The Meaning of Mindfulness

The study of the human brain was revolutionized with modern imaging technology. Neuroscientists discovered in their quest to map the human brain that no two brains are “wired” exactly the same. Even more interesting is that the brain is constantly changing and reorganizing itself. Areas of the brain can be mapped, but when you examine it more closely, each mind has a unique structure.

The implications of this understanding are staggering. Everything that was assumed to be true about the brain has been re-examined over the past decade. The debate among scientists about whether the mind defines our thoughts, behaviors, and choices, or our thoughts define our mind has a whole new context. Spiritual leaders have claimed for centuries that we are what we think, and now it is confirmed by science.

Spiritual practices are being studied extensively by top researchers because of their effectiveness in reshaping the mind. Mindfulness has become a kind of catchall term used in the media to describe the spiritual practices that help reshape the brain. Mindfulness is often described as “present moment living,” “being in the moment,” or “releasing the past.” Eckhart Tolle eloquently described it as the “power of now.”

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the ability to correctly identify and direct the many activities of your brain. It’s more than staying focused on the moment, although that is an important part of it. Mindfulness is an awareness and understanding of the many functions of your mind for the purpose of choosing to be the most effect person you can be. To fully exercise your power of choice, you need to understand the nuances of your mental activity.

Spiritual practices include a variety of techniques that help you learn to observe your thoughts, memories, emotions, automatic self-protective mechanisms, personality functions and feelings, and then choose how you will direct that mental activity. Mindfulness is one of those practices. The many different styles of meditation are other examples.

What’s the Best Way to PRactice Mindfulness?

To try to practice mindfulness without first making the effort to do the work that prepares you for the practice is like looking for something, without a clear description of what it is. If I tell you your life would be much improved if you find something that you have in your home, you’ll want me to tell you what that thing is so you have a better chance of locating it. You may be willing to make the effort to look for the mystery object. You may be motivated by promises of an improved life. However, if you don’t have a clear idea of what exactly you are trying to find, you probably won’t have much success of actually finding it. At the very least, you’ll want to know some guidelines for what the object isn’t.

The same is true for mindfulness. You may be willing to try to “stay in the moment.” You may be motivated to meditate “to find the gap.” But, you will have limited success until you know exactly what you are looking to find.

How Can Inner Work Practices Help?

The term “inner work” refers to the practices that prepare you for meditation and mindfulness. Inner work helps you to see and understand your mental functions. You may have heard it described as “losing your self,” or “letting go of the false self.” Once you can identify how all of your thoughts work together with the structure of your personality and your psychological defenses, then the practice of mindfulness is possible.

What Role Does Meditation Play?

Meditation is an important part of how you move from inner work to mindfulness. Atheists often argue that when the mind stops working, our life ends. We may be our thoughts, but we are nothing beyond that. Spiritual guides argue that if we are nothing more than our thoughts, memories, emotions, feelings and opinions, then when those mental activities are silenced during meditation, who is the individual that remains? This individual that remains during meditative silence is described as “being” or your “authentic self.”

Regular practitioners of mindfulness through meditation experience a strengthening of their sense of identity and how it fits into a purpose and connection to the world. A powerful sense of your individuality grows along with a feeling of connection to everything around you. This strong sense of connection is sometimes described as “oneness.”

The Sleep Patterns of Meditators

Through regular meditation, you are able to stay mindful of your thoughts for more of your waking hours. In one study at the University of Wisconsin, the sleep patterns of meditators were compared to non-meditators. Even sleep patterns of meditators show stronger gamma waves, the brain waves that are present in our minds when we experience compassion, happiness and optimal brain function.

How Does All of this Work Together?

Spiritual practices were developed many centuries ago to cultivate wisdom. This is the wisdom that we are not our mental activity, but something so much more. Buddha called it “enlightenment.” Jesus called it the “kingdom of heaven within.” Lao Tzu poetically described it this way, “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”

Before you can fully experience this kind of mindfulness, you must have the ability to manage your mental activity and that’s why inner work is the first step.

Through the process of inner work, you become aware of all of the activities of your mind. As you learn to meditate and use inner work processes, your brain reshapes itself from all of the destructive thought habits you’ve picked up in your life. You begin to see the world and your self with a completely new perspective.

The meaning of mindfulness is that you have the power to reshape your brain, your choices, your life and your identity. Mindfulness is the power to experience the most extraordinary happiness that comes with ordinary living.

Next month’s blog will cover the language and jargon of spirituality. Does the modern terminology of science provide a better context for these concepts that generations of spiritual leaders have described as ‘unexplainable.’

