Mindfulness and the Discovery of the Self

by Joan Borysenko

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 but tension.

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 in awareness.

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 unlimited potential.

Even-Mindedness: Letting the Judge Rest

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 reach them.

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 evenhandedness.

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 become quiet.

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 House, 1995).


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