Mindfulness is a child of the Buddha.
This book presents mindfulness teachings in a practical way, with exercises that show us how to apply them in various areas of everyday living. Knowing how to be mindful in everyday life is an art, the art of mindful living. Stress is a pervasive challenge of our time, and when we live mindfully, we live with awareness of the roots of stress in ourselves and in our society. Once we recognize the roots of stress, it is easier to live without allowing stress to destroy our happiness and our health.
May this book be a step on your journey into the art of mindful living.
If you think of stress as one problem among many, please consider the following:
Major psychological challenges such as burnout, depression, and anxiety all have a stress component, and burnout in particular is thought to be caused directly by excessive and prolonged stress.
Stress contributes to accidents and to suicide as well as to illnesses that are the primary causes of death, such as heart disease, cancer, lung diseases, and cirrhosis of the liver. Because it interferes with the functioning of the immune system, it aggravates most infectious diseases.
It is a factor in sexual disorders and in conjugal violence, and it erodes relationships. It fuels addictions and substance abuse. It aggravates sleep problems.
Perhaps in recognition of its import, some prominent translators of Buddhist texts now often render the key Buddhist word “Dukkha”—which is usually translated as “suffering”—as “stress.”
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This book proposes to take you all the way from stress to well-being.
It starts by making you aware of how you are creating extra stress in your life with your attitude and your reactions. No, it is not all in your head: life is stressful, and some lives more so than others, and different people react to similar situations differently. Yet there is a part of stress that is in your head. That is the part that all stress books address because that is the part that you can control. Recognizing the difference between what we can control and what we can’t is crucial for stress management—and is a sort of awakening in itself. Are you barking up the wrong tree, the tree of other people and what they are doing? Are you spending your energy wishing that others would change their ways? If so, change trees, because this will only serve to tire you out. Become more aware of your own reactions to things, and how your reactions contribute to your stress. Come back to your own tree and take care of it. Enjoy its shade and its fruits. You will get more out of life that way. This book shows you how to achieve this with a series of exercises at the end of each chapter. Some of these exercises are guided meditations and some are meditation themes.
As much as stress constricts our field of vision, a relaxed attitude and good feelings broaden it.
As much as stress is associated with negative emotions like fear and anger, well-being is linked with positive emotions like love, inspiration, and serenity.
As much as stress tends to act like blinders so that we see only the negative side of events and circumstances, positive feelings expand our perspective so we see a more complete picture that takes account of the good things as well—which are everywhere around us, in the blue sky, in the bloom of flowers, and in the joy of simply being alive.
As much as stress makes us aware of possible danger, positive emotions take stock of opportunity. A direct result of this is that stress can get us stuck in inaction, whereas positive emotions like hope, inspiration, and interest help propel us forward toward success.
And last but not least, as much as stress is associated with ill health and a shortened lifespan, research shows that positive feelings improve our health and make us live longer.
If stress is one side of the coin, well-being is the other—literally. While one side of most coins may have only numbers (the bottom line), the other side has a human face, a natural symbol, or a reminder of our national heritage—a broader vision of life. Stress is woven into the fabric of our life, and in order to reduce how much stress we feel, we need to examine all aspects of our life. During this process, we gain more intimacy with ourselves and more wisdom. This, in turn, brings a sense of well-being and contentment. Stress reduction can lead to growth if done right, and to do it right we need to keep in mind that our goal is not only moving away from stress, but also moving forward toward well-being.
Positive feelings of joy and gratitude are themselves an antidote to stress. In addition, as discussed in chapter 6, living by values that are personally important to us leads to fulfillment and a sense of well-being. Values influence our actions in the present moment. In contrast, goals are in the future. The pressure to achieve goals may bring extra stress. Living by cherished values brings contentment.
Stress is made up of many elements—things with names like Worry, Irritation, Anger, Fear, and Difficult Relationships. It also has much to do with the way we think. Many of these issues are discussed in separate chapters in this book.
We all need the mindfulness mantra: BE HERE NOW. We all have the ability to be in our thoughts, instead of with the person we are with. We all can be mentally somewhere else instead of enjoying life as it unfolds in and around us. Mindfulness meditation training helps us all to moderate these common habits and lead a happier life.
Sometimes it is a difficult childhood or a childhood trauma that prevents us from being fully present. When we have indigestion, we are still trying to digest last night’s meal in the morning. Similarly, when we have past wounds, we may still be licking them now. That keeps a part of us there, instead of here.
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When we need to feel better, we may reach for alcohol, drugs, or food. They are available off the shelf, and their effects are direct and immediate. These effects, however, also disappear quickly. They do not lead to long-term change.
