Mindfulness and the Art of Living
From the Perspective of a Clinical Psychologist
1. What Is Mindfulness?
2. Getting Your Practice Started
3. The Attitudes of Mindfulness
4. Emphasize Your Body
5. The Goals of Practice
6. A Stable Mind
7. Mindfulness Principles
8. Informal Practice
FURTHERING YOUR PRACTICE
9. How’s Your Practice Going?
10. Furthering Your Understanding
11. Meditation Is a Body Practice
13. Objects of Mindfulness
14. Six Pillars of Meditation
15. Artful Practice
MINDFULNESS AND THE ART OF LIVING
16. Review and Introduction
17. My Philosophical Stance
18. Bring It
19. The Quality of Your Relatedness
20. Your Personal Power
21. Working with Difficult Feelings and Hurtful Thoughts
22. Premeditated, Successful Agency
23. The Results of Practice
25. Spirituality: Beyond Ideas and Beyond Self
There are too many ideas about mindfulness in the public arena. Some are commonplace and hackneyed and others commercialized; most distort and confuse the understanding of naïve consumers and offend the sensibilities of the well-informed. At the same time, there are the illuminating words of many great mindfulness teachers — some from centuries ago, some from decades ago, and many from teachers alive today. Why add this book?
Because I believe I have a unique take on mindfulness as well as something new to say. What I have to say is informed by what I have learned in the context of my work as a clinical psychologist, even while my clinical work is informed by what I have learned in my mindfulness practice. But more significantly, both are illuminated by an explicit and mature philosophy of life that has taken me decades to develop.
This book is meant to serve as an introduction for those new to the concept and the practice of mindfulness. It is often instructional. It is also intended for experienced meditators. For them, it offers new ways of thinking about how mindfulness fits into the creation of a good life and new ideas about the application of mindfulness to emotional health.
. . .
I got into meditation as a sophomore at Syracuse University. I started meditating, truthfully, because I was having panic attacks that began after I saw a horror movie. (The Exorcist — I don’t recommend it.) The panic attacks happened only at night. (I had a fear of the dark as a child too.) It was bizarre to march around my university campus feeling fine, and then, as the sun began to go down, feel a brewing apprehension that the fear was coming back. It was as if I too was a character in a horror movie.
I was too scared to be alone at night and could hardly enter a dark stairwell or empty bathroom without having a panic attack. I survived the night by walking all over campus looking for other night owls, and would find them at an all-night card game in a dorm room or at a pool table in the dorm basement, or I would hang with the security guard sitting at the front desk.
Sure enough, as morning came and the sky lightened, the fear would magically lift, and I could not make it come back even if I tried. I was anxiety-free for the day, until the sky would darken and it would all start again. I started to sleep through my morning classes, and you can imagine what happened to my grades. I was in crisis.
I knew absolutely nothing about psychology at the time. I saw a clinical psychologist at the university counseling center. What he said was worthless to me, so I stopped seeing him after three visits. I had no choice, it seemed, but to take my welfare into my own hands, so what did I do? I headed to the university library.
Because of the almost mythological character of my fear, I was sure that the problem I was facing was a spiritual one (I was raised in a secular household), and paced the stacks of religion and philosophy books, pulling one after another off the shelves if they caught my attention. It was the book Zen and Japanese Culture by D. T. Suzuki that hit the right note, particularly the ideas about satori (enlightenment experiences). To put it roughly, I thought I would be free of anxiety if I was enlightened. (Not quite, but I thought there was a path forward here.) Soon after, I hitchhiked to nearby Rochester, New York, and received my first instructions in meditation by Philip Kapleau Roshi (teacher), one of the first Zen masters in the United States.
I traveled back and forth to Rochester for day-long meditation trainings and began a daily practice on my own. I wish I could say, “After my satori I was no longer troubled by anxiety.” But that would be untrue in two ways: no satori and I still have anxiety (it is very manageable now — thanks for asking). In fact, it was a series of dreams that enabled me to understand my night fears, but that story, even though maybe more compelling, doesn’t quite fit here. Suffice to say that the odd character of my nighttime anxiety led me to meditation, and I am deeply grateful that it did.
Five years later, having graduated from college and living in a small town in Pennsylvania, I started to teach others how to meditate in my local church basement. By then, I thought meditation was wonderful and wanted to share the experience of doing it and what I was learning in the practice of it. That was a long time ago.
. . .
This book has two headwaters: one was when I started to formally teach regular mindfulness classes, about twenty-five years ago. The classes would meet once a week for maybe six, eight, or ten weeks. Because I wanted my students to have something to read at home between classes, I made handouts and one-pagers. As time went on, I assembled these handouts into booklets. Eventually I had three: one for beginning students, one for returning students, and one for more advanced students. Combined, they became the first draft of this book.
The second source comes from my individual work as a clinical psychologist. All clinicians learn on the job, and one of the things I have learned is how to flexibly share ideas about mindfulness with my clients. Sometimes I would deliver the concepts explicitly and actually teach mindfulness meditation to a client. More often the message was implicit. I might not use the words mindfulness or meditation per se, but teach the ideas underneath.
