BOOKS - July 2019
The Benefits of Mindfulness
An excerpt from the book From Suffering to Peace
by Mark Coleman
Studies have shown that we spend much of the time on autopilot, going about our day without being very present. In a 2010 study at Harvard, psychologists concluded that our minds are thinking about something else, rather than being present to the task at hand, 47 percent of the time! That means, for almost half of our waking life, we are not really here. No wonder there is an explosion of interest in mindfulness practice, which helps counter such habits. In that distracted mode, we miss so much of the precious and important moments of life.
We also mistakenly assume we see things as they are, but the truth is we usually don’t perceive clearly at all. We filter our experience with all kinds of bias, judgments, and preferences. We swim in a river of likes and dislikes, ceaselessly running after one shiny thing and rejecting other less-pleasing experiences. This creates a never-ending push-pull conflict with life that all too often leads to unnecessary stress.
However, this doesn’t need to be the case. Through training in awareness, we can learn to observe both our experience and the often turbulent reactions we may have to it. Over time, this clarity enables us to be less driven by our knee-jerk impulses and thus make wiser choices in our lives. This freedom from reactivity is one of the potent outcomes of mindfulness practice. It is why the practice was originally taught and developed, as a way to break free from the painful reactive cycles we so often find ourselves in.
For example, my client Jenny, by her own admission, worries a lot. She gets particularly anxious about her sixteen-year-old twin daughters, who are starting to date and go to parties. If they come home later at night than they promised, her mind whips into a frenzy of terror, imagining all kinds of catastrophic scenarios, fantasizing about terrible things that might happen to her beloved children. Yet she also knows that her daughters are street-smart, responsible kids who aren’t reckless and don’t use drugs. On nights when they return home late, what Jenny’s mind does with all of that conflicting data is the difference between her peace of mind and a mild panic attack. Through mindfulness practice, she has learned to recognize and not buy into the scary thoughts her mind creates, and she is therefore able to be more grounded and steady even in this anxiety-provoking situation.
Another important facet of mindfulness is clear comprehension. This quality helps us discern not just what is happening in the present but what thoughts, speech, and actions are skillful or helpful and which result in pain or stress. With this clarity, we can learn to act in ways that support well-being and cease to engage in actions that cause unnecessary harm — in the same way we quickly drop a hot pan we pick up accidentally on the stove. We can’t always avoid pain, but we learn to hold on less and to not pursue things that cause unnecessary anguish.
In this way mindfulness helps foster discernment and wisdom. The poet William Blake summed up this principle rather well when he wrote these oft-quoted words about how we skillfully or unskillfully relate to pleasure: “He who binds to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy / He who kisses the joy as it flies / lives in eternity’s sunrise.” It is the clarity of awareness that reveals how our desire to hold and keep what brings us delight can be the very thing that causes us to experience pain and loss. Experience is ephemeral and always changing; all joys eventually fade. But we only multiply the hurt if, in folly, we grasp after pleasure. Rather, as Blake says, we can appreciate joy when it arrives, knowing its presence is fleeting.
Such a light way of being with experience is a perfect example of what awareness makes possible. Without that clarity and wisdom, we so easily get caught in the pain of attachment. The reverse is also true. We sometimes despair when pain arrives, forgetting that it, too, is fleeting, and our reactivity to it only extends our distress. When Jenny imagines worst-case scenarios, this just compounds the anxiety of her daughters’ late return. By learning to simply be with her own unpleasant feelings, Jenny can save herself all manner of unnecessary woes.
By bringing direct awareness to any aspect of experience, we can develop clarity and insight. This, in essence, is the deeper purpose of mindfulness — to help us understand and know experience, ourselves, and reality just as they are. The wisdom that arises from this can facilitate a freedom from a painful contention with life. We will explore this theme extensively in later chapters.
How does this work in practice? Take an everyday scenario: being stuck in traffic. Whenever I drive to work in the San Francisco Bay Area, I often encounter traffic, which can threaten to make me late. If I’m aware, I can sense the tension in my gut and shoulders as soon as I see the cars ahead slowing down. I can also observe my self-judgments, such as critical thoughts over why I didn’t leave earlier or anticipate the morning traffic. I may notice that my anxiety and tension increase as I anticipate the frustration of my clients if I’m late for our meeting.
These inner reactions just compound my stress. However, if I remain unaware of these reactions, they are more likely to grow, and I am likely to feel even more burdened. Instead of just being late, I will arrive at the office anxious, irritated, and ill-prepared to work with anyone. However, if I become aware of being triggered — of the tension in my body, of my racing thoughts and worry, of my impatience and self-judgment — I can make wiser choices about the best course of action. Mindfulness does not make the traffic go away, although we wish it would. Instead it provides tools to recognize stress and reactivity and to find skillful ways to work with them. And the good news is this skill is immanently portable. We can practice it anywhere, even in our morning commute!
Excerpted from the book From Suffering to Peace. Copyright ©2019 by Mark Coleman. Printed with permission from New World Library—newworldlibrary.com.
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Mark Coleman is the author of From Suffering to Peace, Make Peace with Your Mind, and Awake in the Wild. He is the founder of the Mindfulness Institute and has an MA in clinical psychology. Mark has guided students on five continents as a corporate consultant, counselor, meditation teacher, and wilderness guide. He lives in Northern California. Visit him online at MarkColeman.org.