Consider this: if you try to make yourself feel better with a few beers, you are still on square one at the end of the day. After a day of mindfulness practice, you are now on square two. And the effects of mindfulness practice continue to add up. After a year of distractions, you are still on square one, whereas after a year of mindfulness practice, you are now on square 365—a much better place to be! Distractions may have their place, but they do not give you self-knowledge and freedom from the tyranny of automatic thoughts.
There are many books on stress—a whole stress literature. There is also a well-being or happiness literature. This book straddles the two areas. My aim in writing this book has been to bring these two fields together and show how they are related. Learning to go from stress toward well-being is a major thrust of the Buddhist tradition, a teaching that I absorbed during my training in mindfulness practice with the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. I emphasize this forward-looking approach in my own stress-reduction classes, and I would like to bring this important teaching to you with this book. I call this process Mindfulness Training for Stress Reduction and Personal Growth. The relationship between these two goals will become clearer as you make your way through the book.
The Stress Blues
A baby smiles between fifty and seventy times a day, and a toddler approximately six hundred times, according to research. I’m sure some of us have asked ourselves where that smile goes. What robs us of it?
—GOLDIE HAWN, 10 Mindful Minutes
An easy smile is one of the first things that disappear as we get stressed.
When we were children, we smiled a lot because we lived in the present moment. We had the “here and now” mind. Life’s simple joys were enough to delight us. But growing up involves learning to give up that “here and now” mind in favor of the tomorrow mind, the future mind. The future can be a source of purpose: the toddler who is just playing with his shoelaces instead of putting on his shoes, or playing hide-and-seek using his shirt as a prop instead of getting dressed, as his mom wants him to, is in the present. He is having fun because he does not see beyond the present. He does not have an agenda or a to-do list for the afternoon like his mom does. A purpose changes our focus from the present to the future. And when we are doing everything with a purpose in mind, the present disappears.
How many times were we urged by our parents to do that as we were growing up?
How many times a day?
Mindfulness practice can help us find that smile and bring it back to our hearts and minds. It can bring the smile back into our lives.
Smiling relaxes. A true smile comes from the heart and radiates out to the whole body, softening and healing every part.
Find Your Smile Again
Try it now. Close your eyes for a minute and visualize a smile opening in your heart, like a flower opens its petals as it blooms. After you hold that blossom in your heart, visualize it spreading out like spring flowers to every part of your body. The smile on your face comes when the flowers arrive there. This is a body scan with flowers! Now try to keep the flowers as you open your eyes. Doesn’t the world look different?
“Smile, life’s a miracle,” says Thich Nhat Hanh. Lose yourself again in that miracle like you once did as a child. You are that miracle. Feeling life from the inside is a true miracle. (A body scan is a guided meditation practice designed to cultivate awareness of body sensations and concentration. You can find many body scans of different lengths on YouTube by searching for “body scan meditation.”)
Some people take to this teaching like a thirsty person takes to a glass of cool water. They know the “parched” feeling that comes from not being able to enjoy the moment because they are always thinking about the next thing or planning for tomorrow. They have known what it feels like to do chores all day and toil without ever reaping the reward, the reward that is enjoying the present moment. The present moment is always there, but they are not there to enjoy it. They have always been thinking of tomorrow. The reward never comes for them. Living like that is like collecting discount coupons and never cashing them in.
Others are skeptical. They have learned to make a virtue out of planning for the future. They do not want tomorrow to come and find themselves unprepared. They toil stoically because it is the “right thing to do.” They even look askance at people who take time to enjoy themselves—they see these people as lacking in some kind of moral fiber.
You know the child’s mind, and you also know the mother’s mind. You know that the child lives in a different world, where tomorrow never comes—it is always today. Charming, but also frustrating! Work must be done, and groceries must be bought. Yet you are now at this impasse where you feel the stress, and your joie de vivre is evaporating.
I am not proposing that we throw away our adult life skills. Those hard-earned skills have their place. I am proposing that we stop systematically throwing away the present moment. Living in the past or the future has become a habit for many of us. We even continue to do it when we are resting or on vacation. Indeed, for some, a scheduled rest time may even be more stressful than work. At least when we are engaged in work, our mind is not obsessing about the past or worrying about the future. Work is a way to keep the mind engaged in the present. When that pressure lifts, you may experience more stress instead of less. All of a sudden your mind has nothing to do, and without some training in enjoying the present moment (just what the mother tried so hard to train the child not to do), you may find that now you have nothing to enjoy. You are instead more stressed, thinking more about the future, or rethinking past actions. Indeed, many people find retirement a particularly stressful time, as I discuss later. Many others find vacations stressful. Both of those times are about now, not about the future.
