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Mindfulness: Paying Attention to Your Life

Jon Kabat-Zinn is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He teaches mindfulness as a technique to help people cope with stress, anxiety, pain, and illness. Kabat-Zinn has dedicated much of his life to researching the medical benefits of mindfulness, which is now having a major influence on the practice of psychotherapy. So, what is mindfulness? Kabat-Zinn defines it as:

"Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally."

The simplicity of this definition belies the profoundness of mindfulness and its benefits for mental health, stress management, and emotional regulation. To be mindful we must choose to be an observer of our own life as it unfolds in the present moment without judging what we see as good or bad. To do this we must find the quiet place within us that exists between our thoughts, and then develop an "observing self" that can detach from the drama of our life and just "see," in a manner similar to how seasoned journalists calmly and nonjudmentally report the facts of a dramatic story unfolding before them.

Kabat-Zinn created a guided meditation, called the Mountain Meditation, in which he instructs us to imagine being  a massive mountain. He asks us to visualize the wind,Mindfulness is about paying attention to your life. Photographer unknown. rain, lightning, snow, sleet, and hail battering the mountain, but points out that the drama on the surface does not touch the mass within the mountain. He then suggests that there exists within each of us an inner calm, an observing self, that is unaffected by the drama of our lives - just as the core of the mountain is unaffected by the changing weather on the surface. He then encourages us to work on developing our observing self as a way to improve self-care, stress management, and health.

Here is an example. Imagine you are walking in front of a class to give a speech, and are totally drawn into the drama swirling within you - the scary thoughts ("I am going to fail," "I am going to make a fool of myself"), upsetting images (seeing yourself falling or being laughed at), associated emotions (fear, embarrassment), and accompanying body sensations (sweaty palms, shortness of breath), all interacting to create a sense of impending doom, just as if you were walking down death row. In short, you have so distorted the reality of the present moment that you have transformed a relatively benign situation into an execution. This mindlessness, or what Kabat-Zinn calls "automatic pilot," is how we frequently stress ourselves out and make ourselves sick, both mentally and physically. But Kabat-Zinn suggests there is a better way.

Now, once again, imagine walking in front of that same class, but this time being sufficiently aware of the rise in your stress level to intentionally choose to switch from mindlessness to mindfulness. Thus, you intentionally begin observing your rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, sweaty palms, scary thoughts, upsetting images, shaky legs, the audience, the smells, and anything else you can experience in the moment from the calm place within you - the observing self. You accept nonjudmentally that your body, thoughts, and emotions are reacting intensely to the external stimuli of your classmates, but you do not buy into the drama. Instead, you choose to remain in the moment as the observing self. As such, you "see" your breathing as shallow, and quite naturally respond by breathing more deeply, which begins to calm you down. By remaining in the observing self and not getting sucked into the scary thoughts and images that fuel your exaggerated fears, you continue to calm down, as if slowly turning off the gas to a stovetop burner. And now, from the calm observing self, you are able to "see" the audience more realistically - not as executioners, but simply as other human beings with vulnerabilities just like your own.

By experiencing the situation mindfully through your senses, you allow the "wisdom of your being" to respond naturally to what is, rather than react mindlessly to the distorted, self-created images and thoughts in your head that bear little resemblance to the present situation or moment. Mindfulness allows you to see things more clearly in any situation, so you can respond more effectively, rather than react in knee-jerk fashion to the distortions and false images of mindlessness. Mindfulness allows you to see and respond.

And there is more. By practicing mindfulness on a regular basis, you come to see how your thoughts, images, emotions, and body can all inter-react to create emotional instability and stress, and how mindfulness can greatly enhance emotional stability by keeping you in touch with the observing self - the part of you that knows how to self-regulate your being. Unfortunately, you do not have access to the self-regulating abilities of the observing self when  you are lost in the drama taking place in your head. Thus, if your life feels like one continuous drama, you are probably disconnected from the observing self and most likely stressed out much of the time. The practice of mindfulness can return you to your senses through the observing self, allowing you to see things as they are, which is a primary source of wisdom - the wisdom of your being.

To some this may sound like hocus pocus, but it is not. With our highly evolved brains, we humans have made the mistake of believing that we are our thinking minds. In fact, we are not. We are the part of our being that exists between our thoughts and is capable of observing our thoughts. Our thinking mind is simply a tool - a very sophisticated biocomputer for problem solving. But the rest of our mind self-regulates our blood pressure, organs, and other bodily systems without us ever paying much notice. This is the wisdom of the organism. This is the wisdom of your being.

By over-valuing and over-identifying with our thinking minds, however, we have come to believe that everything we think is true and important, but that is not the case. Our thinking mind constantly generates thoughts. That is just what it does. Some thoughts are helpful, and some are not. The trick is to figure out which thoughts to pay attention to and which ones to detach from. A basic rule of thumb is this: Our thinking mind is most helpful when we are analyzing from a calm or neutral emotional state, and it is least helpful when we are analyzing from an upset emotional state. Therefore, it is rarely helpful to try to think our way out of emotional upsetness. Instead, it is much more helpful to intentionally switch from analyzing to mindfulness so we can "see" what is going on and respond more appropriately by utilizing the wisdom of the organism.

Mindfulness allows us to see things as they are without filtering them through our defenses, biases, prejudices, and expectations. Mindfulness does not mean we necessarily like or condone what we see; it simply means we refuse to deny or filter what we see. Mindfulness is about seeing what is, so we have the most accurate information possible upon which to base our decisions. Mindfulness replaces denial and distortion with the clarity of acceptance, which leads to wisdom and better choices for ourselves. For related topics, see meditation, taming the mind, spam of the mind, and stress management.

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"Our very life depends on everything's recurring till we answer from within."  Robert Frost