practicing mindfulness
March 19, 2010 12:18 PM   Subscribe

how can i practice mindfulness when my brain's default is mindlessness?

i've been reading eckhart tolle's books lately and have been drawn to his discussion of mindfulness (i know mindfulness is not a new discovery, but his writing is easy to understand and resonated with me). i am interested in buddhism on the whole as well.

after examining the contents of my mind, i realized that i am rarely fully experiencing the present moment. my mind is either in the past or in the future. it was an awful realization! and i want to change. i have been recently focusing on drawing my mind back to whatever i am doing and continuing to do this when my mind wanders. i have glimpsed the joy of experiencing the moment without worry or anxiety and it is really blissful.

during interactions with loved ones, i often react negatively to something they say or do. the negative reaction usually occurs because my mind is elsewhere and i am worrying about some silly thing. i always apologize afterward and think to myself, "if only i had been living in the present moment, i could have prevented such a negative situation from happening! i can actually choose my reaction instead of reacting unconsciously!"

so my question is: how can i continue to practice mindfulness? do you practice mindfulness? how do you do it? have you experienced benefits? how can we live consciously when the world around us is often unconscious?
posted by sucre to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I don't know much except that I really like the idea. For me, it's just about practicing it whenever I think about it, and that gets a little bit more often each time I do it.

I think if you live a stereotypical modern life, it's pretty hard to do as a newbie. That is, working at a job, commuting, all of it is possible to do mindfully, but likely takes a lot of practice. I'm most successful when I'm alone, walking, gardening, eating...more simple things.

The other thing for me, and this helps with conversations particularly, is to just keep saying to yourself "pay attention, pay attention, pay attention" whenever someone is talking to you.

Anyway, like I said I'm not very good at it, but I really like the idea. Those are my $.02
posted by Gorgik at 12:28 PM on March 19, 2010

Everyone's default is mindlessness.

how can we live consciously when the world around us is often unconscious?

It's not dependent on how other people live, or what happens in the world. That's kind of the point. It's totally up to you regardless of your surroundings.

I'm mindful of needing something to eat right now, but I'll come back and address more of your questions. Short version: yes, mindfulness has helped me a lot and it gets easier to practice as you go along.
posted by desjardins at 12:29 PM on March 19, 2010

Best answer: A great question. I struggle with this too, and think one key is self talk. I try to remind myself consciously to live in the present moment, then try an exercise to make sure I am doing it. For example, in my job I have to listen carefully to people for fixed periods of time. I have a private note on my desk to make eye contact, listen, and reflect what I have heard. I check myself as I listen to see if I am doing that.

I also find audio books help me focus on listening in the present moment rather than jumping ahead or thinking of something else.

I would add that no one is mindful 100% of the time. The more you try to do it, though, the better you get at it.
posted by bearwife at 12:30 PM on March 19, 2010

Best answer: Meditation, at least 20 minutes a day.

I don't know why that works, but it does for myself and quite a few other people I know. There's a direct causality between a morning meditation and how present we are the rest of the day.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:30 PM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Try to shift from the idea of three separate thinking orientations (past, now, future) towards the concept of a continuum. When you catch yourself thinking about something that happened last week, stop yourself and try to focus on something that happened in the last day or even hour. Basically, inch your way closer to the present. And then if you can get close to that behavior on a regular basis, start working on not thinking about the moment that has just passed at all.

This is hard for me too. I'm very meta...always thinking in loops, revisiting things or events or ideas from new perspectives or imagining now outcomes. It's often fun and interesting, but there's worth in trying to turn off the evaluative loop entirely. Because this is where worry and anxiety also live. We only have worry through evaluation and emotional attachment to what's happened or imaginations about what's going to happen. So in this sense, mindlessness is a good thing.

In sum, try to get closer to the moment, and then start catching yourself when you have opinions or conscious thoughts about the moment itself. Just being aware of doing that goes a long way. Then you can tell yourself, "focus on the dialogue you're engaged in, or the pretty clouds around you, or whatever."
posted by iamkimiam at 12:30 PM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You should google "meditation + [your city/area/zip code]" and try to attend a free/low cost meditation intro course. There are some online, too.

I say this because I want to answer your question based on what I learned from attending one, but I don't feel articulate at the moment. However, the ones I went to helped me refocus and let me disengage, go meta. I don't know that I feel more present, but I know it takes a lot of practice and it's the coming back that's the meditation part. The teacher was far more articulate than I about it.

She also said to be patient when you try to sit and meditate, that it can be very difficult to sit for even 10 minutes, and if you think you can sit for 10, you should sit for 5 or 8 and then build up from there.
posted by anniecat at 12:48 PM on March 19, 2010

Paying attention to other people is hard, when you aren't used to paying attention to yourself. You might start off by noticing your body.

