“Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.”
~ Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Advice for a Young Investigator
One of the most common New Year’s resolutions made each year is to exercise more. Whether or not people actually follow through on this intention, it is an indication that people are well aware of the value of physical fitness; but, what about our brain? As scientific understanding of the brain evolves, there is a greater awareness of how important it is to keep this organ in our body fit. According to Dr. Judson Brewer (a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of Massachusetts who uses mindfulness to treat addiction), “[Mindfulness] is just the next generation of exercise. We’ve got the physical exercise components down. Now it’s about working out how can we actually train our minds.”1
The Mindful Brain
Until recently, neuroscientists believed that after early adulthood, the brain no longer is capable of significant change: the viewpoint was that, at a certain point, the brain becomes rigid, no longer plastic. More current research has shown this not to be true. Newer understanding recognizes that the brain remains plastic as we age.2 This means that we are able to continue creating new neural pathways (new connections in the brain), hence new skills, habits and ways of responding; although it takes conscious effort and repetition (training) to do so. It turns out that the brain can keep growing; it’s just that we have been using it in such a way that maintains rigid behaviors. Furthermore, mindfulness is one way to train our brain to maintain its plasticity and ultimately to create new patterns of response, even as we age.
How Mindfulness Changes Your Brain – The Proof is in the Brain Scans
Mindfulness has been practiced for over twenty six hundred years. Over that time, there has been a consistent history of anecdotal experience suggesting the positive outcomes of this practice. Today, with advances in the study of the brain, there is empirical research, using objective measures, that supports and validates many of these anecdotal claims. Modern science now provides physical evidence of benefits of mindfulness:
- Philippe Goldin, a psychology researcher, headed a study at Stanford University to better understand the effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training for people suffering from Social Anxiety Disorders. After two months of mindfulness meditation training, participants reported less emotional anxiety, reduced depression, and greater self-esteem. MRI scans observed participants’ brain activity before and after the training suggesting that mindfulness meditation might help people view themselves more positively.3
- Another study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the University of Massachusetts shows that mindfulness meditation physically alters the brain. M.R.I. brain scans of participants who underwent eight weeks of MBSR training showed measurable changes in gray matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress, while a control group that did not practice meditation showed no changes. These brain scans also found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory, as well as a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress.4
- Additionally, Dr. Judson Brewer, an addiction psychiatrist who studies how mindfulness changes the brain at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, brought experienced mindfulness meditators into an fMRI scanner and had them simply meditate while measuring their brain activity. It was found that a region of the brain called the posterior cingulate became active when folks were caught up in thought and quieted down when they were meditating.5 This is the same region that gets activated during states of craving, anxiety, rumination, and even when we are thinking about ourselves. Brewer postulates that training in meditation can help us get out of our own way when we are otherwise likely to get caught by these maladaptive states of mind.
Together, these studies validate that by practicing mindfulness meditation we are actually improving emotional and cognitive fitness of the brain.
Mindfulness is an Experiential Practice Not an Intellectual Exercise
With mindfulness becoming an increasingly popular topic, there is an abundance of books, articles, and videos touting its benefits. Additionally, mindfulness is showing up more often in mainstream media: Oprah has highlighted mindfulness in her programs and magazine over the years; just this year, in his book “10% Happier,” ABC News anchor Dan Harris shared how he turned to mindfulness meditation to address panic attacks and how it has helped him be happier6; and Anderson Cooper explored mindfulness in a segment of 60 Minutes7. Not surprisingly, I meet more and more new mindfulness students who arrive relatively well-read on the topic. This conceptual understanding is useful, however, the benefits of mindfulness do not come from a conceptual understanding; instead, it needs to be actually practiced for associated positive changes in the brain to occur. Just as with physical exercise that trains muscles in the body, it is the repeated experience of mindfulness that develops and trains the brain. For example, if I watch a yoga video, I may understand better how to move my body to attain specific poses, but unless I actually engage in those poses, I don’t gain their benefits. Likewise, mindfulness must actually be practiced in order to impact the fitness of the brain.
How to Engage in Mindfulness Meditation
It can be particularly difficult to develop new practices and make them part of your routine when you attempt to do it your own. This is true for mindfulness. Therefore, I don’t suggest that you go it alone when learning and developing mindfulness mediation. Here are some ways to learn mindfulness and approach it as a new element of your lifestyle and have the support that is necessary:
- Take a class: look for an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program offered near you
- Attend a mindfulness meditation sitting group
- Go on a mindfulness meditation retreat
- Find a teacher or coach to get you started and help you develop a practice
Ultimately, you will be the best judge as to how mindfulness meditation contributes to the fitness of your brain.
