There’s that term again. Mindfulness. It seems to pop up everywhere these days, like the phrase “Don’t have a cow” did in the early 90’s. Like the concept of free love in the 60’s, or isolationism of the 30’s, mindfulness is all the rage in this new millennium.
I’ve come across the concept through family and friends, readings, and now relaxation techniques for labor. Advocates say you can use it to relieve stress, improve physical health, and manage depression and anxiety disorders.
Focus on your breath, they tell you. Become aware of the sensations in your body. Clear your mind of other thoughts and just be in the present moment.
This is, of course, far easier said than done. Now more than ever, with cell phones going off and email, Facebook, and television all clamoring for our attention, we are accustomed to constant entertainment. Even in the few spare moments while we wait for a friend or stand in line at the store, our smart phones feed us a steady stream of news updates, comedic videos, and celebrity gossip. With such entertainment at our very fingertips, it seems impossible to simply focus on our breaths. We would just get so bored.
The problem is that, while distracting ourselves might ward off boredom, it doesn’t seem to make us very happy. Consider a research article published in Science last year with the catchy title ‘A Wandering Mind in an Unhappy Mind.’ The authors used an app that contacted subjects on their iPhones at random times during the day and asked them to record what they were doing at that very moment and rate how they were feeling, from very bad to very good. Finally, it asked them whether they were thinking about something other than what they were currently doing (i.e., not being mindful) and if so, whether that thought was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.
What did the authors find? About half of the time, subjects reported that they were thinking about something other than their current activity. The study showed that subjects were less happy when their minds wandered to neutral or negative thoughts than when they were being mindful about the present moment. Even when their minds wandered to positive thoughts, they were no happier than when their thoughts were engaged in the current activity. In short, being ‘mindless’ doesn’t make you feel better, and it can potentially make you feel a whole lot worse.
Another example comes from the remarkable personal experience of a neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor, who suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke that damaged much of her left hemisphere. In her memoir, My Stoke of Insight, she describes the extraordinary changes she underwent as the stroke ravaged her left hemisphere. She lost the capacity to produce or understand speech and could not walk. But perhaps the most striking detail in her description was the mindfulness she experienced as a result of her brain trauma.
As she writes, “I stopped thinking in language and shifted to taking new pictures of what was going on in the present moment. I was not capable of deliberating about past or future-related ideas because those cells were incapacitated. All I could perceive was right here, right now, and it was beautiful.”
Her experience of perfect mindfulness in the present moment brought her a profound sense of peace and oneness with the rest of the universe. Many who regularly use mindfulness techniques say they experience those same feelings as a benefit of their practice.
Over the course of several years, Dr. Bolte Taylor underwent a miraculous neurological recovery that returned her brain functions. But with all of those gains, she lost something as well. As she puts it, “Now that my left mind’s language centers and storyteller are back to functioning normally, I find my mind not only spins a wild tale but has a tendency to hook into negative patterns of thought.” She now uses mindfulness techniques like focusing on the sensations in her body to bring herself back when her mind is wandering to negativity.
By now, I’m sold on the benefits of mindfulness meditation. I’ve listened to meditation tapes, taken mindfulness classes, and even done a daylong retreat. Yet I still can’t coax myself to sit down and practice it regularly. There are just so many other things to do, and even household chores sound more fun (or at least less boring) than just breathing for a half an hour.
Now, more than six months into my pregnancy, my thoughts are turning to my impending labor. I’ve looked for tools to handle the pain and fear that may come with it. Today, Lamaze is out and meditation is in. From medical doctors to so-called hypnobirthing classes, everyone is recommending mindfulness meditation techniques for relaxation during labor. So I’ll give just being another try because this time it seems that the New Agers are actually on to something.
Photo credit: Darla Hueske