Can you feel your feet? Can you feel the floor/your socks/ the material of your shoes?
What about your breathing?
What is the posture of your hands? Open, clenched, flexed or relaxed?
What is the set of your shoulders? Your ribcage? Your hips?

You don't need to be in a meditatitve enviroment or a class to check in with your body (althought it certainly can't hurt). The more practice you get noticing what you are physically experiencing *right now* the easier it will be to redirect your mind from whatever chatter it's up to.

Amd then later - that interaction with your loved one? What did that do to your body?

posted by janell at 1:01 PM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There are a lot of different things that people call mindfulness so I apologize if you're more interested in an focused meditation sort of mindfulness.

As an undergraduate, I did a lot of work with Ellen Langer--the pre-eminent mindfulness scholar--and we talked a lot about how to induce mindfulness. In our research, we found that we were able to induce mindfulness in others by asking them to pay attention to subtle variation in their natural environment. You may do the same commute every day and work in the same cubicle, but there are countless tiny changes that differentiate each day, each hour, and each moment from another. If you're interested in becoming more mindful, you may want to keep a journal or take notes on three new things you notice during each of your regular activities. These can be things about yourself or about the people or nature around you. I bet that if you keep searching for a few new things every day, you will become more naturally attuned to subtle variation and, by definition, more mindful.

Personally, I find that trying to be mindful about the world is a lot more fun and rewarding than trying to be introspectively mindful via meditation.
posted by eisenkr at 1:15 PM on March 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

I really like the guided meditations by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Lots of good resources can be found at Center for Mindfulness. It's definitely an investment but I've found that if I use the guided exercises, it's easier for me to find that space on my own.
posted by boofidies at 1:31 PM on March 19, 2010

Best answer: It's called "practice" for a reason. Just keep at it.
posted by aught at 1:50 PM on March 19, 2010

Best answer: Meditation is a great way to get started. Buddhism has lots to teach about meditation, of course, but it is not necessary to 'go east' to access this wisdom.

The Christian analogue to meditation is "contemplation." Some key proponents are Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, and John Main.

Contemplation involves getting past the incessant chatter of our minds and removing the filters our egos place over reality. Once we can see reality as it is instead of according to how it benefits or threatens us, we can deal with the world compassionately, aside from our own agendas. Or, once we set our own egos (gently, as they bruise easily) aside, we can see as God sees.

In Christian terms, this idea of seeing and dealing with the world without an ego agenda is called "Purity." A person who is pure in heart will see another person clearly and not as a means to some end. (Yes, purity is not just about sex.)

In Buddhism and in Christianity, cultivating this takes a lot of practice. In fact many Buddhists call meditiation "practice" for good reason. Twenty minutes a day minimum.

I find that for me the key is to not be so demanding of myself when I meditate. Your ego is not bad. The little guy just doesn't know when to shut up. You will be distracted and the objective is not some Herculean struggle against the distractions of your own ego. You just need to gently regard the ego when it distracts you in meditation by smiling at it and then wordlessly returning to not listening to its chatter. Don't push distractions away and don't cling to them. Eventually, with time and practice, your ego chatter will fade.

One thing that helped me greatly is to realize that distractions are the point of meditation. I sit. Just sit. Not "doing" anything necessarily. At the very point I realize that I've become distracted, I have been given a gift of perfect awareness. At that point, I simply return to just sitting.

I can apply this contemplative practice to anything I do. Walking, driving, cleaning house, whatever. The pattern is to just do... whatever, only whatever, with great attention to what I'm doing. When I realize I've become distracted (I'm planning dinner, or constructing my to-do list, or replaying a conversation) I smile at my ego and return to simply doing... whatever. Living my life in the moment, with mindfulness of Now, is a way to "pray without ceasing."
posted by cross_impact at 2:06 PM on March 19, 2010 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Your "failure" which you call "mindlessness" is no failure at all. You're worried about a future "good" meditation and aren't accepting the current bad. Well, the present is the present and if it doesn't meet your standards, you need to just accept that that's how you feel and keep on keeping on. Or as aught said above, practice. Mindfulness is not goal directed so stop trying to fix what ain't broken.
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:25 PM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Noticing the differences between your environment from day to day doesn't much like the Buddhist notion of mindfulness, since it implies comparing the present with the past, conceptualizing the difference, etc.