“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”
~ Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
Enlightenment is just intimacy with all things.”
~ Eihei Dogen
According to a study by a team led by Timothy Wilson from the University of Virginia published in Science July 4, 2014, most people prefer to do something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative. To examine this, hundreds of participants were left in a bare room by themselves for 6 to 15 minutes with nothing to do: no phones, books, pens, or distractions of any kind. Just stay awake, be quiet, and sit idly in their seats. In one last experiment, 67 percent of the men and 25 percent of the women chose to administer a mild electric shock to themselves rather than finish the process. Beforehand, when given a sample, most said they’d pay $5 not to be zapped again — but when the time came, they still pushed the button. “The mind is designed to engage with the world,” Wilson says in a news release. “Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world.” The team is working on the exact reasons why people find it difficult to be alone with their own thoughts.
The outcome of this study does not surprise me; however, I am disturbed by it. It reveals a universal, not merely personal, reality about the human condition in our current culture: that so many people would rather inflict pain upon themselves than be present with their direct experience. And, recognizing this inability to tolerate being with ourselves brings up a profound sadness in me. If we have such an aversion to allowing an intimacy with ourselves, then how can we encounter genuine intimacy with others?
How do you avoid being with yourself?
If you are truly honest, you will find that you, too, along with the vast majority of people, spend the better part of your life escaping yourself. We all employ strategies to preoccupy ourselves instead of being present with our experience. Here are just some of the ways we may do that:
- Misusing substances: drugs (prescription and non-prescription), alcohol, food, etc.
- Consuming electronics and media: TV, phone, computer (e-mail, social media, web surfing), news, etc.
- Sleeping (as a means of avoidance instead of nourishment)
- Staying Mentally Preoccupied: worrying, fantasizing, planning, ruminating, replaying, losing ourselves in memories/nostalgia, etc.
- Staying Busy: working compulsively, exercising compulsively, cleaning compulsively, talking compulsively, socializing compulsively, etc.
These are all merely ways to keep ourselves distracted – rather than experiencing any potential dissatisfaction with the way things are in the moment. As Pablo Neruda asserts in his poem Keeping Quiet, “If we weren’t unanimous about keeping our lives so much in motion, if we could do nothing for once, perhaps a great silence would interrupt this sadness, this never understanding ourselves and threatening ourselves with death.” If you are willing to take a sincere look at your own behaviors, you may find a tendency to avoid intimacy with yourself by staying otherwise engaged using some of these strategies, albeit unconsciously. Moreover, once aware, you may begin to notice how these ways of being are actually self-destructive (not serving you) rather than promoting your well-being. For example, the simple habit of quickly checking your email before going to bed and unintentionally finding yourself on the computer for another hour or more, may be consistently robbing you of much needed sleep. At best, these strategies provide us with temporary relief. Ultimately, they are, instead, contributing to our suffering – we are causing harm to ourselves and, perhaps, also to others.
From what, or rather, whom are we escaping?
This is a question for which I do not have an answer. However, my best assessment is that we are afraid of what we might find, or not find, if we really take an honest look at our experience. The words of Alison Luterman in her poem, Stripping, suggest this underlying, existential fear:
“I want to strip. It is the jewel at the center I seek;
let me be oyster, hoarding pearl.
Let me be coal, sheltering diamond.
Though in my heart of hearts I am afraid
I may be onion, each white circle
of stinky tears hiding another exactly like it.
Or rose: whose petals are her everything.”
How do we develop greater intimacy with, instead of fleeing from, ourselves?
People travel near and far in search of beautiful places and satisfying experiences. They surround themselves with luxurious comforts of accommodations, fine food, sumptuous things, or awe–inspiring natural settings. And yet, any satisfaction that may be experienced is fleeting, because “Wherever you go, there you are.” No matter our attempts, we can’t escape ourselves. Therefore, the way to develop intimacy with oneself is to simply meet your direct experience instead of creating separation. Start by inhabiting your body. This is the first foundation of mindfulness practice – mindfulness of body. Begin by bringing awareness of your body as a whole, specific sensations in your body (such as contact), and particularly, the experience of the breath occurring in your body. Whenever you notice your mind engaging in thoughts, no matter how frequently, bring your attention back to the experience in your body. This is a skill that we cultivate, not an intellectual process.According to Dogen, the path to realization is through the body. The human body, for Dogen, is not a hindrance to the realization of enlightenment (end of suffering); it rather serves as the vehicle through which enlightenment is realized by the aspirant. Dogen argues that those aspiring to become enlightened strive with their bodies, practice seated meditation with their bodies, understand with their bodies, and attain enlightenment with their bodies.
