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Professional Corner

Mindfulness: The Super Tool for Personal Growth and Self-Understanding

By Tony Schwartz

You may have come across the term "mindfulness" and wondered what it meant.

At its core, mindfulness is the state of fully appreciating what you're thinking, feeling and doing at any given waking moment. It's a way of perceiving life that you can achieve through diligent practice.

Applied properly, mindfulness practice can be a powerful tool for personal growth and self-understanding. You will…

  • Slow down, relax, and become more aware of the present.
  • Realize that no thought or feeling is fixed and permanent.
  • See your obsessive, compulsive, defensive patterns of behavior, and the underlying, ordinarily unconscious, feelings that fuel such patterns.
  • Begin to change these fixed reactions.
  • Become freer, more spontaneous, and happier.

The practice of mindfulness in the US was derived from vipassana, an Eastern form of meditation that emphasized the act of quietly sitting and "watching" your breathing, along with any thoughts that might pass your mind.

I like to think of mindfulness practice as a way of creating a little extra space in which your free will can operate. Here's how to get started…

Mindfulness Exercise #1

Sit quietly in a comfortable position and begin breathing easily…in and out. Begin to observe what's happening to you, using your breathing action as a "home point". Observe the physical sensation of breathing in and breathing out. You are simply witness -- waiting for whatever is there to feel.

Next, broaden your observation to take in everything you're thinking and feeling, mentally placing each item into one of three categories -- a thought…a physical sensation…or an emotion. As you identify each thought or feeling, label it as specifically as you can and repeat this label twice to yourself.

Mindfulness Exercise #2

Here's a variation of mindfulness meditation that can help you quickly center yourself in the present moment. Sit comfortably and focus your attention on the physical feelings in your arms and legs, "looking" and "listening" for any bodily sensations that arise. This will help you get away from the mental thoughts and fantasies that tend to pull us all into the past or project us into the future.

To focus your attention on these physical sensations even more, use this technique: Put both of your feet squarely on the floor and become aware of the physical feeling of connection between your feet and the floor. Concentrate on this sense of connection for a minute or so, then return your attention to your arms and legs. You'll probably discover you had only been listening with "half an ear".

Using Mindfulness to Ease Pain

One use of mindfulness meditation is to relieve chronic pain. I discovered this myself when I was first starting to practice mindfulness. I had a bad back at the time, and when I followed the instruction to label whatever arose in my consciousness, I sometimes found the same sensation arising over and over -- back pain, back pain, back pain -- until the pain seemed to completely dominate my mind.

Then my instructor suggested that I observe the sensations more closely -- was the pain stabbing or shooting? Did I feel tightness or spasm? As I began to "watch" my pain, I realized it wasn't constant. Instead it came and went, sometimes disappearing completely. I literally began to feel less identified with the pain, and less plagued by it.

Compulsive Behavior

If you practice mindfulness meditation regularly, you'll begin to realize that certain negative reactions tend to occur over and over again, and that the provocation isn't always the same -- it might be important, but often it is quite minor.

Once provoked, these negative reactions have a certain momentum of their own. If you allow that momentum to take its course, the negative feeling will pass away -- but if you allow it to upset you, the negative feeling actually becomes amplified.

The great leap occurs when you become so skillful that you can apply mindfulness in the course of your daily life -- and actually stop your negative reactions before they occur.

In situations where you tent to "automatically" become irritated or impatient -- a traffic jam, for instance -- the "nonobserver" in you will always assume your environment (i.e., the crawling traffic) is responsible for the irritable feeling.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, teaches you to observe the kernel of irritation arising in your mind as the traffic starts to slow. Recognize this angry feeling as a habitual, compulsive reaction. Observe it with nonattached curiosity - irritation, how interesting -- and then let it slide away, leaving you calm and relaxed. Not only that, you've also discovered the environment wasn't to blame after all!

The techniques of mindfulness can be applied to any disturbing mind state that might be gripping you -- greed, lust, anger, aversion, even deep-rooted fears lose their power to shape your behavior, once you learn to observe them in an nonattached, mindful way. At the same time, you'll be moving closer to the ultimate goal of any mindfulness practice -- to become freer, more spontaneous and happy in your daily life.

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Last modified: January 26, 2013