THE BLOG
11/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Mindful Conversation with Dr. Ronald Alexander

Mindfulness is becoming a popular term these days so I thought I would learn more about it by interviewing Dr. Ronald Alexander, a leading expert on the subject and author of the just published Wise Mind, Open Mind: Finding Purpose and Meaning in Times of Crisis, Loss & Change (New Harbinger Publications)

Dr. Hank: So Ron, why did you write this book?

Dr. Alexander
: I felt passionate about providing a map for alleviating pain and suffering. I wanted to bring something fresh and original to readers who are searching for meaning and purpose in these painful times of personal, economic, and psychological change.

Dr. Hank: You are a recognized expert on the concept of Mindfulness. What exactly is mindfulness?

Dr. A: Mindfulness is a daily meditation practice for alleviating suffering. It originated around 2400 B.C. during the time of the Buddha, and is based on the idea that no one escapes what the Buddha called the wheel of change.

This practice is most useful in times of crisis as a tool for navigating the afflictions of both mind and body that accompany any change process. The more you cultivate mindfulness, the easier it is to stop running away from difficult feelings; to break out of denial, stagnation, and suffering; and to act with mindful intention.

Cultivating mindfulness is like working out in a gym, but instead of building muscle, you're building what I call mindstrength. 
You're developing the ability to quickly and easily shift out of reactive mode and become fully present in the moment, experiencing the full force of your emotions even as you recognize that they're temporary and will soon dissipate. As you remain present, you can discern whether the products of your mind can help you with self-discovery or are merely distractions.

Dr. Hank: Is mindfulness different from self-awareness?

Dr. A: Mindfulness helps you become aware of what's going on in your mind and body. This allows you to transform all of your painful and afflictive thoughts and feelings into more positive and wholesome ones.

As your practice deepens, you can also learn to move beyond this struggle with the personal self and learn to mindfully transcend the worries, anxieties, fears, and concerns of everyday mind, and drop into Wise Mind, a place of spaciousness and openness where you're free of thought, feeling, and painful bodily sensations. From there you can enter Open Mind, a deep state of creativity.

Dr. Hank: How do you practice mindfulness?

Dr. A: The time of day isn't important; the regular practice is. Ideally, it should be practiced for 20 to 30 minutes twice a day but it's better to start doing 10 minutes once a day than aiming for the overall goal and then feeling overwhelmed by it and falling short. Use a timer to ensure that you meditate for as long as you planned.

Try to meditate at the same time each day, in the same quiet and serene place, such as sitting down in your office chair for the first time in the morning, or sitting in your car. Choose a time and place where distractions will be minimal.

There are four steps to mindfulness meditation: First, close your eyes but keep them focused on the spot between your eyebrows near the top of your nose. Second, place your hands palms up on your thighs or palms down in your lap. Third, pay attention to your breath, saying to yourself "rising" and "falling" with each inhalation and exhalation. Fourth, Be aware as you breathe in and out, and mentally note the thoughts, feelings, sounds, tastes, smells, and physical sensations (such as itching, pain or discomfort, or feelings of heaviness and lightness) you experience. Don't analyze any of what you're noting. Simply be present, open, alert, and watchful as you allow the witnessing mind to emerge.

Dr. Hank: For most people, times are tough. How can you use mindfulness to deal with the economic turmoil that is all of us?

Dr A: By being mindful of, and accepting of, the impermanence of life. Buddhism teaches that there are cycles of change. What is barren land will eventually provide delicious and ripe new fruit. The task is to accept the impermanence of our situations and not to fight against the losses or sorrows. If you watch a river, you'll notice that it is always moving and changing. Something I find comforting is to tell myself that all my prized possessions are on loan to me while I'm on this planet. One day, we all must let go and return everything that we've held near and dear.

Dr Hank: How can I enhance my mindfulness?

Dr. A: You might create a Mindfulness Journal. After doing mindfulness meditation, note in your journal everything that came up that seems to have substance. Often when we are meditating, we're able to capture creative nuggets or precious gems like a miner panning for gold. Get into a habit of writing down and exploring your thoughts after meditating because this can lead to mental states of deep creativity. You discover opportunities and possibilities that might never have come to you otherwise.

Dr. Hank: I want to thank you for the time and hope that everyone will be mindful enough to buy your new book--it is a real mind opener! Congrats!