The Buddha pointed out that we tend to give more importance to “thoughts” in the hierarchy of experience, yet a thought is no more important than the sensation in your small toe. As Kabir instructs,
“Don’t go outside your house to see flowers.
My friend, don’t bother with that excursion.
Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals.
That will do for a place to sit.
Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty
Inside the body and out of it,
Before gardens and after gardens.”
This very thing we are trying to escape is actually our one true refuge. Therefore, staying connected to your direct experience through your body is one of the best ways to minimize suffering in your day-to-day life.
“Be at peace with your own soul,
Then heaven and earth will be at peace with you.
Enter eagerly into the treasure
house that is within you,
And you will see the things that are in heaven;
For there is but one single entry to them both.
The ladder that leads to the Kingdom
is hidden within your soul…
Dive into yourself and in your soul
And you will discover
The stairs by which to ascend.”
~ Saint Isaac of Nineveh
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
In the United States, the Puritan (or Protestant) Work Ethic is alive and well, some might say run amok. Protestants were originally attracted to the qualities of hard work and frugality, as well as social success and wealth, because these were thought to be two important consequences of being one of those elected or predestined to be saved; thus, Protestants were supposed to strive for reaching them. This mindset became wide spread; the Protestant work ethic is often credited with helping to define the societies of Northern Europe and other countries where Protestantism was common, including here, in the United States. For example, Proverbs 10:4 of the Holman Christian Standard Bible states, “Idle hands make one poor, but diligent hands bring riches.” Likewise, there are several German proverbs that echo this sentiment, such as: “The devil makes work for idle hands.” Thus, in the United States, it is common for people to feel we are not worthy if we are unable to account for our time with measurable results.
Making a case for downtime
Winnie the Pooh has quite a bit of wisdom to share with children and adults alike. In regard to keeping busy, Pooh makes the assertion, “Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.” (from Pooh’s Little Instruction Book, inspired by A.A. Milne) We can also review the Old Testament (Gen. 2:2) as a reminder, lest we forget, that God rested on the seventh day of creation. In fact, Conservative and Orthodox Jews still observe the Sabbath by resting from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It was only a few decades ago, if any of you were around then to remember, that stores were not open on Sundays to support a day of repose and being with family. Taking such a break can be a reminder that we are not indispensable. Moreover, it can validate for us that the earth will not stop rotating if we take a break from meeting the demands that face us. These demands can be met “all in good time.”
The reality is that not taking enough downtime has detrimental effects:
- We may become more stupid.
Constant activity keeps our bodies in a state of heightened stress arousal. In this state, our fight or flight reactivity, our ancient reptilian brain, is dominating our thoughts and behaviors. Thus we have less access to the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain unique to human beings, where our executive functioning (rational thought, judgment and creativity) reside. Taking opportunities to bring ourselves out of stress arousal into greater balance allows us to utilize the intelligence that sets us apart as humans.
- There are mental health risks to not taking enough vacation from work.
A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (2013, August 2) concluded that employees who work long hours with high job demands are more likely to develop depression. And a 2005 study by the by the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin found that women who took vacations were less likely to suffer from depression than their counterparts who did not. Ultimately, burn-out and resentment can build when we don’t feel rewarded for overextending our energy, going beyond our limitations.
- Productivity and job retention may suffer.
The constant pressure to do more with less, coupled with the belief that being busy means we’re important, is creating an unsustainable pattern. It is worth questioning an unconscious belief that working more makes us more productive. As a case in point, when entrepreneur Henry Ford decreased the workweek of his employees from 48 to 40 hours per week, he found that their productivity actually increased. Likewise, An internal study done by major accounting firm Ernst & Young in 2006 found vacation time was actually correlated with stronger performance. It concluded that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their performance reviews from supervisors were 8 percent higher the following year. The study also found that employees who took vacation time were less likely to leave than their presumably burnt-out counterparts. In my own study of business people who meditate, one of the themes that arose from those who maintained long-term meditation practice was a sense that they were more productive at work, not less, and without adding more time on the job.
- Health may suffer.