The Now Mind
Being in the moment is one of the fundamentals of mindfulness practice.
However, this teaching appears to go against the current of the Protestant ethic, which emphasizes hard work and toil now, and enjoyment of success (perhaps) later. In this worldview, having fun and enjoying the moment has often been seen as a moral failing.
Yet life is only available in the present, and the Protestant work ethic itself can be a source of stress.
We can’t live in the past or the future except in our minds. And when we do live in our minds, we find it difficult to relax. Not only is life available only in the present, but so is rest.
Be Here Now and Rest Your Mind
Without mindfulness, rest may not be available when you make time for it. Your mind might still be going, worrying about something or other or fussing about an upsetting event that happened yesterday. Your mind may be reliving that upset over and over again and flooding your body with the same stress hormones that it produced during the actual event.
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
That precious verse from the Book of Matthew says it all. Thich Nhat Hanh adds that the kingdom of heaven is NOW. NOW is our home, and being in the present moment allows the mind to rest.
Mindfulness practice gives us a chance to get in touch with our breath and our body, and through them, encounter the present moment. We get relief from tomorrow-mind, and from yesterday-mind. We learn to find joy in today-mind.
With mindfulness, we are in charge of our mind and of our life, not the habits that have been drilled into us. In fact, those habits are not the culprits. They have made it possible for us to be successful in school and at work. The stress comes from fusing with this habit so completely that we lose our precious freedom. Without mindfulness we become our habits.
You can smile four times an hour during the rest of the day. If you enjoy the results, you can do it tomorrow as well.
It’s worth remembering this slightly amended version of a common saying: “A journey of a thousand smiles begins with the first smile.” That first smile could be the first smile of a day, the first smile of a conversation, or, more in line with the original saying, the first smile of a car trip. The first smile is an important one, for it can change the course of a day or the tone of a conversation.
You can help smiles happen more frequently by posting SMILE signs as reminders.
Two Kinds of Thinking
There’s nothing more important to true growth than realizing that you are not the voice of the mind—you are the one who hears it.
—MICHAEL A. SINGER
We may say, “You think too much,” to someone who seems preoccupied or worried, or who looks like they are lost in thought. But I can’t imagine that a death row inmate ever said that to his lawyer. You would not consider saying that to your tax consultant or to your doctor. We want these people to think, and we pay them to do it.
But we pay them to think in a certain way, with a purpose, and for our benefit. Two different kinds of activity go under the name “thinking.” Sometimes we think with a purpose in mind, and sometimes our thinking happens automatically—it can even occur below our awareness. We may also take our automatic thoughts as representing the way things are and not question them. Understanding the way we think is the key to understanding how we create our own stress as well as our own well-being. Because thinking is such an important part of stress, I start this book by taking a close look at this all-pervasive activity.
Automatic Thoughts and Stress
Laurie worked in a large office dealing with people on welfare. Her work included field visits to her clients. Lately, one of her superiors had been asking other people in the office where Laurie was when she was out, and making oblique references to her frequent absences from the office. There was nothing out in the open, no confrontation of any kind, but nevertheless Laurie found the situation quite stressful.
I asked her what she was telling herself about the situation. “He does not trust me,” she said. I asked if that was a purposeful, realistic evaluation. After some discussion, it became clear that it was an automatic thought on her part. The supervisor did that to other people as well. Laurie’s stress was caused not so much by what her superior was doing, but by what she was telling herself—automatically. The supervisor was just doing his job.
This confusion between what is actually happening and the story we tell ourselves about it is quite common. Once we recognize that we are creating most of our own stress (with a little help from others), it is easier to deal with it. But that first step of recognition can be elusive.
I asked Laurie about the interactions she had with her welfare clients. Did they cause her stress? “No,” she said. She was glad to be of help. Indeed, she was a helpful kind of person by nature—she exuded a “How can I help you?” kind of manner when she spoke. She spent several hours each day with her clients, and only a few minutes each week with her supervisor. Yet those few minutes created more stress. She did not ruminate about her meetings with her clients after the meetings were over. She was able to turn the page and move on. But she played back the conversations with her supervisor over and over again in her mind.
I asked her to be mindful of the stories she told herself around those meetings with her supervisor. How were those stories different from the stories she told herself about her clients? As we talked, it became clear that with her clients, her mind was in a problem-solving mode. With her supervisor, she switched into an automatic thinker.
All Thinking Is Not the Same