Apr 22

Mindfulness in the 21st Century

Mindfulness in the 21st Century

The reality of all of our lives is that they contain suffering, difficulties and problems. It is also our reality that we all wish to be happy. So, while this is not exclusive to the 21st century the reality, particularly of mental suffering has been compounded more than ever before. We must first understand where true well-being comes from and that it is from within ourselves not from external means that we bring this into our lives. Despite the enormous influences telling us otherwise, it is a complete error to believe that the more we consume the happier we will be. It is not what we take from the world that makes us happy it is what we bring to it from ourselves.

What is therefore the relevance of mindfulness in the 21st century? The inputs into our lives and therefore minds have become vastly more in number and the degree of complexity. As a result, our minds are far more unhealthy suffering from anxiety, worry, stress, depression and manifold other symptoms many of which were never so much of an issue before. Lack of mindfulness/awareness within our minds is one of the chief if not the root of many of these unhealthy mental issues.

Our current century involves evolving from a natural environment to one full of artificial stimuli. Phones, schedules, to-do lists, work schedules, deadlines, computers our external influences have multiplied beyond recognition. All this is moving us more and more out of touch with ourselves, our reality and our inbuilt awareness.

Losing touch with ourselves, our awareness, our sense of community and human interaction as well as the natural environment has left us with the problems of stress, anxiety, and depression.

The principal reason for this as mentioned is that external influences have increased enormously all of which pull us out of ourselves and fool us into believing that the external world is where happiness lies.

Stress is defined as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. It is a mental reaction to the manifold external stimuli which were in nature few and required for survival to countless and which are mostly unrequired for survival.

Stress also arises due to bringing our long ‘to-do lists’ from our long-term memory all at once into our short-term memory… no wonder it cannot cope.

While these circumstances trigger this mental reaction, it is the inability of the mind to effectively deal with these that is the root of the problem. Changing our external world in the main is impossible to achieve but if we can deal with our mind’s ability to deal with these circumstances then we can be happy in any external environment.

The essential point here in terms of where stress comes from is to emphasize that it is our own minds that create stress, not the external environment. That means the solution is in our own hands not beyond our control. As long as we still believe happiness and suffering come from outside ourselves we have no hope or chance to control these things. When we understand the root is from within than we have somewhere to begin working.

Rather than ourselves being in control of our thoughts they control us. There is no awareness that we are more than our thoughts. Without awareness, there is no perspective that thoughts are just ‘thoughts’ we do not have to identify with them or become them. That also those very thoughts are creating a reality that is just that…’a reality created by our thoughts’ quite apart and disconnected with the actual reality. Without this perspective which awareness allows we are spun around in wandering thoughts taking us wherever they wish and among this chaos we manifest stress. Our foundation here is to learn we are not our thoughts we are more than that, we have a level of awareness below these and not becoming or identifying with our thoughts is not only more skilful but eminently do-able. We cultivate awareness to take a step back from the thoughts be the observer just as if we were watching a show etc. In such a way we learn not to be controlled by our thoughts.

Most of our daily activities have become automated so that they are carried out without awareness. We drive, eat, wash, cook, walk and work in a state of mind performing functions without any actual awareness of those activities. How many of the tasks we performed during the day can we remember at the end of it? This shows how little knowledge of what we are doing there is. By definition, this means we are acting in a state of our minds and are never in the present moment when on autopilot therefore technically we are never living in the only moment we can actually be alive in. This leaves us feeling disjointed out of place and uncomfortable even in the seemingly most enjoyable moments of our lives.

We have an inbuilt fight or flight response that happens in a natural environment due to real threats to our life or habitat. The body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous systems stimulate the adrenal glands triggering the release of catecholamines, which include adrenaline and noradrenaline. This increases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. After the threat is gone, it takes between 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to its pre-arousal levels.

This same inbuilt response is activated through non-actual threats to ourselves. A traffic jam, being criticised, being late for an appointment, feeling guilt over what we have said or done. These and so many other daily occurrences are not at all life-threatening, yet our inbuilt fight or flight response is being activated by them and contributing to our stress anxiety worry, etc. Our own minds are creating this illusion of these things being so vital when they are not. Again, awareness is the key to changing this.

