Mindfulness is a state where we are aware, accepting, and as non-judgmental as we can be of “what is” right now. Meditation is a tool through which we train our brains to be aware, concentrated, and accepting.
Mindfulness starts with being aware of the present moment. Where are your thoughts? What are you feeling? It’s important to ask, “What are you mindful of?” and “How does this awareness benefit you?”
People often wonder if mindfulness and mediation are the same thing. Mindfulness is a state where we are aware, accepting, and non-judgmental as we can be of “what is” right now. Meditation is a method through which we train our brains to be aware and concentrated. We meditate to become more flexible and tolerant to the present moment.
Sitting meditation was key to opening me to every moment of my life. Prior to practicing sitting meditation, I spent most of my life in the future. Sitting teaches us how to relate to life directly, so we can truly experience the present moment, free from our perceptions. We do not meditate to be comfortable or calm, we meditate to have an open, compassionate attentiveness to whatever is going on. This way we learn to stay with ourselves no matter what is happening, without putting labels of good and bad, right and wrong, pure and impure, on top of our experience.
Here are some of the things we see when we meditate:
- Our mind is going a million miles an hour thinking about all kinds of things, and it just happens without any effort on our part. Thoughts just come up on their own. We can choose what we want to do with the thoughts, but we cannot stop them from arising.
- We notice when we are spinning off, hardening to circumstances and people, or somehow closing-down to life. In sitting meditation, our minds slow down enough to see through all the mental chatter to recognize our tendencies.
- We become aware of our tendency to lay a lot of labels, opinions, and judgments on top of what’s happening.
- Habitual patterns that limit our life become more apparent.
- We realize that thinking through all the events and to-dos of our life doesn’t provide us with control and security. There are many things that we have no control over no matter how much we think about controlling them.
- Each moment is completely unknown and unique. Discomforts don’t last forever. This helps us realize that we can handle emotional discomfort and the trials and tribulations of life.
- We detect our resistance to just being here, even to simply enjoying the present moment. Our minds keep pushing us to worry, ruminate, fantasize, plan, or do something instead of just enjoying being in the present moment. By sitting with the present moment, we can train our brains to relax and allow us to do nothing but be.
Judgment & Negativity Bias
Paying attention is not enough. We also need to look at the quality of attention. Are we accepting what is? Or are we judging whether we like, dislike, or can ignore what is happening?
For me, non-judgmental awareness is a north star. Something I aim for but probably can’t achieve. I want to increase the amount of time I am non-judgmental. And I want to decrease the amount of time between when I are judgmental and when I realize I am judgmental.
Our brains were designed to be judgmental and look for the negative. In the caveman days, continually scanning for danger was necessary to stay alive. Although we don’t have to worry about a saber tooth tiger anymore, our minds are still designed to be Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good.
We can choose to pay attention to the moment with kindness and curiosity. Or we can choose to pay attention with irritability and judgment. If we choose kindness and curiosity, we strengthen those neural pathways. If we choose irritability and judgment, we strengthen those neural pathways. Mindfulness is about noticing where your mind has wandered and bringing it back to what’s right in front of you. You may not like what is in front of you, but you accept that it is.
To counteract our negativity bias, we can practice taking in the good. This practice consists of finding something pleasant and savoring it for 20 to 30 seconds. I found that by practicing taking in the good, I noticed the beauty in the world I had been ignoring. Another way is to practice gratitude.
Life doesn’t always turn out how we want it to. What would happen if you stopped wishing reality was different and got curious about it instead? You simply recognize each of the feelings that arises and notice what sensation arises in your body with that feeling. See if you can drop the story and just sit with the sensation. What arises in your mind as you sit with that sensation? By getting curious, you may find that underneath an irritation lies a repressed story or feeling. And if you sit with the sensation, both the sensation and the feeling lose their power.
Meditation is all about finding a mindful middle. We neither suppress thoughts nor are entirely lost in them. We don’t try to stop the thoughts, but we don’t get lost in them either. The goal is to be aware of our thoughts. Our minds will wander. Each time we realize our mind has wandered; we experience a moment of mindfulness. The more you practice paying attention to the present moment when you’re calm and happy, the easier and more effective it’ll be when you’re freaking out. The purpose of meditation is not to be a good meditator but to train our brains to be mindful.
Mindfulness enables us to make wise choices. We have so many stressful thought patterns, it’s hard to see through the mental clutter. So we get confused and react instead of responding. We are more likely to be unskillful, perhaps saying something we later regret. When we practice mindfulness, we are more likely to be aware of our reactive tendencies and catch ourselves, take a conscious breath and choose a more skillful way to respond.