Mindfulness can significantly improve quality of life, but mindfulness alone isn't enough to foster happiness and fulfillment. For that, you need more than present-moment awareness. You need to know what's happening so you can help make things better.
Mindfulness is a mental skill that hones attention while anchoring your awareness in the here and now. It primes you for taking skillful action. Mindfulness supports direct observation, but it shouldn't be justification for feeling separate or aloof. You're never, ever outside of what's happening in or around you. It's as the physicists tell us: the most passive, yet present observer indelibly alters the outcome of any given situation.
Unfortunately, popular culture often equates mindfulness practice with relaxation practice. This is too narrow a definition although mindfulness techniques, especially those that involve breathing, will trigger a parasympathetic response to help you reduce your stress. But relaxing the body does not mean dulling your mind. The opposite is true: practicing mindfulness won't leave you in la-la land. Rather, you'll experience greater alertness, mental clarity and compassion.
Here's the key: remember that mindfulness practice, taken in isolation, lacks a moral compass. And, also recall that mindfulness training developed in wisdom traditions that contextualized the practice within a moral universe. The framework supported becoming more effective, mentally, in order to live ever more virtuously. These were ancient traditions, but their message remains relevant today.
- Mindfulness can help you notice the man without legs who sits on the street selling candies for small change, earning what he can with dignity. But your mindfulness won't fill his belly, nor will it fill your heart. You have two options. If your pockets are empty, then give him your mental acknowledgement and compassion. If you have money to offer, then buy a candy because you want what buying it will bring. Sure, small change is but a drop in the bucket of his needs, but the extension of kindness and generosity fills the space of your heart. For you -- as for him -- each drop matters immensely.
- Mindfulness can help you stay calm when your kids are behaving abominably and you feel like selling them on Ebay. Instead of losing your head, and escalating the drama, you'll be more likely to stay present so you can offer patience and comfort, or sometimes, firm direction and discipline. Mindfulness strengthens gentle kindness as well as the skillfully fierce side of love.
- Mindfulness increases the chance that you'll actually see when cruelty impacts another human being. But noticing isn't enough. You've got to take action while staying safe yourself, even if only to wish for the violence to end. Do what you can do to intervene, but, not just for the sake of the victim. Intervene to stop the perpetrator from doing more harm, and to give courage to those stand by doing nothing, and of course, to protect yourself from the negative impact that comes with noticing what's happening without trying to help.
- Mindfulness supports emotional balance and can help you stay present even when reality sears you with pain. What happens when you're far away and a loved one is injured or ill. Even if there's nothing active for you to do, notice your feelings and redirect the energy of frustration or anger into cultivating compassion. That way, you can cross the distance through being present where you are.
Applying mindfulness in real time takes the familiarity of regular practice. Training your mind regularly strengthens your mental fitness. Just as running on the treadmill prepares you for the race of life, practicing mindfulness improves your ability to find and follow a moral compass. This way, staying present contributes to skillful and compassionate action.
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