The traditional Zen meditation method is to count your breaths up to 10, then repeat, paying close attention to each breath, the moment of maximum exhalation and inhalation, the feeling of air on your nostrils, etc. What happens is your mind wanders and you forget where you are, so it's an easy way to check. The first time I did it, I lost track before I even got to 10, but it gets easier.

In some Buddhist traditions, once you can track your breath for 5 minutes without your mind wandering, you move on to the real deal, insight meditation.
posted by AlsoMike at 2:47 PM on March 19, 2010

Habit, and being patient with yourself. After all, how do you keep from being hit by a car every time you cross the street? When someone speaks, you are stepping off the curb. Look them in the eye. Listen to them. And if you haven't been listening, say "I'm sorry, I wasn't listening, and I apologize. Could you please repeat that?"

disclaimer: this is how I get through my days with the same problem
posted by davejay at 3:27 PM on March 19, 2010

Best answer: How I practice mindfulness in daily life:

Let's say someone says/does something that annoys/upsets me.

- before I respond, I pay careful attention to my body: what's tense? what feels warm? what's twitchy? how's my stomach? did I get an adrenaline rush?
- acknowledging the physical sensations goes a long way towards alleviating the instantaneous reaction; it slows it down enough for me to make a choice
- over time, I can tell when I'm about to say something unskillful just from my physical reactions
- over time, the physical reactions themselves get shorter and abate
- I label my thoughts. "Oh, I'm having an annoying thought. Now I'm having an angry one. Ah, there's a hurt thought."
- over time you see that your thoughts appear and disappear and they need not have an automatic effect on your actions

Let's say I'm lying in bed, stressing about finances when I'm supposed to be sleeping.

- I acknowledge each thought as it comes into my mind (yes, the power bill is due on Tuesday, no, that check for the rent didn't clear yet)
- I acknowledge each reaction the thought provokes (I'm worried that..., what if this happens...., etc)
- But the key is that I don't pursue these lines of thought, and if I do, I recognize it and stop as soon as possible.
-I return my thoughts to a central place; some people use breathing, some use a mantra, some use a clear space free of everything.
- I return to this place as many times as I need to, without adding on any judgments that I shouldn't be thinking of this, I should be more mindful, etc. Every second, every minute is a clean slate. Sometimes I literally imagine a slate being wiped clean.

So the benefits are that I'm calmer, more prepared to handle difficult situations, more aware of my body in the present moment, less prone to obsessive thoughts.

Book recommendations: The End of Suffering, The Three Pillars of Zen, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. Podcast recommendation: Audio Dharma
posted by desjardins at 4:01 PM on March 19, 2010 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Remember that your ability to use your memory to create past and future is one of the most amazing things about being human. If you were in the present moment all the time, you would miss all the best parts.

That said, I read his book about ten years ago, and the thing that really stuck with me was the idea of stepping one hierarchical level (he doesn't call it that, I bet) above/outside of my normal thinking self and being aware of my own thoughts. This way, when you become negative, you can watch yourself as a sort of connected observer and take note of how unhelpful you're being. The ramifications of this are really kind of boggling to me, both in terms of the cognitive prowess it involves and the philosophical implications, but it has helped me fairly consistently over the years. Best to you!
posted by nosila at 6:15 PM on March 19, 2010

p.s. I didn't read the probably-awesome responses above mine because I don't have time, so it's likely that my two cents only amount to about a half cent. :)
posted by nosila at 6:16 PM on March 19, 2010

posted by crazylegs at 6:23 PM on March 19, 2010

how can we live consciously when the world around us is often unconscious?

This is why people say "it's lonely at the top." Some of the greatest people who have said that are also great meditators.

do you practice mindfulness? how do you do it?

I try to...usually it works. What I do is write all my worries on a chalkboard that I can see in my head. I just list all of them on that mental board until I picture myself standing back and looking at them.

Then I pick up the eraser and erase all the ideas one by one. Then I'm left with a blank board / blank mind.

I can't remember where I learned this, but it works for me.

I also don't read much Tolle anymore. I found that his words were helpful, but I learned that I was at a point where reading self-help books had become an avoidance behavior for me.

I was avoiding interaction and relationships and all the hardships those bring by trying to take myself out of the picture and be by myself, isolated.

Now I try to find myself reaching outside my own circle and pushing my comfort zone a bit. I try to help others and that seems to work better. Totally in-my-own-case stuff here, but maybe it's helpful.
posted by circular at 9:09 PM on March 19, 2010

how can we live consciously when the world around us is often unconscious?

It's not. You are not different from the world around you. If you are conscious, so is it.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that there is an answer. There's not. You just have to ask the question. If you were completely mindful, then it would be the same as being completely mindless.
posted by cmoj at 10:15 AM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

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