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Mindfulness 101

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When I try to practice mindfulness, sometimes I feel the same way I did when I read a book called "The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way" about metaphysical truths. It's as if I am having all the thoughts I have ever had at once and yet trying to get rid of each one. It's an endless struggle.

I think for a mindfulness dummy like myself, the easier way to approach mindfulness is through the concept of mental space. For me, the beginning of the practice lies in maintaining a clean mental space.

To become mindful is to become focused. How can you become focused if your mental space is in disarray?

How can you inhabit the present fully?

How can you pay attention to what's happening right now if you have no space in your head to take in the information around you right now?

Here are a few tips to help make space for your mindful practice:

Make Fewer Decisions
I've seen many great articles on clearing mental clutter. But, I think the essential step in approaching a mindful state of mind is prevention of mental clutter. After the mind is cluttered, a great deal of work has to be done to clear it out and only then can you begin to approach mindfulness. To avoid this recession, set up a barrier to new intruding thought patterns.

A great portion of rumination and recurrent fantasy is caused by obsessive decision-making.

Children teach us how to let go of this habit. When I look at children, I see that they are so alive. They are present and feel everything that is going on in the marrow of their bones.

As we leave childhood and come into adulthood, we take on more responsibilities, make more decisions. By repetition, we come to believe that decisions must be made. Decision-making becomes a habit rather than a skill. Whenever we see more than one option before us, our decision-making mechanism switches on. We consider, we weigh options, we analyze each contingent result. Yet, if you map your daily decisions for three days, you will see that the majority of things you decide can go either way.

Make as few decisions as possible. I don't mean shirking responsibilities. I mean only take on those decisions that you want and that will have an impact on your life.

One of my mentors, who has a ballpark figure for the meaningfulness of decisions, says to me, "If it's not going to matter in five years, it does not matter today."

Be Bad at Heart, Then Good in Deed
Another obstacle for mindful wannabes is the inner moralist monologue. Right, wrong, good, bad. Oftentimes, we are just judging the morality of our thoughts because we have yet to act.

But remember, acknowledging petty desires is not the same as being petty. I can acknowledge my fiery anger at someone and a desire to set his house ablaze without actually doing it. I think the burden of being a good person in thought is way too high. We can only be so good. If we are too good, our excess goodness will rot inside of us, rendering us impotent. We will become so busy fighting our urges, our thoughts, that we will end up unable to take any actions -- whether good or bad.

Prepare, Then Perform
The third important step toward mindfulness is preparation. Some events are difficult and there is no way around them. But, preparing ahead of time will always save you from analyzing the situation as it's unfolding. The element of surprise is the spark that triggers rumination and fantasy. In mindfulness jargon, this state of engagement in an activity, without thinking of how it is unfolding, is called flow.

Know What You Want, Get What You Want, Look No Further
Sometimes I walk into a store and I know exactly what I am looking for. I know it's shape, color, smell. I'm honest with myself and know it's a long shot to get exactly what I have imagined. Then, I walk in and within five minutes I find it! Yet, I say to myself, "Let's see what else they have." I have no occasion, no gift-giving, no need in mind. This kind of behavior is the active side of mental rumination. Instead of going over options in your mind, you add activities to your day that keep you from fully living out the decision you have made.

What is the likelihood that you will actually find something better than you had dreamed up (assuming you let yourself dream freely)?