Simultaneously, I was also developing a system of philosophically informed, interlocking ideas about the purpose of life and the nature of a good life, ideas I felt I needed in order to be more confident in my clinical work. As those ideas matured and coalesced, I began to see more clearly where mindfulness sits in regard to the creation of a good life. As a result, I could more consciously guide people in directing the application of their mindfulness practice in service of their aspirations.
I combined the booklets, reorganized and reshaped the essays, and rewrote many of them to work better as one single book. I added some new pieces at the end because I wanted them to tell a fuller story of what I know about mindfulness and how it connects with the art of living.
My wish in publishing Mindfulness and the Art of Living is that it contributes to your understanding of mindfulness, that it enriches your practice of mindfulness, and that it helps you, the reader, to see new ways for mindfulness to connect to and support your good life.
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness is very close in meaning to awareness; it is also close in meaning to attention. The fact that you have the ability to turn your attention where you wish is fundamental to how human minds work. More than that, it also constitutes a foundational aspect of your personal power.
Mindfulness is part and parcel of the human gift of comprehension. It is a marvel that you can turn your attention to another, watching and listening to them, and, as you do, you can both hear what they say and absorb the meaning of it without really trying. As you notice what they do and how they act, you can even have a sense of what their state of mind is. To pay attention in this way is to be mindful.
And yet, there is more to mindfulness, more than naked attention. In order to be mindful, when you pay attention, you must know you are paying attention. This is a type of recognition and it is, in and of itself, an aspect of memory. Think of it this way: When driving a car, you know you are driving a car. When washing the dishes, you know you are washing the dishes. When brushing your teeth, you know you are brushing your teeth. That would be mindfulness.
The second important characteristic you should be aware of, in order to understand mindfulness, is that to be mindful you must be accepting. When being accepting, you notice something, yet leave it be. You leave it alone and don’t try to do anything to it or with it. You allow it to exist, yes, but more importantly, there is no resistance in the noticing. There is no judgment. And therefore, no reacting. This is different from what we usually do — usually we notice and then immediately evaluate the goodness or badness of the thing in relation to ourselves.
For example, a cup of ice cream is sitting on the table. Think of all the evaluations that go along with the suggestion: “Let’s have some now.” “Better not have any, I’m on a diet.” Or, “Too cold to eat ice cream.” All of these are implicitly evaluative and self-oriented and they add something to the simple act of noticing. The point is that when being mindful, we notice, we know we are noticing, and we don’t try to change anything. The bottom line: mindfulness is a constant stream of noticing with acceptance.
Acceptance is of particular importance when it comes to internal experiences such as feelings or thoughts or emotions. When practicing mindfulness, we accept these internal experiences too and don’t try to make them stay or go away. Clinging (trying to make something stay) and aversion (trying to push something away) are both forms of resistance to the thing we are observing.
Relaxation is something very different from mindfulness, yet is often combined with mindfulness. We will be talking about relaxation as we go along, but suffice to say that relaxation is particularly important when it comes to stress management. Our nervous system has two basic settings: one is heightened and a bit revved up and the other is lower and slower. To relax is to emphasize the lower and slower setting.
So how do you relax? To relax is to release or let go of holding. It is not uncommon for a person to hold tension in their shoulders, even when the tension is not needed. The person who wants to relax begins by noticing the tension. Then they need to know how to let it go. Letting go is a physical process, like relaxing a clenched fist. You just let go.
When we practice mindfulness, we let things be, we release our grip on things, and we let go of control. The spirit of opening to life, this is where mindfulness and relaxation connect.
We approach relaxation with efficiency. By efficiency I mean we work only as hard as is needed. No strain. For example, when you are sitting still, you do not need to work hard. Maybe you need to use the muscles along your spine to sit up straight, but not the muscles of your neck and shoulders, hands and arms. You trim off the extra work.
Mindfulness happens this very moment. You notice what is happening this very moment, and then you notice what is happening in this very moment, and in this one, and this one. . .
Many things happen every moment, far more than anyone could possibly notice. We need to make a choice and we need to pick an object of which to be mindful. What we generally do when meditating is to notice the sensations of breathing. When breathing in, you notice you are breathing in, and when breathing out, you notice you are breathing out. We use the breath as the anchor for our mindfulness, and then when our mind wanders, we bring it back to the breath.
But the breath doesn’t have to be the object of your mindfulness. You could be mindful of the sensations of washing the dishes when washing the dishes or the feeling of your hands on the steering wheel when driving. Whatever you are doing, if you are aware and know you are aware, then it’s mindfulness.
THE GOALS OF PRACTICE
There are many different benefits to mindfulness practice, and it’s good to know about them. They can help inspire and refine your practice and also make you a better guide of your own practice. Your goals should map onto the possible benefits, and this will enable you to clarify your reasons for practicing.
A word of warning: there is always a contradiction inherent in practicing in order to gain something. This type of thinking, practicing for gain, sets you up for judging whether your practice is good or bad, and whether or not you are making progress. Value judgments such as these will subtly undermine your practice. So be careful with ideas of gain. Instead, when practicing, always do your best to stay aware in the present moment, return to your chosen object of awareness, and don’t concern yourself with judgments of good and bad.
