Life brings with it inevitable challenges, yet today it can seem as if those challenges are being presented to us at an increasing rate. How many of us are familiar with feeling overwhelmed physically or mentally, or have the sense that the changes we want for ourselves, our family and our society appear to be out of reach? Challenging conversations and uncomfortable feelings seem to greet us daily with little time to gather our thoughts before responding from a place that can sadly be driven by anxiety or defensiveness.
If only there were something we could do to bring harmony into our lives, relationships, and community. . . Mindfulness is often put forward as that very solution, but as neuroscientist, psychologist and mindfulness practitioner Dr. Tamara Russell points out, “Mindfulness doesn’t magically make bad and sad things disappear.” What it can offer with practice, however, is the ability to be authentically calm and compassionate as challenges arise.
Mindfulness as a term can feel very vague, but as Dr. Russell points out, it is an incredibly practical tool. It essentially means bringing awareness into the present moment, so if we hear something upsetting in the news, for example, instead of a knee-jerk reaction, we might instead pause to notice what is arising in us.
In that pause, several things occur. For one, we’re not making a situation worse! It also offers us the space and opportunity to reconsider our immediate reactions. There is room to allow ourselves compassion for our feelings, to recognize judgments that may have arisen, or to simply take in a deep breath and allow our blood pressure to descend. Instead of unconsciously feeling angry or sad, or following the mind to a conclusion that someone or something is to blame, the pause allows options to open up. “If we can remain mindful and curious even when things are not ok, creative solutions can often be found,” says Dr. Russell.
What mindfulness also brings is the ability to sit with another and listen attentively. Instead of the mind being filled with how we respond, or judging what the person is saying, or even being ‘absent’ and thinking about something entirely different, the practice of mindfulness enables us to be wholly present with another. In our time-pressured lives, there is no greater gift that we can give.
When we are mindful with the person in front of us we can “pick up on subtle, non-verbal cues, such as tone of voice, posture, eye contact and what’s not being said,” says Dr. Russell. Quite simply we get to truly hear another’s viewpoints, concerns, needs or joys which can better inform a response from us. Much of the conflict we are facing in our society often occurs because we don’t understand one another. When we listen mindfully, the opportunity for empathy and understanding increases.
The mind is so used to running off at great speed that taming it can take some time. Sitting in meditation and watching thoughts arise without getting caught up in them, or seeking to remain focused on the breath prepares us for the moments when we leave our cushions and engage in the world. We stand a much better chance of maintaining awareness.
Imagine a world in which everyone practiced mindfulness. Perhaps there would be less global conflict. Perhaps our communities would be safer, and the ones we love happier. Perhaps we would simply have a less stressful commute to our jobs! But we don’t need everyone to practice mindfulness, says Dr. Russell. Indeed, mindfulness is not for everyone. But if it is for us, then we can make a difference with our practice because “even a drop of mindfulness in a mindless environment will shine like a beacon of light.”
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