Anyone who has ever sat at home, healthy, well fed, surrounded
by loved ones, and suffering from intense anxiety will readily
agree that peace of mind is the necessary condition for happiness.
But how can we possibly learn to have peace of mind when the
mind is by nature restless, projecting its wants and fears endlessly
into the past and the future?
Think about your favorite activity for a moment. When you are
really enjoying something you like, how do you feel? As you listen
to your favorite music with full attention, other thoughts and
desires fade away. You are simply in the moment. There is contentment
- peace. Inevitably, of course, your mind kicks back in. How
can you sit and listen to music? You need to clean the house,
or think about your job, or get something to eat, or worry about
finances, or make a phone call, or any of a thousand things.
No longer in the moment, you're off and running.
If you could train your mind to let go of other desires, returning
to them when the actual moment has come to do the bills and make
the phone call, you would be able to experience peace of mind.
The road to peace of mind is through a practice called mindfulness.
Its opposite, the state in which the mind is in many places at
once, is called mindlessness.
Mindfulness: Meditation in Action
Mindfulness is meditation in action and involves a "be
here now" approach that allows life to unfold without the
limitation of prejudgment. It means being open to an awareness
of the moment as it is and to what the moment could hold. It
is a relaxed state of attentiveness to both the inner world of
thoughts and feelings and the outer world of actions and perceptions.
Mindfulness means really being present with the food when eating,
enjoying it rather than thinking about other things. It means
openness to the experience of motion when taking a walk and to
the sights, sounds and smells around you.
Mindfulness requires a change in attitude. The joy is not in
finishing an activity - the joy is in doing it. Those of you
who are Type A's will find that this is completely foreign to
your usual way of perceiving things. Remember that Type A's tend
to engage in polyphasic behaviors - they try to do several things
simultaneously. The reality of thinking and doing, however, is
that we can only think or do one thing at a time. The mind can
dart back and forth between several things, but it can hold only
one thing in full focus. Polyphasic thinking, therefore, actually
wastes time. It also creates enormous stress.
Opening to the Moment
You can train yourself to be mindful by cultivating awareness
of where your mind is and then making a choice about where you
want it to be. For example, if you need the time walking to the
bus stop to plan the day, then you have made a conscious choice.
Try to plan without falling into rumination that leads to nothing
If you don't need to plan, then just be. Centre on your breathing,
let out a sigh of relief, and then let yourself experience the
rhythm of breathing and walking. After a while you'll fall into
a comfortable stride, perhaps two steps to the in-breath and
two steps to the out-breath, or any cadence that suits you. This
can be the focus - the anchor - that holds your mind still as
you open up your attention to what is around you - the trees,
the clouds, the people - without judging. Just enjoy the moment.
Practice abdominal breathing several times daily. Put up little
signs where you will see them as reminders.
Awareness of Thought and Physical Reaction
Inevitably, while practicing mindfulness, your mind will
wander. Learning to observe where it wanders to is also a practice
Thoughts are of two varieties. Non-afflicting: Thoughts like
"I wonder what's for dinner?" or "Should I watch
TV or read a book?" come and go all the time without getting
a rise out of the body. They don't matter that much. Afflicting:
Thoughts like "I wonder why my spouse and I don't get along?"
or "I'm scared that my disease is going to kill me"
get a definite rise out of the body. They produce an emotional
response like fear, guilt, or anger. Because such thoughts draw
us out of the present moment, as well as getting stored in the
body, they are very powerful.
One of my patients, a young nurse who experienced anxiety attacks,
was amazed when she realized that the anxiety did not spring
full-blown from nowhere. There were certain thoughts that always
preceded her attacks while others kept them going. When she learned
to control her thoughts, her anxiety disappeared.
Going Beyond the Mind: The Witness
Try this experiment before reading further. Since the mind speaks
in words, for the next minute become the witness, the listener
of your mind. Close your eyes, breathe a sigh of relief, take
three abdominal breaths, and listen to your mind for one minute.
What happened? You probably had one of two experiences. Either
you watched your thoughts go by or, strangely, there were no
thoughts at all. My patients are often amazed that when they
watch the mind closely, it tends to stop or slow down. Usually
the experience of witnessing the mind - whether the mind falls
silent or keeps on running - is one of peacefulness. You don't
stop existing if the mind becomes quiet. You are still aware
of your own existence and your own consciousness, and that awareness
is quite peaceful. Try the experiment again for a minute.
Meditation develops the ability to become aware of a completely
nonjudgmental part of the mind, that of the Witness. The Witness
is the part of your mind that watches - that is aware of thinking.
Since the Witness is beyond the ego, it is not caught up in judging
and is thus content in any situation. Another name for the Witness
is the Self, or the unconditioned mind. It is the same in everyone
because it is not conditional on what our experiences have been.
It exists previous to experience and the arising of the different
parts of the mind. In many different psychologies and philosophies,
the ego is called the self with a small s because it represents
our own personal history, complete with all the limitations of
our attitudes and fears. The Self with a big S represents completely
Even-Mindedness: Letting the Judge
John was caught in the most familiar bind of them all -
wishing for life to be different. That is the essence of suffering.