Out of this response arises the trinity of self-criticism, self-isolation and self-absorption. We attack ourselves for what went wrong (I’m an idiot), flee from ourselves through distraction into work alcohol tv phones etc. or get stuck in our heads and ‘why me’ etc.

Depression: Reminiscing over negative things from the past not letting them go and feeling that things will never change is primarily what leads to depression. Although certain physiological conditions certainly contribute to depression it is primarily an emotional state and therefore arising from and is treatable with our mental processes.

Anxiety: concern with what could happen in the future, the manifold ways in which things ‘could’ go wrong primarily leads to anxiety. Worrying about ourselves, our situation, our status family friends, etc., and how these could manifest negatively in the future creates this state of mind.

We can see therefore that both of these mind states are mentally created predominantly based on complete illusions without any basis in reality. Particularly the reality of the present moment.

If we are in the present moment, not only are we experiencing the only moment we can actually live in, but these illusions and the depression and anxiety they create cannot arise.

As the previous note creating fantasies related to the past and future lead to anxiety, worry depression, etc. and, adds to the inputs which initiate our fight or flight response and thereby lead to stress. Our foundation in dealing with this is the cultivation of awareness and this can be done both within and outside of meditation. (see basic meditation notes handout 1)

The mind much very much like the body gets stronger with practice. The more we cultivate awareness the more we have it in our mind life and daily experience.

A calm unagitated mind is a healthy happy mind. Just like water with dirt in it when agitated the dirt spins around and there is no clarity. Once the dirt has settled and the water becomes still there is clarity. The mind is the same when agitated through stress etc. there is no clarity, no peace, and no health. Acting within such a mental state is like acting when crazy or when drunk, exhausted or disturbed in some other way. Clearly, nothing constructive will come from such a mind. Not being able to sleep and lying awake at three in the morning is clearly not the time to make life decisions. In the same way, when the mind is ‘crazed’ through stress etc., one’s actions are not helpful to oneself or others. We get less done etc.

Conversely, a calm settled mind deals constructively with our daily life issues, with this type of mind even the problems of the day become easy and we make considered effective decisions.

There is no question even amongst the most conservative scientific medical professionals that our minds play a huge role in our physical health. It is increasingly widely accepted that actually, the state of our minds is the single biggest factor and influence on our physical health. Experiential practice with our mental health shows us very quickly how even our small niggling day-to-day body aches and pains are almost all connected with our mental state. We can reduce and eliminate so many of these health issues by working with the mind.

On a larger scale, life-threatening disease such as cancer has been shown again and again to be most effectively treated mentally. This is not just a position taken by the alternative medical community but is almost universally accepted among mainstream medical practitioners.

We can see when some people first sit down to meditate they cannot sit still and afterward often complain of backaches leg aches etc. These issues when people begin to try to calm the mind are very clear instances of mental unrest the ‘aches’ they complain of are actually mental problems manifesting as physical issues.

We only actually have one moment in which we live-the present one. If we are being in the past or future, we are not actually living we are existing in a dream illusive state, not with ourselves and our actual reality.

Anger arises due to fantasies created by the mind of wrong done to us (see handout on anger). When we are in the present moment these fantasies cannot abide.

Worry normally relates to problems from the past, anxiety normally relates to issues that ‘might’ arise in the future (see handouts on these)

Physical pain is in reality just heat and movement within the body. It is also compounded and increased dramatically by the mind not accepting and fighting against this pain. This can be dramatically reduced by being with our reality in the present.

Time appears to pass so quickly because we are never actually alive to things when we are living in the past or future. Why does time pass so much slower for children for example because life in the present moment and therefore everything they see is new? For us, everything is also new, but we don’t see it that way therefore this also makes time seem to go so much quicker. Why should we pay attention to things which we have seen before is the way we operate.

Without the all-consuming distractions of living in the past or future, we can be creative, we can be free to develop new ideas and better ways to be. Our whole life becomes joyful and fun even the difficult parts.

What do we mean by being mindful? It involves staying in the present moment without judging what occurs as good or bad, right or wrong. Like anything in life, this improves with practice and once one has experienced the joy of the mind staying in the present it becomes easy to want to keep developing this quality of mind.

