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90 second book review: Mindfulness

I’m not sure when I first became aware of the concept of mindfulness (or present moment awareness, living in the “now”), but I think it had to be when I read this quote from C.S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters:

The humans live in time but our Enemy* destines them to eternity.  He therefore, I believe, wants to them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present.  For the present is the point of time at which time touches eternityOf the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them.  He would therefore have them…either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the pleasant pleasure.

Since then the idea has rattled around in my head until about a year ago I resolved to start meditating.  Everyone from Tim Ferris to Daniel Siegel to Sam Harris made a strong connection between mindfulness and meditation, so it seemed clear that if I wanted to be more mindful, if I wanted to grab ahold of that freedom that Screwtape wrote about to Wormwood, I had to start meditating.

My initial attempt lasted for about a week (two if I am being generous).  Despite my best intentions, and a few good guided meditation tracks, I just couldn’t make it stick.  I couldn’t make it a habit.  Then last year I heard about the subject of this quick review: Mindfulness, Finding Peace in a Frantic World.  It’s co-authored by a clinical psychologist and a journalist, so no “woo-woo” (OK, a little woo-woo, but not to the point that it was distracting) and its very well written.

The book begins with an introduction to a few basic concepts.  There are two new (toe me) main ideas that I took away from the opening chapters: being vs. doing mind and the concept that effective meditation is not a mind devoid of thoughts.  The being vs, doing mind concept says that there are two modes of the mind: a doing mode which is all about accomplishing a task.  This is where our habits and rational mind exist.  And a being mode, which is all about taking things in as experience.  The authors argue that most of us spend far too much time in doing mode at the expense of being mode.  I found a strong correlation between these ideas and that of the Trivium.  Doing mode is equivalent to rhetoric, or output.  Being mode is equivalent to grammar, or input.  If we spend all of our time outputting, and not enough time inputting then over time the model we base what happens in between (logic) becomes corrupted; it becomes out of touch with the reality that is around us.  I want to get things done, but I see now that having my mind in doing mode all the time actually isn’t the most effective path.  Being mode allows you to recalibrate the model of the world I carry around in my mind, on which I base all my decisions, so that those decisions can be more effective when they are played out back in that world.

The concept of effective meditation not being a mind devoid of thoughts is a game changer for me.  I realized that I wasn’t bad at meditation simply because I couldn’t immediately drop into some sort of zen state – mind like water.  Rather, it’s called practicing because no one ever gets really good at it.  Each time my mind wanders is not a failure, but rather an opportunity to notice what has happened and direct my attention back to whatever I happen to be focusing on in this particular session.  It’s actually the noticing and the gentle redirection that IS the practice.  With this understanding in mind, my first few meditation sessions after reading the book where much more successful – I saw the effects of being able to notice when my mind had wandered or been distracted outside of the meditation, through the day and was able to catch myself and stay focused on whatever my intention was at the time.

The meditations I started after finishing Mindfulness are described in the core of the book, after the introduction.  The authors prescribe an 8 week course with specific guided meditations each week.  The goal is to complete the prescribed meditation for the week 6 out of 7 days, then move on to the next week.  Each prescription includes a single or in some cases a series of audio tracks to guide you.  What clicked here for me was not the audio tracks however, I had tried guided meditation before.  This attempt was different because I had a why.  The book explained the goal and the principle behind each meditation.  It wasn’t just a soothing voice telling me to focus on my breath.  I knew why I was doing it.  As odd as it may sound, what finally got my doing mind quiet enough to let my being mind step forward was a reason, a “why”.

I’m into week 6 of the 8 week course so far and I can already see results.  I do notice when I am getting distracted and can get myself back on track much more easily.  I do notice more of whats around me and what’s happening and am spending less time living “from the neck up” or “lost in thought.”  When I am in doing mode, it is a much more conscious decision and the results seem to be much more effective and directed.  Most of all, I my overall goal is starting to shift from happiness, to peace.  I can see clearly how I can be more at peace, how a “mind like water” can emerge as part of my daily life by spending some time focusing on how unlike water it can be during meditation.

As a complete novice, I can say with some level of confidence that I think everyone would benefit from meditation.  Just like starting to exercise or eat better, you just have to get past whatever hang-ups you have and stick to a plan long enough to see the differences that make it a habit.  Mindfulness got me past my hang-ups and gave me the plan.  If you think you are ready or need the benefits that living in the present, pick-up a copy and give it a try.

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