The only way to derail that suffering is to let go of desires
- the wants and fears that prevent us from living in the present.
Desiring things we don't have - the "if onlys"- and
desiring to avoid the things we don't want - the "what ifs"-
are the ego's main preoccupation. Desires are always the cause
of suffering - of falling out of the present into the ego's ruminations.
How many times has your mind told you that you could be happy
if you lost ten pounds? made more money? had your health? Then,
even if these things come to pass, you just move on to the next
set of conditions for happiness. The conditions are like the
proverbial carrot that dangles in front of the donkey. You never
Happiness can occur only at the moment that desires cease. At
that time the mind is still. It's not thinking, not wanting or
fearing; it is totally absorbed and attentive. Can you remember
the experience of being really thirsty on a hot summer's day
and the contentment of taking a drink? Every time the mind is
completely absorbed - perfectly mindful - it grows still, and
you automatically experience the background of unconditioned
consciousness - the Self - that is always there but is usually
hidden behind the ripples of the mind.
Because gratification of a desire leads to the temporary stilling
of the mind and the experience of the peaceful, joyful Self it's
no wonder that we get hooked on thinking that happiness comes
from the satisfaction of desires. This is the meaning of the
old adage, "Joy is not in things, it is in us."
Although getting something we want or avoiding something we don't
can give us peace briefly, it never lasts. The mind is like a
junkie - on the prowl for its next hit of peacefulness by looking
to satisfy a desire. Between satisfactions, the experience is
generally unpleasant. True peacefulness comes from abandoning
the illusion that satisfying desires brings pleasure. It is called
In that state, you regard every moment as an opportunity to live
fully, to be aware. Instead of doing the dishes with the attitude
that life is on hold until the unpleasant chore is over, you
can choose to do the dishes mindfully, observing the sensations
of the water, the bubbles, the feel of the plates. In the state
of mindful observation, there are no more judgments about pleasant
or unpleasant. The mind grows still, and you can feel the contentment
of the Self.
Finding peace of mind presents us once again with the challenge
to let go. Developing the capacity of taking a breath and backing
up into the position of the Witness - the observing Self - is
the fastest mode for learning to be mindful. Breathing while
noticing that you are experiencing anger is mindfulness.
Being so stuck in the experience of anger that you are overcome
by it is suffering. The highest ideal of self-understanding comes
when a person's ego has retired to the extent that praise and
blame are treated equally. There's no puffing up if things go
well, and no shriveling away if things go poorly. This is surely
a high goal, so it's helpful to remember Einstein's words: "Nobody
is able to achieve this completely but the striving for such
achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation
for inner security. "
Tips for Living Mindfully by Joan Borysenko
1. Continue watching your mind. Identify the kinds of desires,
the "if onlys" that separate you from being happy now,
and the "what ifs" that could deprive you of happiness
later. You may find that your ego revolves around a few repetitive
concerns. Write these down. When they occur, congratulate yourself
for becoming aware of them. Practice using your breathing as
a reminder to let them go. Sometimes it helps to write your anxieties
down on a pad so that you can take appropriate action on them
at a time that you set aside for that purpose. There's no point
worrying about cleaning the house or writing a report or having
a conversation before it happens. Do things as a matter of conscious
choice, chipping away at unconscious conditioning.
2. Choose at least one activity each day to carry out mindfully
- with your full attention, like a meditation. If you are chopping
vegetables, chop vegetables. Absorb yourself in the colours,
the textures, the motions. If you are drying off after a shower,
just dry yourself. It feels great. You will be amazed at how
different a plum tastes when you are mindful. Richard Alpert,
the Harvard psychologist who spent years studying consciousness,
sums up mindfulness in the message Be here now. Put up a few
signs around the house as reminders. The practice is easy; it's
remembering to do it that's hard.
3. Don't let your ego bully you and scare you off. Old patterns
are hard to change, and usually, as soon as you try, they seem
to get stronger in response. This is natural. Many people think
they are worse off than before when they start to notice themselves.
You are no worse off; you have simply realized what goes on inside.
Awareness is the first step to making new choices. It is worth
the temporary discomfort to get to know yourself.
4. Use mindfulness to cope with pain and anxiety. If you feel
anxious feelings arising inside, try to witness them. Instead
of getting stuck in judging, be the observer. By not engaging
the mind in battle, by watching and letting go, it will soon
Joan Borysenko, PhD, is the author of several
books including the bestseller Minding the Body, Mending the
Mind. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder
and former director of the Mind/Body Clinic at the New England
Deaconess Hospital. She completed her doctoral and post-doctoral
work at Harvard Medical School in cancer cell biology and behavioral
medicine, returning later in her career as an instructor in medicine.
Dr. Borysenko is a highly popular speaker, who trains healthcare
providers and offers various healing programs for the general
public. Her newest book is The Power of the Mind to Heal (Hay