Mindfulness helps us to connect with a deeper sense of who we really are and experience abiding and long-lasting inner peace.
Mindfulness is a state of relaxed and alert attention of the present moment. It involves focusing just on what’s happening now. Deep mindfulness is an altered state of consciousness in which everything slows right down, allowing a heightened awareness of the present moment.
In contrast, when we are in ordinary consciousness we have thousands of thoughts rushing around in our heads at any one time. The nature of these thoughts is such that we reference from our past experience and project what we think will happen into the future, bypassing the present moment entirely.
Physiologically, the body reacts in the same way to what we imagine as to what is objectively real. The end result is a body that finds itself in a continual state of alarm and tension as we continually prepare ourselves for the worst.
If we’re habitually stuck in the future, we usually experience anxiety in the drive to control any number of catastrophic outcomes we may imagine. If we’re habitually stuck in the past, we might experience feeling stuck or bogged down with sorrow, depression or anguish. It is precisely these states of mind that cause all our suffering.
The first step to practicing mindfulness is the skill of dual awareness. Dual awareness is the recognition that we each have two parts of ourselves: The Experiencer and the Observer.
The Experiencer is that in which we are caught up every day. This is the part of ourselves that is fully involved in everything that happens to us — from our anxious overthinking to the adrenalin rush we get in times of exhilaration.
All too often in our culture we have an over-developed Experiencer where we believe “I am my experience.” For example, if someone cuts me off in traffic, I might yell out “I am furious!” In that moment I have become completely caught up in and identified with my fury. I am the fury and nothing else exists.
This kind of emotional experience has a distinct timeless quality to it: it feels like I always have felt this way, I always will feel this way and people will always behave in ways to make me feel this way. In that moment I have lost myself and who I truly am. I no longer have access to any other part of me that might offer me different response possibilities in that moment.
In that moment, the cool, rational part, the humorous, quirky part and the active, imaginative part cease to exist. This is truly the definition of suffering: over-identification with experience.
Now think back to any other painful emotional experience you’ve had that is deeply familiar. Perhaps it’s an abiding sense of grief and loss that acts as a background to your whole life. Perhaps it’s a simmering rage or a sense of numbness and emptiness.
All too often we carry identification with experience from childhood where something may have happened that disturbed our developing sense of ourselves. Children in earlier stages of development have an egocentric view of the universe. In other words, they are the center around which all things revolve. For example, “if mommy and daddy divorce it is my fault. If I had been better behaved, prettier, cleverer or quieter this would never have happened.”
From these experiences we develop core beliefs about ourselves that are sustained throughout adulthood unless we address them, such as in psychotherapy. Typical beliefs might be “I’m not good enough,” “I’m unworthy,” “I don’t have the capacity,” and “I’m unlovable.” Present-time experiences only serve to reinforce these dysfunctional beliefs and trigger ongoing bouts of suffering.
Enter the Observer: the antidote to suffering. The Observer sits back and coolly notices what is happening in the moment. It describes our experience simply (seven words or fewer): “I notice an angry feeling right now.”
The wisdom of the Observer is that it recognizes that all experience is transitory. All feelings, no matter how intense, all arise and pass away.
Thus the statement: “I feel furious,” though imperceptibly different from “I am furious,” contains an ocean of wisdom. It says, “Although an experience of rage is passing through me right now, it will pass and it is not who I am.”
Mindfulness is so useful because it allows us to slow down enough to study the deep internal processes that drive our problematic symptoms. Normally we are too busy and preoccupied to understand what’s happening to us. Sometimes we aren’t even aware that there is a problem.
By learning mindfulness and practicing regularly we can retrain our minds to remain more connected with ourselves and our experience and thus lead a happier, more fulfilling life.