Mindless to Mindful
Mindful-based schools, mindful medicine, mindful childbirth and parenting, mindful coaching, mindful public relations. It seems that the words mindful and mindfulness are on everyone’s lips these days, although as a practice, mindfulness has been around for at least 2000 years.
Many people associate mindfulness with some form of Buddhist meditation, the practice of being continuously present with one’s experience, a concept which is not incompatible with most of the world’s major religions.
What does mindfulness mean exactly? Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, a meditation-based therapy and the director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine defines it this way, “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Since the 1970’s Kabat-Zinn has conducted extensive research on the effects of mindfulness on peoples’ behavior, physiology, and psychology. The results show positive benefits in many areas of life: stress reduction and decreased anxiety, increased clarity and mental focus, decreased depression and less emotional reactivity, increased relationship satisfaction, increased immunity and overall better quality of life.
However, Kabat-Zinn is quick to point out that a meditation technique is not necessary to become more mindful. “It’s about living your life as if it mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.”
Another expert in the field, Harvard researcher Ellen Langer would wholeheartedly agree. In fact, she has been studying the secular form of mindfulness for more than four decades. Dubbed by many the “mother of mindfulness,” Langer is the author of 11 books, 5 on mindfulness; she defines mindfulness as “the simple act of actively noticing things-with a result of increased health, competence, and happiness.” When we are not actively noticing things, we are on autopilot or acting unconsciously. We are mindless.
In 1979, Langer conducted a landmark study, the “counterclockwise” experiments, that forever influenced the fields of positive psychology, mind-body medicine, aging–even economics to name just a few. A group of men in their eighties was dropped off at a monastery for a week in the rolling hills of New Hampshire-into 1959. The men were asked to live as if it were 1959; they were surrounded by décor and paraphernalia of that era, and were told not to discuss anything occurring after that time. The news and sports they watched on the television was from 20 years earlier. They spoke of their loved ones and lived in every way as if it were 1959.
The results were astonishing. The men showed changes in physiology, affect, and mental alertness. They had lower blood pressure, more dexterity, improved hearing, eyesight and memory, more independence, decrease in diabetes and arthritic changes. They became younger, mentally and physically. Some who arrived with canes walked out carrying their suitcases.
Langer summarizes, “We often let our mindset about aging rule. If you forget something, for example, you say, ‘Ah. That’s because I’m old.’ You don’t engage in lots of activities, because after all you’re too old for them.”
As a young doctor, Deepak Chopra was deeply impacted by Langer’s ‘counterclockwise’ experiments and subsequently incorporated the principles from her findings in his mind-body medicine and anti-aging practice. “In every moment we have the opportunity to awaken…to let go of whatever fear, constriction, and stories are running through our mind as we come fully into the present moment. And it is only in the present moment that we can experience happiness.”
How do we move from Mindless to Mindful?
2.) “Notice-really notice-what you’re sensing in any given moment, the sights, sounds, and smells that ordinarily slip by without reaching your conscious awareness,” continues Kabat-Zinn. Using the discrimination of the mind to notice dramatically reduces the flurry of thoughts which usually accompanies mindless activity.
3.) “Actively notice new things, relinquish previous mindsets, and act on new observations.” According to Ellen Langer this opens you up to new possibilities, new connections, new perspectives and new behavior. Without this we engage in mindless activity, based on old thinking, conclusions and habits. “Most ills people experience are a result of mindlessness.”
4.) “Be fully present while you are eating,” says Langer. Avoid eating in the car, on the go, or while reading or watching TV. As you take the first bite, notice and appreciate the taste and texture, sight and smell of the food, as if you’ve never tasted it before. This improves the quality of digestion, especially if you chew slowly and for longer, thereby increasing the enzyme activity in your mouth and lightening the load on the rest of the digestive system.
If you want to check out some tools for changing your beliefs so you can be more mindful and look at things from a fresh perspective like the men in Ellen Langer’s experiment, check out my coaching page.
You can live the sweet life wherever you are, whoever you’re with, whatever you’re doing. If you can let go of previous conclusions, viewpoints, beliefs, or judgments and be in the present moment this is moving from mindless to mindful.