Dirty hippies, bad music and even worse food – until very recently, that’s all that came to mind when I thought about meditation or mindfulness. Like many skeptical, ambitious Americans I was a victim of the poor brand that Eastern philosophies occupy in the west, thanks to ponytailed and sandaled residents of places like Coachella and Burning Man.
After a very dark period a few years ago I became very serious about getting healthy for not just the future but also my immediate day-to-day. While difficult for me, concepts like good sleep, diet and people made intuitive sense to me – it wasn’t until I came across two recent books that I ever thought of meditation as more than a cultural signifier of guilty baby boomers, trying to lend some spiritual weight to their sandals-over-suits sensibility
Thank Buddha I have around in a huge way, largely in part to those two books, both by prominent thinkers with the last name Harris: News anchor Dan Harris’s 10% Happier and neuroscientist Sam Harris’s Waking Up. Both these authors are well-known for their critical look at religion and spirituality and both books do a great job of separating out the practical and positive from the supernatural and mythical when it comes to mindfulness.
Dan Harris relates some very funny stories of engaging with all manner of spiritual guides until he finally discovers well-credentialed researches like Jon Kabat Zinn and Mark Epstein who apply these ancient Buddhist teachings to modern medicine. He also shares a moving story of drug dependence and adrenaline dependence following a stretch as a war reporter in Afghanistan.
Sam Harris, well known as a critic of religion in public policy, recounts some surprising facts about his decade long search for spirituality, and experiences with mind-altering drugs and a series of gurus and teachers ranging from outright frauds to apparently-transcendent beings of pure joy.
If only American fans of meditation had better fashion, maybe more people would do it…
It would be a great disservice to not just these two books, but also the thousands of years of culture and history around these concepts to promise any real sort of summary,,,
But I sincerely hope this post can be a jumping off point for other people like me who could greatly benefit from something they initially write off as “fuzzy woo woo.”
I take wonderful benefits from these ideas without holding on to any hard-to-believe myths about reincarnation, levitation and the aesthetic appeal of wearing Birkenstocks with wool socks.
In some ways mindfulness is deceptively simple – it’s essentially the practice of living exactly in the moment. This doesn’t mean (at least for me) that you have no anxieties about the past future, it just means that you acknowledge these thoughts for exactly – what they are – thoughts and you let them move past you.
Another important point from Sam Harris’s Waking Up is that the frantic internal narrator that we experience is not separate from our bodies; we are not passengers in our bodies, we ARE our bodies. These concepts are difficult even for seasoned experts but if we start jus taking even 5 minutes a day to sit, and not eliminate in our thoughts, but simply observe them and observe the moment and be IN our bodies it can make a big difference for dealing with stress, pain and even the minor embarrassments that constantly run through our heads.
It’s a hard fought battle for me. As someone who is working hard in a competitive field– my work often seems to be a hilarious opposite to best practices of mindfulness. The constant emailing, tweeting, tumbling etc is always taking my head out of present situations. Some people have the luxury of shutting off social media – but for me this is how I earn my living in a very practical direct sense.
It took me a long time to learn that by shutting everything down for hours (even days!) at a time I actually do BETTER with the work when I am fully focused. Just as Ive recently learned that an 8 hour workday can be much better then a 12 hour workday because the quality and productivity benefits greatly from breaks.
Still being the skeptic that I am I reached out to a clinical practitioner, not a monk or guru, to find out more. I interviewed Dr. John Lefkowits, PhD about the practical implications of mindfulness. Dr. Lefkowits is a DC area forensic psychologist who often works with divorce and custody cases, one of the great lightning rods for stress in our society.
What is the biggest unexpected benefit of mindfulness practice?
Today’s world is extraordinarily stimulating, noisy and busy. People become increasingly uncomfortable with quiet. Mindfulness actually helps people become more comfortable with being quiet
What is a working definition of mindfulness for an average person?
A simple way of thinking about mindfulness is developing a greater appreciation for the fullness of each moment. This can happen by examining ourselves through a particular form of attention which is present and nonjudgmental.
Whats the top book you would recommend on the subject? Why?
The first book I usually recommend is a short, user friendly introduction to mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn called “Wherever you go there you are”. The chapters are very short, the concepts are nicely explained and a range of practices are offered by the author.
What do you think the biggest limitation of mindful practice is?
This may sound odd, but there are no limitations. Mindfulness can truly apply to every aspect of your life. Applications of mindfulness have been successful in a wide range of areas such as pain management, sports psychology, managing depression and anxiety as well as ADHD and PTSD.
Mindfulness can boost empathy, academic success and even help improve your relationships.
For someone who is struggling and has never used any of these techniques whats the first small step they can take?
For many people learning a new skill can seem overwhelming. It is best to start slowly by checking out a book or even a short video on line. Depending on how you learn, sometimes finding a teacher or guide can be most helpful.