There is greater understanding that working too much is simply not healthy. Luckily, when we take time away, these effects are mitigated. For example, the Framingham Heart study (a massive longitudinal research program started in 1948) reported that when workers take annual vacations, their risk for a heart attack is reduced by 30% in men and 50% in women.
Thus, there is no need to feel guilty for taking time off of “doing.” For many people, staying busy has become a way of avoiding what you are feeling, especially discomfort or pain (physical or emotional). On the other hand, non-doing gives you an opportunity to meet what is there without judgment and address it more effectively. From this state, you are better able to utilize the executive functioning of your brain (the rational thought, creativity and judgment) and can tap into the inner wisdom that is inaccessible when you are constantly stimulated. As Joseph Campbell stated, “You must have a place to which you can go in your heart, your mind, or your house, almost every day, where you do not owe anyone and where no one owes you – a place that simply allows for the blossoming of something new and promising.” Moreover, taking time out is an act of self-care rather than selfishness. When you are renewed and feeling more balanced, you are in a better state to respond effectively to the demands in your life.
How to take time to do nothing
Follow Rumi’s advice, “A little while alone in your room will prove more valuable than anything else that could ever be given you.”
– Schedule time for yourself in your calendar on a regular basis and keep the appointment with yourself.
– Take time when arriving somewhere to sit quietly before initiating your activity.
– Take a few minutes between completing tasks as transition time.
– Set up a Sabbath-like period in which you do not engage in “work” activity.
– Set boundaries on TV time, computer time (periodically turn off your phone and email).
What are ways that you carve out time for non-doing? Please share your ideas with so I can enlighten others.
“You do not need to leave your room.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Do not even listen, simply wait.
Do not even wait, be quiet, still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked,
it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
~ Franz Kafka
“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”
Given the pace of the 21st Century world in which we live, too often, when people experience challenges in life, they seek a quick fix. Yet, rarely, if ever, do quick fixes actually resolve our problems. At best, they keep us stuck; sometimes they create more problems for us. In the end, Aesop’s fable usually holds true in this regard: “Slow but steady wins the race.”
Mindfulness practice is similar to exercise and nutrition in the sense that each necessitate that we make ongoing lifestyle changes to truly benefit from them; none of them work if done only temporarily; none of them are quick fixes. For example, to date, there haven’t been any “fad” diets that have been successful over the long term. Moreover, science has not arrived at any medication that provides as much preventive or restorative benefits as exercise, nutrition for the most common diseases humans endure, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes—not to mention that disease care interventions, as opposed to health care approaches, often come along with unwanted side effects. Likewise, mindfulness practice offers a way for people to take an active role in reducing their physical and emotional suffering, improving their well-being. For those benefits to manifest, however, mindfulness requires patience and persistence, and, ultimately, cultivating a new way of being.
If you would like to have a positive impact on your well-being by developing mindfulness practice, here are five suggestions to help you be successful:
1. Actively Practice
Reading about mindfulness is not sufficient, if you want to experience the benefits; practice is necessary. The intellectual context and instructions that books offer may enrich your understanding of mindfulness, yet it is the actual engagement in the practice that ultimately is essential to derive the greatest value. Mindfulness is an active, not passive process. And, developing a mindfulness practice on your own can be difficult. Instead of learning the practice in isolation, you may want to begin by taking a class, or finding a mindfulness sitting group in your area so that you receive support of others who share similar intentions.
2. Practice on a Regular Basis
Consistency of your practice is essential, and, perhaps, more important than how long you practice during each session. For example, you may find it more impactful to practice 20 minutes each day than to practice 45 minutes once each week. Establishing a regular habit of practicing mindfulness is what works best over the long term, while sporadic practice is hard to maintain and rarely gives rise to the potentials that the practice offers.
3. Beware of Ambition
If you become preoccupied about “seeing” results from your practice, you are likely to become discouraged in your efforts. The benefits of mindfulness develop slowly, and often subtly; you may not even notice the changes taking place along the way. Consequently, focusing on potential outcome(s) can sabotage the integrity of your practice. Therefore, it helps to suspend expectations of the practice you might be holding onto.
4. Keep Practicing Mindfulness in a Formal Manner
The ability to extend mindful awareness into the midst of your daily life, while you are working, driving, eating, communicating, recreating, engaged in routine activities, etc., is a valuable skill which is often referred to as “informal mindfulness.” And, this is one of the potential outcomes of practicing mindfulness on a regular basis. However, if you stop practicing mindfulness in a formal manner—in an environment where you minimize distractions for a certain period of time so that you can be with your experience—your informal mindfulness will likely wane.