Some of the benefits mindfulness can bring to our life include: a. stepping out of the thought stream; stepping back we gain perspective we can see how thoughts are conditioned, and how they change. How we create our reality. b. Being with discomfort; turning our attention to physical and mental discomfort helps us to tolerate and accept it. We can get beyond our instinctive habit of immediate personal comfort and avoiding pain. Observance and not identifying the pain as me both assist with this. c. Disengaging from automatic responses; we experience the arising of a sensation, thought or feeling followed by the urge to act in response to it followed by overt behaviour of body and speech. Now we can pause to evaluate if the response is appropriate or not. d. Transpersonal Insight: enabling us to go beyond the prison of ego and self-obsession and see the interdependence of all things that we are in essence ‘an orchestra without a conductor’ e. moment to moment observation of the mind’s antics; we see how we project onto others and do not see things clearly, we notice our minds stereotyping, judging, jealously competing, idealizing, denigrating and doing other not-so-noble things that are part of human nature. f. seeing how the mind creates suffering; how our minds create our own heaven or hell. Seeing this process and how we push away unpleasant and grasp to pleasant helps to relieve this process. g. embracing opposites, our views of ourselves and the world are merely mental constructions, I’m good, bad, stupid, mean, kind, whatever labels we give to ourselves and others. Seeing this allows us to let go of these constructs and be kinder to ourselves and to others. h. developing compassion; partly by showing us how connected we are, how we all suffer the same and thus arise compassion and just as our own hand is hurting wishing to relieve all others suffering as well as our own.

We all fall prey to this way of thinking on many occasions. When on Monday morning we are already looking forward to Friday evening, when we are living for our holidays, when we are waiting to recover from the headache, the illness, the new car, new job. The thought in our minds that ‘when I get this then I will be happy’ ‘when I recover from this then….’ etc. As long as we think like this we are never happy in the moment because we are searching for happiness somewhere else. Our practice will definitely lead to us being just as happy on Monday morning as we are on Friday night. If not, it is not effective.

Beginner’s mind is living with our present moment experience. We see things from this perspective as a child does for the first time. The reason for this is that in reality, everything we are seeing is actually new. All compounded phenomena change moment to moment they are in reality new in every moment. We close this perspective off with our minds stuck in the past or future and are unable to see things as they are. Being present and mindful always brings this reality into our minds.

Here let’s try to see the difference begins with some breathing meditation that allows the mind to calm down. Begin to become aware and notice the mind how it feels when agitated. For example, bring a difficult emotion from the past into your mind, relive the emotion feel it in the mind and the body. Then see how it feels when it calms down. Experience and contrast this difference.

The differences that happen in the brain are reinforced from a scientific perspective. Scientific evidence shows that our brain is unlike any other organ in the body–it’s designed to adapt constantly. The brain is not static. It is meant to change over its entire lifespan.

By focusing on wholesome thoughts, for example, and directing our intentions in those ways, we can potentially influence the plasticity of our brains and shape them in ways that can be beneficial. See handout (4)

Here intention can be on many levels and one should at least aim for the highest far-reaching level even if that is not achieved. The same practice, i.e. a meditation session, can be done with various degrees of intention; i. for peace and calm in one’s mind just for today. ii. For one’s own long-term mental health iii. To achieve mental health for oneself to be more beneficial in the world and to others in the long term e.g. one’s friends & family, strangers and even those we find difficult. Clearly aiming for the last intention is far more meaningful far-reaching and profound. Even if not immediately achievable it is the best one to aim for.

Set your intention what would you like to achieve? These may include being kinder, more compassionate, more focused, making better clearer decisions, and having better relationships with others. Or less stress, anxiety, depression and more joy and clarity in life.

Think about how you would like your life to be. Make your motivation as vast as possible in such a way it will include everything we want it to include.

Remember the root of bringing everything positive into our lives is awareness….

As the expression says, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating!’ don’t just take our word for it. Try bringing this awareness and mindfulness into your mind and life to see how it resonates with you. Experience the freedom that comes from not needing to be the slave of your thoughts being in control having the joy of living within the present moment.

Like anything else in life, practice makes perfect keep going with this on as regular a basis as you can. Just 15 minutes a day of simple meditation has been proven to change your life, rewire the brain to be happier, calmer kinder….allow yourself the chance to experience this!

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