Would you like to be calmer in the face of work and family stress?
Would you like to be more content with life as it is, and less affected by the imaginary dangers that play in your mind?
Would you like to make better, more rational decisions?
I’m going to give some of my thoughts, and those of Sam Harris, a renowned philosopher and neuroscientist.
Increasing mindfulness does all three of these things. Mindfulness is being able to calmly face the exaggerated threats our mind creates without fighting, fleeing or freezing. That means to not have to suppress our unwanted urges, run from our own emotions, or deny our own thoughts and feelings. Instead, noticing our thoughts and feelings with equanimity, allowing these urges to “float” by instead of choosing to react to them. Then choosing the “right” action toward what is best for oneself, instead of merely away from momentary discomfort and toward comfort.
I created the ACT Team to give people an easy step in this direction. These represent aspects of our brain that embody certain fearful urges and motivations. Seeing them as somewhat separate allows us some mental distance, and increases the ability to choose “right” action instead of simply react to their promptings. This also allows us to see ourselves as more than our thoughts, our feelings and our urges. In addition, it allows us to influence our own motivations a bit more objectively, instead of be a victim to them.
The fearful urges and motivations we feel in a given moment distort our sense of what is real, creating reactionary “inner movies.” Inner movies are our brain’s guess of what is real combined with our biases, fears and hopes. It plays them out in our minds like a visual, auditory or sensed movie. Most of the time we’re caught up in the inner movies of life, not realizing that they are simply movies, not reality. Mindfulness is being able to look past the movie to see what is really there, with less bias from our fears, hopes and biases. This is what I argue that “enlightenment” truly is—seeing reality more clearly. More mental light is now shining on what is actually happening, and less on the internal distortions. For example, we may have an inner movie that our child is “shaming the family” by choosing career we dislike, when the reality is that she is usually simply being attracted to what she finds interesting and enjoyable. You can see how much unnecessary conflict this kind of inner movie causes for ourselves, and for those around us.
Sam Harris explains mindfulness well in his book “Waking Up”.
My friend Joseph Goldstein…likens this shift in awareness to the experience of being fully immersed in a film and then suddenly realizing that you are sitting in a theater watching a mere play of light on a wall. Your perception is unchanged, but the spell is broken. Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives. Until we see that an alternative to this enchantment exists, we are entirely at the mercy of appearances…
We crave lasting happiness in the midst of change: Our bodies age, cherished objects break, pleasures fade, relationships fail. Our attachment to the good things in life and our aversion to the bad amount to a denial of these realities, and this inevitably leads to feelings of dissatisfaction. Mindfulness is a technique for achieving equanimity amid the flux, allowing us to simply be aware of the quality of experience in each moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant. This may seem like a recipe for apathy, but it needn’t be. It is actually possible to be mindful—and, therefore, to be at peace with the present moment—even while working to change the world for the better.
(Sam Harris teaches how to achieve mindfulness through various exercises in “Waking Up”. He has audio guides to this kind of mediation on his website. He manages to extract the powerful insights of Buddhist meditation from the mythology, so that it’s relevant to everyone regardless of your beliefs.)
Happiness. Bliss. Serenity. Mental Health. There are many worthwhile goals of mindfulness meditation. A very small segment of people find sitting for days, weeks, months or even years at a time appealing. The goal for most of us though, as Harris describes it, is increasing happiness. Not reaching some magical state of nirvana, enlightenment, etc.
What is the next step you will take to becoming more mindful?
To make better decisions?
To be more content with life as it is, and less affected by the imaginary dangers of your inner movie?