5. Maintain Your Commitment
Keep on practicing. If your practice falters, find a way to renew it. Sometimes this is difficult to do on your own; seek support if necessary. Finding a mindfulness sitting group where you can practice with others on a regular basis, or attending a retreat for more in-depth practice can be ways to sustain your personal practice.
Mindfulness is a life-time journey, not a sprint. Nevertheless, the ongoing effort that it requires is well worth your commitment! As Beverly Sills pointed out, “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”
“Life is too precious, too important, too short for quick fixes that in the end fix nothing and from which we learn nothing except that we have wasted our time trying to find happiness in short cuts. The only way to real fulfilment is to look inside see what is there, then look outside and see what difference we can make with what we have to offer – whether we knew we had it in us, or whether it was something we grew within us over the coldest, most seemingly dormant, or darkest times, in order to reap the richest harvest of all.”
~ Jacquelene Close Moore
“A stumble may prevent a fall.”
It isn’t uncommon to beat yourself up when you catch yourself in a mindless state. In that moment of realization, the automatic voice of your inner critic enters telling you why you need to kick yourself for your behavior or thoughts, not unlike the ad in which the person hits herself on the forehead when she realizes “I could have had a V8!” Most often the event is something simple and not too harmful; for example, a friend of mine recently told me that he had left some farm-fresh, organic vegetables in the car by mistake and by the time he remembered, hours later, they were no longer edible. There are other times when the outcome is more costly or takes greater wear and tear on you.
Especially when you are new to the practice of mindfulness, you are vulnerable to judging yourself for these gaps in awareness; after all, it is violating the premise of mindfulness to not be present. This self-punishment, however, does not serve you; it is a form of optional suffering that doesn’t add value to your experience and can be counter-productive. Berating yourself does nothing to minimize the chances you will get caught in that same mindless reaction again in the future.
What if, as an alternative, you find the opportunity concealed in these mindless moments? With awareness, these mindless states can actually transform into opportunities for insight. Insight occurs when instead of feeding your inner critic through self-judgment, you notice what hooked you or pulled you away from being present, and see it more clearly. Over time, you may recognize that acknowledging the preoccupations which ensnare your attention is an instrumental part of your path toward greater mindfulness. Those precious moments of awareness are what afford you choice to respond effectively as opposed to the automatic reactions in which you’ve been unconsciously engaged.
So next time you catch yourself in a state of mindless reactivity, before you berate yourself, instead, congratulate yourself for noticing. Relish that crucial moment of awareness and welcome any insight you may bring to light. Overtime, as you continue to practice mindfulness in this manner, it is as if you are gradually uncovering the pearls hidden inside your oysters!
Autobiography in Five Short Chapters
I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost … I am helpless… It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it.I fall in again. I can’t believe I am in the same place. But, it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in … it’s a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
I walk down another street.
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are of little importance compared to what lies within us.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Most of us are familiar with fictional tale “The Wizard of Oz.” In this story, a twister picked up Dorothy’s Kansas house, with her inside, and carried it to the Land of Oz. Dorothy’s mission throughout the remainder of the adventure was to return home. The residents of Oz suggested that she follow the yellow brick road to Emerald City in order to find the Wizard, who supposedly would help her return.
Along the way she met companions: the Scarecrow, who was convinced his life would be better if he only had a brain; the Tin Man, who desired a heart; and the Lion, who believed he was deficient of courage. Each of these characters thought that he was lacking something and put his faith in the legendary Wizard to give him what was missing. However, when they finally reach the Emerald City, their expectations were shattered to find an unsympathetic Wizard. Nevertheless, as they continued the journey, each one illustrated the quality he felt was most absent: the Scarecrow demonstrated wisdom, the Tin Man embodied tenderness, and the Lion behaved bravely. In each case, they revealed that they had those inherent virtues the whole time, but they just weren’t adept at accessing them in the beginning. The Wizard, who turned out to be a charlatan, could only present the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion with outward symbols in recognition of their qualities: a diploma, a medal, and a testimonial, respectively. The Wizard wasn’t able to give them anything they didn’t already possess.
And, what about Dorothy; she still hadn’t found a way home to Kansas? When the Wizard’s hot air balloon finally sailed away from Oz without her, Dorothy believed her last option for returning was lost. Yet, auspiciously, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, appeared once again. Glinda informed Dorothy that she didn’t need to be helped any longer. In fact, Dorothy always had the power to go back to Kansas, but she had to learn it for herself.
