In his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zim defines mindfulness as the “art of conscious living”. The book dives further into the practical application of mindfulness, how to cultivate it, and the different practices and exercises. However, this specific post will concentrate on the importance of mindfulness meditation, why it is important, and how it can improve your life.
Many people drift from one moment to the next without having little control over their thoughts and impulses which dwell either in the past or in the future, moments coated with desires, needs, wants, disappointments, and failures. When you constantly dwell in those two realms, life passes by. In reality, only the present moment is alive. Focus on this moment in time and exert your influence right now so you can experience it. Mindfulness practice is a tool that helps you to be fully conscious of the present moment.
Fundamentally, mindfulness is a simple concept. Its power lies in its practice and its applications. Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives but also fail to realize the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth and transformation.
Instead of allowing the unconscious, automatic behaviours and habits to direct your energy or your fears and insecurities to move you, mindfulness can help you control your actions and make decisions based on reason and logic. This is achieved by using your attention.
When we commit ourselves to paying attention in an open way, without falling prey to our own likes and dislikes, opinions and prejudices, projections and expectations, new possibilities open up and we have a chance to free ourselves from the straitjacket of unconsciousness.
When you aren’t bound by past thought processes and narratives, you can then act upon present needs.
The spirit of mindfulness is to practice for its own sake, and just to take each moment as it comes—pleasant or unpleasant, good, bad, or ugly—and then work with that because it is what is present now.
Too often meditation is confused with the state of being calm and relaxed. Mistakenly believing that if you aren’t Zen, then you can’t be meditative. Although that is one aspect of it, mindfulness can be practiced at any moment, regardless of the emotional state you are in because human beings experience a wide variety of emotions and feelings and it is in the acknowledgment of these different states where mindfulness dwells and not in channeling yourself towards only one or two states of emotions or feelings.
Another misconception about meditation is that you are trying to dull the experience of life. That you are aiming to become unemotional so that the events of life don’t disturb you. There is that stereotype of a monk disconnected from society, living minimally, who sits with his feet crossed and meditates all day. That is unrealistic. Meditation strengthens your foundation so that you aren’t constantly thrown around by the shifting tides of life, but meditation is not about shutting things out. Rather, it is about building the ability to handle the tides of life. So, when something unexpected happens, you aren’t reactionary, but instead you can fall back upon your mindfulness training and observe your thoughts and impulses before making a decision.
Stress is part of life, part of being human, intrinsic to the human condition itself. But that does not mean that we have to be victims in the face of large forces in our lives. We can learn to work with them, understand them, find meaning in them, make critical choices, and use their energies to grow in strength, wisdom, and compassion. A willingness to embrace and work with what is lies at the core of all meditation practice.
Mindfulness isn’t about shielding yourself from life’s difficulties. Rather, it is about how to deal with the inevitable stresses and pressure, whether that comes as changing your perspective or controlling your thoughts, or simply accepting the new events.
You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.
Mindfulness can also help improve your self-control by examining and dissecting your thoughts before acting upon them.
Rather, it is to understand the nature of our thoughts as thoughts and our relationship to them, so that they can be more at our service rather than the other way round.
You are observing your thoughts instead of thinking different ones. Through observation you can then pick up on patterns of thinking, question the repetitive thoughts that come, or see if your thoughts are beneficial for you.
There aren’t many things you can control in life. Much of life is outside of your influence. But how you think and what you think about is under your control and you need to exert your authority over them so that your thought process can align with the direction you want your life to head towards.
Another benefit of mindfulness meditation is that it can help cultivate patience.
Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
Without patience, you cannot see what the next step should be. Patience is having the ability to act at the right moment. Moments come and go, but if you can sit and wait, then you can filter through the different emotions, opportunities, or moments that present themselves and choose the one that would be the most beneficial for you. Instead of carelessly jumping on or acting upon the very first thing.
As you attend the gentle flow of your own breathing during times of formal meditation practice, notice the occasional pull of the mind to get on to something else, to want to fill up your time or change what is happening. Instead of losing yourself at these times, try to sit patiently with the breath and with a keen awareness of what is unfolding in each moment, allowing it to unfold as it will, without imposing anything on it…just watching, just breathing…embodying stillness, becoming patience.
Don’t give in to your first impulse. The more you resist, the more you can then create this narrative that you are a patient individual. That patience is one of your virtues. This is of importance because often what you tell yourself is what you become. If you reinforce the fact that you aren’t a patient individual, then you will act impatiently. But if you start the narrative that you are a patient individual and you can source this belief with your meditative practices, then you will act with patience.
Another benefit of mindfulness meditation is that you can improve your ability to concentrate.
Concentration can be practiced either hand in hand with mindfulness or separately. You can think of concentration as the capacity of the mind to sustain an unwavering attention on one object of observation. It is cultivated by attending to one thing, such as the breath, and just limiting one’s focus to that.
Distractions are abundant in life. Especially in the current technological age. There are more apps and platforms trying to distract you from your task than ever before. In such times, those who can be patient and focus on one thing for an extended period of time can benefit tremendously.
With extended practice, the mind tends to become better and better at staying on the breath, or noticing even the earliest impulse to become distracted by something else, and either resisting its pull in the first place and staying on the breath, or quickly returning to it.
In Sanskrit, concentration is called samadhi, or onepointedness.
You can practice onepointedness at any moment in your life. You don’t need to have a designated time and place to improve that ability. Even as you go about your day, you can focus your thoughts on your breath and keep it concentrated for a couple of breaths at a time. This can be viewed as repetitions, similar to the repetitions you do when you exercise in order to strengthen and build muscle.
Lastly, mindfulness can aid you in becoming more disciplined.
After all, the thinking mind always has the very credible-sounding excuse that since you will not be accomplishing anything and there’s no real pressure to do it this morning, and perhaps real reasons not to, why not catch the extra sleep which you know you need now, and start tomorrow? To overcome such totally predictable opposition from other corners of the mind, you need to decide the night before that you are going to wake up, no matter what your thinking comes up with. This is the flavor of true intentionality and inner discipline. You do it simply because you committed to yourself to do it, and you do it at the appointed time, whether part of the mind feels like it or not. After a while, the discipline becomes a part of you. It’s simply the new way you choose to live. It is not a “should,” it doesn’t involve forcing yourself. Your values and your actions have simply shifted.
Qualities like patience, concentration and discipline are characteristics. They can be improved, but equally, they can worsen. You can become more disciplined, but you can also lose your discipline. That muscle also atrophies. So, mindfulness practice can be used in your life to keep those muscles active. Mindfulness can work as a tool to sharpen those qualities and improve your character.