Dispense Your Darker Emotions in 90 Seconds

The single most significant way that we contribute to our unhappiness is the refusal to simply acknowledge our darker emotions. We find these emotions to be unpleasant and may even consider them to be a weakness. But, our emotions of fear, anger and shame have a practical purpose of increasing our chances of survival. They serve as an early warning that something, or someone is threatening our happiness. When we avoid these emotions, we are also ignoring possible threats to our happiness.

Our feelings come after emotions, once we have had a chance to add our thoughts, memories and experience to the mix. Feelings can keep us motivated with positive, directed action. They can also keep us mired in the more destructive reactions of anxiety, depression, hostility and confusion. Learning how to use the early warning system of your survival emotions can help you keep your feelings positive.

Three common strategies used to avoid survival emotions are pretending, panic and power.

Pretending

With this strategy, we go about our day as if nothing is wrong, avoiding anything that suggests there is a problem. When we spend all of our energy pretending we feel nothing, feelings of anxiety increase.

Panic

With this strategy, we overact and cripple ourselves with destructive thoughts and feelings. We imagine everything is falling apart and react as if the whole world is crashing down around us. When we panic, we become so involved with our feelings, that we become paralyzed with depression and pessimism.

Power

With this strategy, we aggressively try to neutralize the potential threat by “taking control.” More accurately, we try to control everyone and everything around us with aggression, manipulation and intimidation. Highly competitive people are also examples of power strategies. But, the more we try to control the world, the more our feelings turn to frustration and hostility.

The Impact of Avoidance Strategies

These avoidance strategies do not neutralize our fears, anger or shame. Rather, they feed those emotions we try so hard to avoid. The intensity of our emotions increases when we avoid them, and our feelings start to darken as well.

The 90 Second Solution

So, what does work? Before I get to that, let’s look at exactly what we work so hard to avoid. All of that energy and effort to avoid unpleasant emotions is really the avoidance of 90 seconds. One and a half minutes is the longest any dark emotion lasts once you acknowledge it. The length of time it takes to microwave a cup of tea or read this blog post is the amount of time you need to dispense your darker emotions.

All you have to do is simply acknowledge the messages your fear, anger and shame deliver. These emotions exist to protect you; to warn you when you are moving in the wrong direction; to let you know when someone isn’t acting in your best interests. To listen to their warnings, simply say to yourself:

I am afraid because…
I am angry because…
I am embarrassed (or ashamed) because…

And then, tell yourself the truth. Within 90 seconds, your survival emotions will go silent. They have done their job and let you know something is threatening you. Now, it’s up to you to assess the seriousness of the threat and decide on a constructive course of action.

Negative Feelings and Self-Soothing Strategies

The avoidance of survival emotions produces feelings of anxiety, frustration, hostility, bitterness, depression, confusion and so much more. These destructive feelings make it impossible to find the solutions you need to solve your problems. As destructive feelings build, you’ll start to seek out ways to soothe yourself. That’s when you plop in front of the TV with a bag of cookies, or go on a shopping spree you can’t afford or lash out at the people you love the most.

Using Fear, Anger and Shame to Build Happiness

However, when you acknowledge your survival emotions as the early warning system that they are, clarity returns. You are able to see exactly what you need to do, so you can take positive, directed action to solve your problem. Your fear, anger and shame aren’t emotions to ignore. The more you avoid them, the more they will demand your attention. They exist to contribute to your happiness by keeping your life on track. It’s best to hear what they have to say.

You can read more about using your survival emotions to become happier in Chapter Nine of How to Create a Happier Life with the Enneagram.

Romantic Guidance from the Enneagram

My parents were married for 60 years. My father remarried recently, three years after Mom’s death. He and his new bride, both in their 80’s, had long, successful marriages and felt their life would be happier using those relationship skills again. They’re right. Most people are much happier when actively engaged in intimate relationships (romantic, family or close friends).

At the wedding, I was speaking with some of my nieces, who told me that it is nearly impossible to find a “good man” capable of the commitment my father has made twice in his life. A few days later, I heard the same complaint from some young men, who told me that there just aren’t any “good women” who are interested in marriage and raising a family.

The Unhappiness Myth of the Soulmate

Oh, the tortured quest for one’s soul mate that plagues young people. I’m glad those days are behind me.

I must confess. After being happily married for 32 years myself, I think the idea of a “soul mate” is a limiting, and in my opinion, a very silly belief. This happiness myth suggests that someone will swoop into your life, strike you dumbfounded, and magically complete you, filling all of the lonely corners of your soul.

Don’t misinterpret what I am saying. Marriage has been a wonderful experience for me and I can’t imagine my life without my husband. But, I think there are some strong misconceptions about how successful relationships work. These misconceptions will prevent you from finding and keeping a life partner until you decide to release them.

