This week I am learning how to cultivate and develop the foundational practice of mindfulness of breathing. Its not an onerous new obligation that you have to do but an invitation to wellbeing, the possibility of presence just where you are. A sign at a Las Vegas casino reads: “You must be present to win”. Its true in Las Vegas, it is pretty much the game everywhere else. To be present for our life, not the re-runs of the past or fantasies of the future, but actually to be fully where we are is the target.
Mindfulness simply means awareness which comes from the ancient word sati in Pali and smrti in Sanskrit meaning memory or non-forgetfulness. According to Mark Williams, Professor Emeritus of Clinical Psychology at Oxford University, awareness of what’s happening as its happening both in the inside world and the outside world. It is probably easiest to understand if you think of its opposite: mindlessness. Mindlessness – where one keep forgetting to do things, don’t listen properly, not attending properly, the world is going by without one really being there for it or here for it. Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges when we make a decision to train our mind to some extend to check in more often to see how things are. It brings visible benefits to different aspects of life. By training in this quality we can calm and quiet the mind, open the heart, learn to see and work with different energies of your life and then be able to respond wisely.
Mindfulness begins by honoring our own body. James Joyce wrote about one character, “Mr Duffy lived a short distance from his body”. We do that in our lives. When we begin to become mindful, we can notice the state of our body without judgment: where there is tension or relaxation. Is the body exhausted or excited? Is there pain or pleasure? Illness or health? You can also notice the state of your heart. The circumstances of your life. You can also notice what we are in the midst of everything: sometimes difficult, sometimes easy.
Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said that, while in a crowded Vietnamese refugee boat which met with storms or pirates, if everyone aboard panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person stays calm and centered it was enough, that person showed the way for everyone to survive. With your own steady presence, you become that one person who shows the way for yourself and everyone around you.
Mindfulness practices have been shown to promote coping, increase positive emotions, like compassion and life satisfaction, and reduce stress, anxiety, pain, depression and negative emotions. It makes us more attentive and less distracted and more in touch with our emotions and more resilient and quicker to recover from stress, more pro-social, optimistic and kind – in a word, happier.
A passage in Scientific American attributed to Albert Einstein said:
If you are driving safely and kissing a girl, you are simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.