(The image at left, created by artist Alice Popkorn, is licensed under Creative Commons.)
Thanks to a tweet from Valdis Krebs (@valdiskrebs) yesterday, I was directed to an article entitled “Mindfulness Meditation Training Changes Brain Structure in Eight Weeks.” The bottom line is that people who participated in a mindfulness program – where they meditated and did other “mindfulness exercises” for at least 27 minutes a day in an effort to reduce stress – overwhelmingly achieved that goal. At the end of eight weeks, using MRIs, the researchers observed:
increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.
Wow! So that means all I have to do is learn how to meditate, practice it daily, and all of a sudden not only will my anxiety and stress fade away, but I’ll be smarter, more self-aware, and more compassionate.
There’s only one problem here. I really suck at meditation. I’m easily distracted, and furthermore, I’m a “quality expert” which means I can’t NOT try to be more efficient, effective, productive, etc – avoiding waste is my nature!! Even if I had the skills to do it properly, meditation has always felt, to me, like wasting time. (Darn it.) I even spent weeks and weeks last summer trying to become more mindful. Didn’t work. I finally stopped beating myself up for not focusing hard enough on being mindful and letting it slip away.
I’m sure there are a lot of people like me. You’d like to become more mindful, more self-aware, more able-to-enjoy-the-moment… but it’s hard to do. And meditation is just not helping. And so you keep anxiously moving from moment to moment, trying to be here now, but there’s way too much to think about and get done and it’s never going to end.
One day this past December, I was driving on the interstate in the middle of the afternoon. The road was laying itself out in front of me, the trees were swaying in the light wind and the low solar angle, and I was checking out the dents in the Nissan driving in front of me. And then it dawned on me… Wow, I am TOTALLY here in this moment RIGHT NOW! This must be what mindfulness is all about! I was experiencing all of the tiny details of the moment, perfectly content where I was in my seat, and where I was along the path from there-to-home, and it really didn’t matter what I was doing or not doing. Or what I had or didn’t have. Or what would happen tomorrow or not. Or what would happen an hour from now… or not. Or who thought what thoughts of me… or not.
It just didn’t matter… none of it. I was just pleasantly entangled in the moment, and totally content. (And this is not like me… I knew something had changed.)
I spent the next few days wondering how in the world this instant mindfulness happened. All of a sudden, it was all over the place. I remember mindfully eating chicken wings. Mindfully cutting my nails. Mindfully packing my bookbag to go to work. It was all around me, and there’s nothing I did to make it happen, or so I thought.
A few weeks later I figured it all out. Mindfulness is not something you can GO GET, it’s something that comes to you. All of the focused meditation and breathing I could have done would not have made me more mindful, at least not beyond the ephemeral moments of its immediate impact. And it comes to you when you consciously choose to do things that make you happy.
I had made a decision a few weeks prior to do something that would make me happy at least once a day, and to stop doing things that did not make me happy. If I really had to do something I didn’t like, I consciously found a way to do something happy as a component of doing the thing I wasn’t interested in. If I just didn’t have the energy to do something happy, I’d go take a nap (assuming that my attitude was a result of being tired – and usually, it was). I stopped trying to force the outcomes on my to-do list and get things done, and decided that I would attack only those items that I could really be happy about doing. Furthermore, I decided that I was going to stop lying to myself and others. If I wasn’t enjoying an activity, I would find a way to stop doing it – and if I was enjoying something, I would find a way to do more of it.
This is all a work in progress. But I can say that after a few weeks of my “focus on doing stuff to make me happy” exercise, I got mindfulness for free, and so far, it’s staying with me. No meditation. No breathing, other than what I had to do to stay alive. No past, no future. No worries.