Mindfulness: What’s In It For Me?

Imagine yourself lightly dressed. You are wearing plain, solid-colored clothes, perhaps a clean shade of either orange or maroon. In this outfit you begin walking into an empty, but illuminated white-walled room with its bright white-tiled floor. You find your way to the center of the room, assume a sitting posture, and close your eyes. You remain in this position – disciplined and focused – but passively observing the fleeting moments as they pass, one by one, in complete silence and complete stillness.

Time begins to slow down. You are fully immersed in your being. Moments, never-ending, continually pass through your field of awareness. To outside observers – you might as well be taking a short nap: you are motionless, not forcing anything to happen, not chasing any desires.

But you are at a greater vantage point, a different plateau of existence, a landscape unfamiliar to those who only know busy minds and never empty ones. The passing of time becomes more and more meaningful and less and less detectable.

Five…ten…twenty minutes pass, and you continue to sit. Then, like a cicada coming out of its shell at the beginning of summer, you gradually break through your bubble of consciousness and slowly return to the sensing world. With eyes open, you get up and, thinking nothing of it, walk out the same door you used when you first entered. The room was vacant, but you left with the possession of something new. How is this at possible? What did you learn, and can it be anything of value?

For centuries upon centuries, Buddhist monks have claimed that meditative practices lead to insights regarding the self and its role in the true nature of existence. Many devote huge portions, if not their entire lives, to this practice of stillness and passive observation of the mind.

In the West, meditation has become ever-increasingly popular. Among scientists, athletes, and business owners, just about anyone can become interested in the power of Zen. Despite (or perhaps because) of this growing popularity, there is a bit of confusion as to what meditation is and what purpose it serves. To most meditation is seen as a means to maintain mental hygiene. It relieves stress, relaxes our thoughts, and increases our attention capacity.

In the early 1990s at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, Jon Kabat-Zinn developed an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that is still being modeled and practiced in cognitive-behavioral treatment labs all throughout the country. The Buddhist notion of mindfulness (known as sati) is showing a greater and greater influence each year in various clinical therapies, both as a treatment for severe psychological illnesses as well as physical betterment and well-being.

This movement is refreshing compared to the other alternatives clinical psychologists most often resort to with their patients: massive pharmaceutical drug giveaways. Often these drugs become permanent solutions to what could be temporary problems. Take the example of a child with ADD: instead of becoming dependent on Ritalin or some other just as harmful psychostimulant, a child could get much more benefit through the practice of meditation.

Instead of thinking of the mind as a grudge, or some kind of limiting disposition, we need to reframe the mind for what it really is: a muscle! Just as a bodybuilder can spend weeks of training and learn to lift his or her weight on the bench, individuals can sharpen their mental skills and capacity through the specific teachings and cultivation of mindfulness.

Mindfulness won’t solve every problem for everyone, but I do believe it is something that anyone can gain tremendous benefits from doing. To be acquainted with our self and to learn to take our existence and skill into our own hands is certainly something we could all use more of. Meditation puts us in an unfamiliar position of power. We are the center of our world, and we cannot deny the spiritual implications of our lives as sentient, subjective, and feeling beings.

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