Mindfulness practice often follows much the same journey. When first arriving at this practice, many of us have been seeking solace, fulfillment, and security from sources outside of ourselves; to provide what we believe to be lacking or to fill perceived holes in our lives. Yet, we have not found satisfaction in those attempts. In contrast, as we cultivate mindfulness skills, we find a greater ability to bring our attention to our own experience, rather than searching externally. In doing so, we essentially develop the capacity to come into closer contact with our intrinsic nature, to find our way home. Reconnecting with our inner wisdom, heart, and courage is possible. Buddha is commonly quoted as having said, “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” We realize we always have had this power. We just needed to learn how to access it. And, essentially, the way we do this is by bringing our awareness into the present moment, rather than unconsciously becoming engaged in distractions, either outside of ourselves or in our own mind. Bringing your attention to the present moment is the equivalent of Dorothy clicking her heals together and saying, “There’s no place like home.”
“it is here
in the breath
it is here
in the stillness between breaths
it is here
in the active mind
it is here
in the resting mind
it is here
in the dream’s panorama
it is here
in each moment of awakening
it is here
when all is well
it is here
when fear has nothing left to fear
there is pure noticing
there is no need for doing
no frantic searching
can find the obvious
no seeking needed
to find that which seeks
it is here
where it can never be lost
“We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it. But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.”
– John Newton
I’ll begin by sharing with you an often told anecdote. A lecturer, when explaining the impacts of stress to an audience, raised a glass of water and asked, “How heavy is this glass of water?” Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz. The lecturer replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long you try to hold it. If you hold it for a minute, that’s not a problem. If you hold it for an hour, your arm will ache. If you hold it for a day, you’ll have to call an ambulance. In each case, it’s the same weight, but the longer you hold it, the heavier it becomes.” She continued, “And that’s the way it is with stress. If we carry our burdens all the time, no matter how minor they seem, sooner or later, as the burden becomes increasingly heavy, it becomes an obstacle for us.”
Likewise, each of us is vulnerable to preoccupations, from the moment we arise in the morning until we fall asleep at night. Knowingly or unknowingly, we accumulate these concerns and carry them around with us, picking up more and more without freeing ourselves of the previous ones. As we do so, they become a greater and greater burden. You may be surprised at how much weight you are hauling day to day. And that energy can be better employed for things that really matter right now.
Fortunately, mindfulness provides an opportunity for you to lighten your load, to free yourself of these burdens. By asking yourself to be aware of your experience in the here and now, to be fully in the present moment, you can release the energy you are expending on preoccupations that have been consuming your attention. Additionally, as you do this, you can become more familiar with the nature of the concerns that pull your attention and gain insight into those patterns. Recognizing these patterns enables you to allow the preoccupations to arise and pass, without grabbing hold of them, thus freeing you from their encumbrance.
In the midst of a recent group mindfulness practice, one of the participants, Donald, described an experience of his burdens easing in this manner: “And then, between one mindful footstep and another, I realized that I was free. In the moment, I had escaped the weight of the world. The bills, the projects, the politics… None of that was with me in the now. Nor are they now. I am aware of them, patiently waiting their turn. But I’m no longer carrying them, in the now.”
To help facilitate this process, each time I lead an all-day retreat, as part of an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, I offer students the opportunity to lighten their load when the retreat begins. As we check in, I encourage students to hand over to me, for safe keeping during the day, any preoccupations they are carrying with them. To be clear, these are not burdens I add to my own plate, instead, I place them into a virtual, infinite storage space where they can be housed. Students hand over things such as concerns about a work project, a child’s soccer game that is being missed, anxieties about health, errands that need to be run, and a variety of other tasks on “to do” lists. This process assists students by freeing up their attention so that they are more able to bring their awareness fully into the present moment throughout the day. At the end of the retreat, students have the option to collect items they had entrusted to me, or keep them in the storage area more permanently. There are very few people who end up taking back items from the storage area; only things that still require attention are retrieved.
You can do this for yourself. First, recognize what you are carrying around with you – really stop and pay attention as you consider this. Then, before you go any further, out of kindness for yourself, put down anything that may be a burden to you right now. (There is plenty of room in the virtual storage space for your burdens to be housed, so go ahead put them there.) Start even for a moment, and if you can, refrain from picking them back up again. (You may leave them in the storage area permanently.) Repeat this process on a regular basis to continue to lighten your load.