This word of warning applies to how to practice. But should you think in terms of why to practice, it makes sense to concern yourself with the future benefits. There are many good reasons to practice; they can be organized into five general groups:
TO FEEL GOOD. The most up-front reason to practice mindfulness is simply to feel good. Everyone wants that. And even if you fear that you may never actually feel good, at least you suspect you could feel better than you presently do. This is a reasonable outcome for everyone who practices mindfulness.
Of the many ways you might feel bad, some are directly improved by mindfulness practice. If you are stressed or anxious, the integration of mindfulness and relaxation is a way to lessen stress and anxiety. If your mood is all over the map, or you are prone to depression or worry, then mindfulness can help you find steadiness and some detachment from your thinking. If you are recovering from a setback and need to adjust to significant change, mindfulness practice can help. The practice itself is designed to train you to be able to be still, to be relaxed, and to be present and accepting. By practicing these things, you will naturally feel better.
TO BE GOOD. There are many virtues that are enriched by mindfulness practice. By virtue I mean a desirable characteristic of a person — a way of being that is beneficial.
If you practice mindfulness consistently and steadily, you will train your personality to be better than it would be otherwise. Mindfulness practice contributes to being calm, patient, tolerant, and accepting of others; it makes a person steadier, more nonreactive, and supportive; and it trains a person to be gentler, more empathic, and kinder. Mindfulness training and practice encourage a person to be open, curious, and nonjudgmental. And mindfulness practice trains a person’s focus, such that they become more concentrated and purposeful.
TO BE YOURSELF. A person’s mind and a person’s body are one single thing. Yet, we don’t always live as if this is so.
There are many ways to be at odds with yourself: Maybe you neglect your body, or don’t notice the sensations of your body even though they are there. Maybe you deny what you are feeling. You might not know what you are feeling or you might have a feeling you don’t want to have. It could be that you have two feelings at the same time that are contradictory and therefore hard to make sense of. Maybe you don’t know what you are thinking. Or maybe you have an intention you are not aware of, or one that you acted upon but wish you hadn’t. Maybe you don’t know why you did what you did. Maybe you have compulsions or obsessions or worries that you wish would stop.
All of these are indicators of a (quite normal and commonplace) lack of harmony or unity in your being. The things we don’t know about ourselves, or the aspects of ourselves that are split off or at odds, create internal discord. It takes self-awareness and understanding, acceptance and letting go, to live well. We all seek to be integrated, to have a harmony of the many parts of ourselves. To be unified is an ongoing work in progress. Mindfulness practice might be the best thing you can do to unify your mind and body, or one part of your emotional nature with another part of your nature. The practice of mindfulness can make it easier to be yourself and easier to like yourself.
But being yourself is not a solitary venture. You do not live separate from others and separate from the world. How the world is and how others treat you are in your sphere of influence. Therefore, you must also live well too.
TO LIVE WELL. What does it mean to live well? It implies all of the goals mentioned above: to feel good, to be good, to be yourself. It means all of those things; plus, it also means acting and reacting in the world in expressive and effective ways that are true to you.
A person cannot live well in a situation that is unsupportive or unloving. A person cannot live well in a situation that is not nurturing. A person cannot live well if they think their life is not worthwhile or valuable. Therefore, they must act effectively in order to change what they can. They must be willing and able to move and make changes even if they are scared or insecure.
We receive the world as it is delivered to us. To receive the world as it is, we must let the world be as it is, and we must see things as they really are. But we are more than mere receivers; we also shape the world. We can modify our physical environment in endless ways, and do so in ways as simple as organizing our living space or doing the dishes, for example. We can modify our social environment in endless ways too, by simply choosing to greet a neighbor before we head off to work, or pay close attention to a family member, for example.
Our actions express who and what we are, and what we are about. When we act, we should reach for that which matters the most. Therefore, do your best to shape how you want the world to be and how you want the world to be to you.
TO BE WISE. There is a traditional belief that if you sit still and just observe your mind, body, and the phenomenal world, nonjudgmentally, a type of understanding will occur to you spontaneously and unbidden. It is called an insight. It has to do with seeing things clearly and as they are.
An insight is similar to the phenomenon of puzzling over something, going to sleep, and upon awakening finding the answer right there in the forefront of your mind. Mindfulness practice sets the stage for insight.
Your effort to see the world and yourself clearly should never cease. Tie that effort to your wish to understand things as they truly are. Through your practice, over time, you can see the way the world works, the way people are, your own nature, your body, and the way your mind works. We should know all of these things with great intimacy and understanding. This is the project of wisdom. By having a quiet and attentive, fearless and nonjudgmental, open and receptive awareness, our understanding develops over time.
Wisdom is the assembly of such insights about your mind and body and about how life works. The more you see clearly the nature of your own existence, the more you can see the same processes at work in the lives of others. When you see clearly how life works, then it can be said that you possess wisdom.