Wednesday, February 4, 2015

   The Paradox of Mindfulness:

Most come to Mindfulness practice out of a desire to change something; health, state of mind, understanding, relationships... 

It is the human condition that we seek to improve our situation in one way or another.  Meditation was a response to suffering in its original Buddhist origins, and the offering of this practice in a secular context has been widely accepted today because an inherent state of discomfort -and our wish to relieve it- is relatable to everyone's human experience at one time or another. 

It is true, also, that the original secular Mindfulness program (MBSR), which has served as the forerunner of today’s cultural love-affair with mindfulness, was created and geared for those who were seeking relief from difficult physical and emotional problems.*

Cultivating Mindfulness does change us in radical ways. It changes the way we relate to ourselves, each other and the world around us. It can have the effect of reducing physical pain, has helped those with physical and emotional conditions to heal, and is a very effective approach to dealing with stress-related problems and in approaching any kind of health-behavior change. So, it’s interesting to understand that the practice of Mindfulness is not, at its heart, about changing anything at all. 

The heart of the paradox. 

While it is quite human to want things to be different than they are, it is in accepting how things are that best enables us to make change. By focusing on what we don’t want or where we’d rather be we are no longer accessing the information available to us in the moment; and that's the information that can help us recognize how we might get to the place we want to go or affect the change we’d like to see. Consider rock climbing; it is good to know where you want to go, but if you don’t pay attention to where you are placing each hand and foot, it would be hard to navigate the path to the top. 

Mindfulness practice is similar in that it picks some aspect of experience (such as the sensations of the breath) that helps us learn the terrain of the present moment. Mindfulness practice cultivates our ability to stay entirely present with experience as it arises, moment-to-moment, training our attention to recognize our real-time experience. Just as when a rock climber finds herself in a challenging terrain, her attention must be completely absorbed with the feel and placement of her feet and hands and the balance of her body on the rock otherwise she risks falling; any move of focus away from what is happening in the moment could end in tragedy. The top of the mountain or even the next step is not important, only what is happening now. It isn’t a mindset of ‘in order to do’, it’s the act of ‘being’ exactly where we are. Mindfulness isn’t actually about making change or navigating anywhere: Mindfulness is the practice of becoming entirely present with things as they are, and paradoxically it’s in doing this that enables us to much more effectively move forward. 

Here’s something I heard one of my Buddhist teachers say that I think illustrates this really well: In order to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, first one has to be entirely at point ‘A’. Mindfulness is the act of bringing ourselves, over and over again, to point ‘A’ so that we become intimately familiar with how to do this intentionally and more fluently in our day to day life. Sometimes just the very ability to orient ourselves fully at point A brings with it a spontaneous movement toward point B, and sometimes it just provides the firm ground from which to move in the direction we wish to go. Especially in our Western culture we want everything immediately, we like to skip over as many steps as we can to get where we want to go… unfortunately, we often end up tripping over ourselves this way. As efficient as we may like to think we are in doing this, the truth is that we inevitably have to go back and deal with many of those skipped steps in order to finally completely arrive at our intended destination. (...and then have you ever noticed that by the time you've arrived anywhere, you’re already ready to be somewhere else… ??)


OK, that all sounds interesting in theory, but what does this mean in concrete terms? What does it look like to do this ‘practice’? 

The cultivation of present-moment awareness involves becoming intimately aware in our body; “embodied awareness”. Why? The body is always completely present. Learning how to inhabit and be aware of the sensations in our own bodies is therefore the primary path to mindfulness. One of the most easily accessible ways to embody awareness is through Mindfulness of the breath. Mindfulness practices also incorporate other sensations in the body, but the breath offers an entry-point. Many who begin to practice are surprised to realize that they hadn’t been in touch with their bodily sensations at all. The sensations of breathing lead us to the recognition of more subtle physical sensation and provide an ‘anchor’ for us to return to again and again as we train our minds to stay present and more fully ‘inhabit’ our bodies. Eventually we can also become mindfully aware of thoughts and emotions and begin to see the connections between these and the body and how they all influence one-another. Thus, Mindfulness is experiential, not a philosophy or so much a ‘technique’ (although there are techniques involved in the cultivation of mindfulness). It is a different way of relating to our experience than the way we usually interact; filtered through our conceptual and abstract minds. Mindfulness meditation is a training in intimately relating with our direct moment-to-moment experience, and with this cultivation comes the ability to bring a new way of relating into our daily lives and wonderful transformations along with it. 

To Do, or Not To Do, that is the question… 

Although the practice is of non-doing, the way to Mindfulness requires learning and practicing; so, reading a book (or a blog...) about mindfulness or talking about mindfulness can be an illuminating experience, but it's not the same thing as sitting down and engaging mindfulness practice – Mindfulness is something we must cultivate. Training the mind in this practice is no different than developing a muscle; the more training, the more strength is developed. The ability to ‘be mindful’ requires learning how to strengthen the ‘muscle’ of mindfulness and then doing the exercises which target that muscle, both formal (sitting meditation) and informal (daily life mindfulness). Scientific research now shows us that, just like physical exercise changes the body, Mindfulness practices change the physical neural pathways in our brain. We really can change our brains and our way of being in the world by learning how to become completely present with what’s happening without the desire to change it. A paradox which makes the complex so very simple; Just Do the practice of Not Doing in order to do things differently. 

*The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, the original secular program teaching Mindfulness created by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979, was originally offered to help people suffering from serious and conventionally untreatable health conditions at the UMass Medical Center. Physicians sent the patients that they couldn’t help to the program as an experiment, and the results were significant and changed the quality of life for many dealing with serious chronic pain and illness. (watch this 40 minute video of the Bill Moyers special, which aired in 1993, about the MBSR program) Although subsequent use of the MBSR program has also proven radically beneficial for people who don’t perceive themselves as sick or in pain, and many adaptations of the program are offered in corporate environments for stress relief and improved focus, balance and resilence (Google, Target, General Mills, IBM, Genentech for example), in schoolspolice departments, senior centers, and for health care practitioners and care-givers, and parents to name just a few! 

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