Of all the 2021 New Year’s resolutions, being more mindful is probably high on many people’s lists. We all want the world to stop spinning and find peace in our own skin. As Michael Franti said, “It’s never too late to start the day over.”
We tend to think mind wandering is due to the onslaught of technology and the stresses of external events. However, neuroscience has shown that the tendency to distraction is not due to something out there, but is an integral part of our wiring. Over the next few blog posts, we will explore the unhelpful tendencies of the mind or what the Buddha called the ‘monkey mind’.
Just this morning, I was on a quiet walk near the water and found myself zoning out to thoughts about an email I forgot to send and how forgetful I have been lately, as well as other signs of aging that I’m experiencing. By the time I realized I had exited the moment I was almost home.
Rather than a New Year’s resolution to be mindful, I suggest setting an intention to deliberately upgrade the brain’s software system. By simply bringing more curiosity and heart-centered kindness to all rigidity and resistance, a softening and rewiring happens in the hardware of the brain. The prefrontal cortex grows new connections, where equanimity can begin to calm the duality of the limbic/default brain.
Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert conducted a study of ‘stimulus-independent thought” (mind wandering) and found that we are distracted almost 50 percent of our waking hours and we don’t notice it because it happens in the default network of the brain.
In their research conclusion, published 2010, Science 330, 923, they write:
“A human mind is a wandering mind
and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.
The ability to think about what is not happening
is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
Mindfulness apps and classes are flooding the internet and after the challenges of 2020, it makes sense that we want to fix the problem of distraction but it can be confusing to know how to actually do that. John Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Center at UMass Medical Center says “an attitude of non-striving is essential for mindfulness”. I recently read someone promoting another mindfulness class with the slogan, ‘Join Us as We Strive for Mindfulness’.
Mindfulness is not a fad or a trend.
Taking a class or downloading an app to learn techniques can be helpful, but if there’s a goal or expectation that ‘doing’ mindfulness will fix something, then it may end up like all the resolutions that are forgotten by Valentine’s Day.
There is no place to get to or goal to be achieved. It is the simple yet profound realization that we are not our thoughts but the one who is aware of the thinking. With practice, we can learn to place attention wherever we like.
For example, mind wandering can sometimes be very helpful. When I write a story or create a new painting, letting my mind make fresh connections is often an important part of the creative process. You may have the experience of trying hard to solve a problem and then having the Aha! moment in the shower…as soon as you stop directly thinking about it. With a little mindfulness, ‘stimulus-independent thought’ can be intentional and beneficial. But when unconscious, thinking can crowd out life experiences and result in rumination and unhealthy behaviors.
The problem isn’t the thinking. Thoughts are important ways we create, invent, express, and learn. The challenge is asking the mind to willingly notice the distraction and tolerate the discomfort of not following every thought.
Conditioned to strive and push forward, it takes practice to tolerate the discomfort of not striving and to give the space between thought and opportunity to arise so we can discover what is actually happening instead of listening to thoughts about what is happening.
Mindfulness doesn’t deal with the content of experience (what happens), it works more with the velocity and depth (how deeply and authentically, we experience what happens).
Space for processing opens possibilities for different approaches to problems and a sense of life being lived through you instead of to you. Breaking the shell of the protective ego softens our rigidity to let real life in. Wholeness and authenticity begin to replace the false self.
In, The Book of Awakening, philosopher and poet, Mark Nepo writes, “This is the ongoing purpose of full attention: to find a thousand ways to be pierced into wholeness.”
If your New Year Resolution includes living life more mindful, may we recommend the following tips for a Reset?
Tips for A Mindfulness Reset:
-Invite stillness and notice what is happening inside and out. If there is resistance, meet it with self-compassion.
-If you find your mind wandering, bring attention to breathing in and out through the heart.
-When stressed, try surrendering to the living moment. Meet the situation with a ‘don’t know’ mind. (Like the Taoist farmer, ask yourself, “Is this good or bad? Who knows?”)
-Remind yourself that there is no past or future. Life only happens in this moment, and you can start the day (or your life) right now.
Feel free to offer any comments or share ways you reset yourself when feeling contracted. I also invite you to attend my virtual Mindfulness Meditation class every Tuesday evening, you can find more information here: https://learn.edu/events/
So wild flowers will come up where you are.
You have been stony for too many years.
Try something different.
Blog is written by Kimberly Ruggiero.
Kimberly Ruggiero is a long time meditator. She works as a transformational coach and artist. She has a BS in Chemistry, MA in Consciousness Studies and studied at the Lyme Academy College of Fine Art. Kim has training in MBSR and is certified through the Engaged Mindfulness Institute. She works as a Program Coordinator in Integrative Health and Healing and facilitates a Mindfulness Meditation Group at TGI – every Tuesday evening online – https://learn.edu/events/