Marriage is about building a life together. It’s not some kind of emotional ATM that dispenses attention and devotion on demand. What people who have long and successful relationships know is that before you can be part of a happy couple, you must first be reasonably happy with yourself. In other words, the only person who can complete you, or fulfill you, is you.

Finding a Romantic Partner

That’s a nice thought, but most of us, both men and women, want to be part of a romantic couple. It’s no fun being complete all by your lonesome. When the relationship is good, we are happier being coupled with another. So, how does one go about finding the right romantic partner?

The way to attract someone to share your life is to develop good relationship skills. I know. That’s not a very sexy answer and it sounds a lot like work, but it’s true. When you fill yourself with fantasies of what should happen in a relationship, you overlook the genuine opportunities for commitment and companionship that come into your life. Before you can make room in your life for a mate, you have to be willing to give up the myths that interfere with successful relationships.

The Enneagram Guide to Avoiding Romantic Misery

The Enneagram offers guidance for building relationship skills. Many people read the Enneagram profiles to see how they match up. You can also use the defensive behavior patterns described by the Enneagram to observe your choices and actions. Each of us has the same psychological defenses described by the Enneagram Stress Arrows. Some are more dominant in your personality that others. You also have the seeds for all of the higher qualities of the Enneagram. By observing your defensive attitudes and behaviors, you give yourself the opportunity to choose a better, healthier way to develop relationships.

Here’s the nine ways we doom our relationships before they have a chance to grow. Does any of this sound familiar?

Ennea-Point One: The Myth of a Perfect Mate

Give up the idea of a perfect match. Finding a life partner does not involve a shopping list of “perfect” qualities to fit your fantasy. In reality, successful partners accept the weaknesses in themselves and their partners as part of the bond they share. Flaws are an opportunity to grow closer.

Ennea-Point Two: The Fulfillment Myth

Give up the idea that anyone will fulfill all of your desires for now and forever. Desires change as you grow. In mature relationships, partners share their dreams and desires, but it is your responsibility to fulfill your desires, not your partner’s.

Ennea-Point Three: The Myth of the Perfect Couple

Give up the idea that a relationship has anything to do with appearances. Successful partners focus on the priorities of the life they build together, and don’t worry about their image as a couple.

Ennea-Point Four: The Emotional Support Myth

Give up the idea that a life partner will always be there to help you manage, control, sort or otherwise handle your emotions. Successful relationships offer support, but the only person responsible for your emotional mastery is you.

Ennea-Point Five: The Best Friend Myth

Give up the idea that your mate must double as your best friend forever, sharing every moment of your life. No one person can fill all of your companionship needs. Successful partners have many friendships and support the friendships of their mate. They don’t limit their interests and growth to only what can be shared with their partner.

Ennea-Point Six: The ‘Monogamy is Unnatural’ Myth

Give up the idea that you can achieve intimacy with your mate if you are not willing to commit fully to the relationship. The happiest people are in healthy, successful long-term relationships that are based on trust and a shared commitment. Most humans, along with many other species in this world, fair better with monogamy.

Ennea-Point Seven: The Supportive Partner Myth

Give up the idea that your partner must be 100% supportive of everything you decide to try. Successful relationships thrive on respect and that includes differing perspectives. Support often means pointing out the flaws in your flight plan before you go jumping off a cliff.

Ennea-Point Eight: The Leadership Myth

Give up the idea that one partner is always in charge and the other follows. In successful relationships, both partners take the lead sometimes based on their strengths and skills.

Ennea-Point Nine: The Comfort Myth

Give up the idea that your mate will always make you feel safe and comfortable. No one is able to compensate for all of the unsettling things that happen in your life. In successful relationships, partners offer the help that they have to give without any expectation of being able to “fix everything.”

Cynical Romance

Romance is one of the great joys we experience in this life, and yet, I believe it is undervalued. We tend to focus on the flaws of our partners and how they don’t match up to the expectations we imagine in our fantasies. We talk about the 43% of first marriages that end in divorce, but what about the 57% who get it right? We cling to our relationship failures as evidence that “the good ones are all taken.” What about people like my father and his new bride who decide to find the good in another person after losing a long-term mate?

The Joy of Romantic Reality

Romance is much better in reality than in the realm of fantasy. It can make all of the difference to your happiness on days when life seems to be picking on you. It gives you someone to share the best moments of your life with someone who will genuinely rejoice with you.

However, no one is going to sweep into your life and take away all of your unhappiness with nothing but the sunshine of their presence. Next time you are watching a romantic movie, notice how the romance doesn’t really get started until both people give up their unreasonable expectations and start to connect to each other as people. Love has room to grow when we release all of our expectations of what should happen, and connect to the real opportunities for love that enter our life.

Next month, how the Enneagram can guide us through the troubled periods in our relationships. 

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