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Oh Mind, where art thou?

Mindfulness is the radical practice of putting the mind and body in the same place, at the same time.

Sound kind of obvious? Sure, but how often is the mind somewhere else, miles or hours or even years away, in an imaginary world? Your body is at, say, the kitchen table, your mouth is eating breakfast, but your mind is already at work, pre-living the staff meeting scheduled for this afternoon. Your blood pressure spikes as you imagine your boss dissing your input. But wait- you’re stressing out over something that hasn’t happened yet, and perhaps never will. That’s called added stress. It’s the stress we unintentionally self-inflict. It’s unnecessary, and it’s generated by the mind thinking.

A study by brain researchers Matt Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert published in Scientific American in 2010 highlights this in a fascinating way. The study, called A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind, found that participants in the study had a wandering mind about half (49%) of the time, and that the participants’ worst moods were most associated with the mind not being focused on their actual activity (wandering mind). It illustrates what’s called the Default Mode, the common pattern in which human attention habitually wanders into an autobiographic narrative, which tends to be loaded with worry, self-doubt and self-judgment- the perfect ingredients for added stress, anxiety and depression, and believing something is wrong with one’s life.

The habit of drifting away in thoughts isn’t always a bad thing. It can be enjoyable to reminisce on pleasant memories, or look forward to something in the future. It can be helpful to reflect on one’s life, and make space for new ideas to arise. The human ability to think, and especially to imagine, allows us to create symphonies, invent iPhones and dream up new frozen coffee drinks. There’s strong agreement among those who study human evolution that the ability to imagine is the main skill that propelled us to the top of the planetary food chain. We figured out ways to hunt and protect ourselves from other species far more physically powerful than us. Mind over muscle led us to where we are.

But thinking can scare the heck out of us, and cause stress, depression, and anxiety. We can die a thousand deaths re-living events from our past and pre-living some imagined future disaster. Our nervous system reacts as if these things are really happening, and we are flooded with stress hormones, muscle tension and other reactions. But these imagined events exist only in our thinking mind. There’s no there there.

It’s been said that the mind is a great servant, but makes a terrible master. Mindfulness is a way to learn to use the mind, so it isn’t using you.

As we learn and practice mindfulness, several new things become more habitual. We’re more able to keep our attention on what we’re doing, more of the time. We get more perceptive about when thoughts are taking us into a false reality, and when it’s causing us stress. We build the habit of recognizing these “virtual reality” moments, and we more easily unhook from them and come back to the actual moment. It’s a form of mental training, in which we become more clear, focused, and importantly, less stressed by our own thoughts. We slowly build the habit to be more attuned to the pleasures and connections of the moments we’re actually in. People who have mindfulness training consistently report more life and relationship satisfaction, less depression and anxiety, and more of an internal sense of well-being. Many other health and wellness benefits of mindfulness have been discussed in the roughly 5000 research papers presented in the past decade or so.

Life is often stressful enough as it is. Let’s not let our thinking mind control us, adding stress to stress. Let’s be here, now. Let’s be mindful.

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