "really going on" in their lives -- they're not being driven by some unseen motor to stay busy or overstimulated for its own strangely modest rewards.

For some people this might mean the ability to quickly re-prioritize on a busy day. For others it's reflected in the calm concentration that can come from not checking email for an hour. And for a great many it's the astoundingly simple realization -- that obvious moment of realization -- that this task and all of the others waiting behind it can just wait until tomorrow if it means I get to go home right now and enjoy an evening with my family. It means reacting to real reality rather than always dancing the manic watusi demanded by the ten-thousand monkeys in your head.

Over the next little while, I'll be returning to the subject of mindfulness in sometimes overt and sometimes orthogonal ways, sharing some ideas about how people are finding its place in medicine, mental health, physical and health improvements, and -- yes -- even in the context of personal productivity.

But even (or especially) when decoupled from its practical role in solving any given problem, mindfulness has much self-evident value all by itself.

If you never learn to be here for this particular moment, you'll remain a sleepy captive to every anxiety, fantasy, or unintentional habit that's ever popped into your life. And that, my friends, is a crappy way to go through life.

reuben's picture

I come across a lot...

I come across a lot of content that has to do with mindfulness and being here now and the meditative breathing buddhist. It's clear to me that those who are able to exert more control over their thoughts derive much satisfaction from it. I believe, however, that many adherents conflate two separate phenomena.

First is what Benson and Klipper* refer to as The Relaxation Response, in their book of the same name. Their thesis is that across many cultures and religions exists a ritualistic activity that brings about a sense of calm and well-being in its participants. Benson & Klipper take an anthropologic approach to this activity and propose a simple maneuver that they advocate as a distillation of the common elements in these various practices, which all tap into a physiologic reflex to bring about that peaceful, easy feeling. This approach boils down to focusing on your breathing and repeating the word "one" to yourself between breaths.

It works. After a few earnest minutes you start to feel tranquil; anyone who has done yoga or anesthesia knows it works. I suspect Benson&Klipper are correct about the reflex, and it's a useful skill to tap into when you're anxious or can't fall asleep. More than just relaxing, it feels good. This is distinct, however, from mindfulness.

I discovered mindfulness accidentally while doing drugs in my late teens and early twenties, and I think a lot of stoners make a habit out of marijuana–which has little if any physiologically addictive properties–because it promotes mindfulness(though nobody in those circles refers to it by that name, and I didn't understand it as such until many years later).

One of the most important effect of marijuana is that it potentiates sensation. Experienced users learn to take advantage of this in all sorts of interesting ways, but its most immediate and accessible form is the heightening of sound and taste.

Now if the ability of marijuana to make music more compelling were limited to the time when the user is intoxicated, it would be neato and fun but not important from a lifehack perspective. The genius of this drug is that it teaches us to compartmentalize our attention. Unlike the meditative breathing buddhist, who must train herself to exclude distraction and be here now, this ability forces itself on the stoner as the sensation at hand is so overwhelming that to divert any neurons from its appreciation is abhorrent.

The type of mindfulness I practice in my sober thirties has to do with recognizing how an activity's perceptual resolution** affects my appreciation of that activity. For example, reading is an inherently high resolution task–if you want to get anything at all out of what you're reading, you have to devote a lot of attention to it. Since the total amount of attention you have is fixed, like the space on a computer screen, every pixel of attention you devote to one activity takes away from your appreciation of another activity. So, if I'm eating six-day old rice and beans, I'm happy to yield to my urge to read this week's New Yorker at the same time. But when I have butter chicken from Bombay Mahal delivered, the magazine is put away and the music turned off.

I take the concept of perceptual resolution a step further and organize my tasks into high resolution (studying, flirting) and low-resolution (paying bills, talking to mom), so that I can plan my consumption of high resolution content (talk show podcasts, bob dylan records) and low resolution content (jazz, Boing Boing).

I have also become very protective of my attention pixels and am frustrated when they are unwantingly expropriated, by construction workers across the street, the bus-riding mobile phone user, or my email program. In addition to lengthening the refresh times of my email and RSS feeds, one of my all-time greatest lifehacks has been the purchase of insulating headphones.

*Herbert Benson with Miriam Klipper, "The Relaxation Response." Copyright 1975 by William Morrow and Company. ISBN 0-380-00676-6.

**Elliott Malkin named this concept.




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