The positive effects of mindfulness and meditation have been in the news a lot lately. From Time to ESPN The Magazine, we are hearing that slowing down to observe the present moment can lead to greater personal control and better results.
“Meditation is as important as lifting weights and being out here on the field for practice,” Russell Okung, an offensive lineman for the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks, told ESPN in September 2013. “It’s about quieting your mind and getting into certain states. … There are so many things telling you that you can’t do something, but you take those thoughts captive, take power over them and change them.”
Mindfulness skills are a core element to dialectical behavior therapy. Why? Because we often seek to avoid painful emotions and experiences which can lead to problems. Often what we’re avoiding tends to stick around, maybe even cropping up in a new way. Or our efforts to avoid—like drinking or using drugs to escape—end up hurting our bodies and our relationships. When a person lacks awareness, he or she acts impulsively to escape pain or fulfill a desire.
And while it makes sense that we would try to avoid discomfort, is that really possible? Entirely? No. Difficult circumstances occur. What we continually try to figure out, as humans, is how to tolerate difficult circumstances. In our darkest moments, we might even think to ourselves, “How am I going to make it through this? How can I survive this?”
This is where mindfulness comes in. The key to this skill is its ability to break life up into more manageable chunks. Often when we think about things, we are thinking about the past and the future, and the weight of all of that crushes us.
If we can instead focus on this one moment, right in this very second, even if it is painful, we can handle it for that second. Not only that, but we’re expanding our awareness to let other information in, which also affects our experience. This allows us to also pay attention to other things going on that might be really pleasant.
We don’t necessarily change the pain, but we change our relationship to the pain. I always think of a scene from the film The Matrix, where the lead character talks to a little boy who is looking at a spoon and successfully bending it with his mind. The boy eventually tells Keanu Reeves’ character the secret—not to focus on bending the spoon, but to realize that “it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”
The concept of being within a dream, awakening from it, and finally gaining control over it is shown throughout the film. And while our lives are not a dream, we can take steps to “awaken” ourselves and try to be more in touch with this moment. When we are able to do that, the moment becomes more tolerable and we gather more information to make wiser, more conscious decisions.
Acting as an impulse robs us of control. As an alternative, mindfulness skills help develop a lifestyle of participation with attention and awareness, so we can have access to our wisdom, even in the middle of chaotic or painful circumstances.
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