Today, it’s my pleasure to bring to you the author of Mindfulness For Dummies, Shamash Alidina. Shamash is a lecturer, educator and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive (MBCT) teacher in London. He also runs the Learn Mindfulness Community.
Today Shamash gives us mindfulness tips for beginners and long time practitioners, the intersection with positive psychology, how to regain the wonder of life and how to balance work and life.
So without further ado…
Elisha: What tips do you have for those just starting the mindfulness adventure and for those who have at it for a while?
Shamash: For those who are just starting the mindfulness adventure there are five key points I think are helpful to remember:
- Mindfulness is a long term way of living, not just a short term fix of a current issue.
You can use mindfulness to help overcome a particular problem in your life, like depression, anxiety or chronic pain for example, but without fully continuing to integrate mindfulness into your day to day life, you may find it difficult to sustain the initial benefits you reaped through the mindfulness practice. Just as it takes time for a seed to eventually turn into a beautiful plant with gorgeous flowers, so mindfulness takes time and care to flower within your own being. Be patient.
- Mindfulness is about cultivating certain attitudes rather than achieving relaxation or focusing well in one particular meditation.
When you practice a mindfulness exercise, like awareness of the breath, or mindfulness of sounds, you will find your mind drifting off into other worries, concerns or dreams. Sometimes your whole meditation will be dominated by such thoughts and challenging emotions and you may feel far from relaxed. To be able to stick with the practice requires certain attitudes. By cultivating attitudes of self-compassion, curiosity of your experience even if it is unpleasant, and an acknowledgment of your moment to moment experience, you’ll be less disheartened. Usually mindfulness feels like it makes no difference at all – that’s okay, just stick with the practice and you are sure to reap the rewards.
- Mindfulness is not a special state of mind that you’ve never experienced before.
Everyone practices mindfulness from time to time. Whenever you are paying attention to your experience, whatever that may be, is a moment of mindfulness. However our experience is often overly dominated by a lack of acceptance, judgment and self-criticism – through the practice of mindfulness exercises and meditations on a regular basis, you become better at acknowledging and being with your present moment experience as it is, rather than just being lost in thoughts or overwhelmed by emotions.
- Keep weaving the parachute every day; don’t wait for the day when you need to jump out of the plane.
Make some time everyday to practice mindfulness, even if it’s only 5 minutes. A little bit of daily mindfulness is far better than once a week or month. If you wait for the time when you are very stressed, anxious or in a challenging life situation, mindfulness will be able to help you there too, but a daily practice will make the difficulty more tolerable and perhaps even seen as a beneficial learning opportunity.
- Beware of the thought ‘I can’t do mindfulness.’
Everyone can be mindful. The very fact that you are alive and are able to read this interview means you are already practicing mindfulness to some extent. Usually my students who say they can’t do mindfulness have an idea of what mindfulness is – and that idea is an absence of thoughts, a feeling of peace and calm or an ability to relax. These are possible long term outcomes of daily mindfulness practice, but the key point is long term. In any one mindfulness practice any kind of challenging thought/emotion/bodily sensation can come up. And that’s perfectly normal and part of mindfulness. The mind wandering off into heaps of different thoughts again and again, and for long periods of time is also very much a part of mindfulness.
For more experienced practitioners, I would say the main danger is being too comfortable, getting habitual in your practice and thinking you’re an expert! As Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki said ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.’
I would encourage seasoned mindfulness enthusiasts to challenge themselves with different practices. Perhaps you could go on a different type of retreat, practice mindfulness meditation that you normally avoid or feel uncomfortable with and try practicing with your eyes open if you normally just meditate with eyes closed. Anything to shift a habitual pattern is helpful and makes the whole process exciting and challenging rather than just a comfortable escape from the difficulties of daily living.
The other danger is becoming too obsessed with mindfulness. Mindfulness is about keeping things in balance and perspective, including mindfulness. Take time to have some fun and let yourself go from time to time – especially mindfulness ‘experts’! Sometimes I think experienced mindfulness practitioners just need to chill out…in the nicest possible sense of course.
Elisha: Why did you blend mindfulness with positive psychology and what’s the benefit?
Shamash: In my research I was surprised to find that very few books on mindfulness bridge the gap between mindfulness and positive psychology so I thought it was very important for me to include a chapter to address this.
There is a lot of excitement in the relatively new field of positive psychology, which is essentially the psychology of well being. Ultimately everyone wants to be happy and well, but what are the factors that help us to achieve this? Research has found that excessive money is not the answer, nor is a big house, fast cars or the latest fashionable clothes.
What does boost your inner sense of well being is the quality and quantity of your personal relationships, and combining your daily activities or work with your values, so that what you do gives you a sense of meaning.
Helping others and remembering to be grateful for what you do have are useful. In my opinion all these ways of boosting your sense of wellbeing are enhanced through mindfulness. In fact, positive psychologists have found mindfulness to be a powerful way towards greater wellbeing. People who practice mindfulness regularly have brains that have rewired themselves to be more resilient and resourceful when facing life’s difficulties, and are more open to seeing things in a positive light.
Mindfulness has also been shown to enhance personal relationships, which goes hand in hand with greater wellbeing as humans are social animals and benefit tremendously from positive contact with others.
Flow is another state of mind studied in positive psychology, which is where your mind is totally focused on whatever you are doing, like when you are doing your favorite sport, reading a fascinating interview (!), or engaging in a hobby. This state of mind is associated with a great feeling of well being. Mindfulness is partly about training your mind to pay attention with warmth and kindness, and this ability leads to greater instances of flow and therefore well being in your life. Mindfulness is a powerful way of living in the positive psychologist’s repertoire of recommendations.
Elisha: Why is it that when we grow up we lose our sense of wonder?
Shamash: That’s a great question because the sense of wonder is a beautiful emotion – it’s a feeling of awe, reverence and fascination that are so powerful they intrinsically give you inspiration and make life worth living.
Why do we lose our sense of wonder? As we grow up we are encouraged to move from the world of our senses and vivid imagination, to the world of words and thoughts, goals and ambitions, future and past. In mindfulness this is often referred to as ‘doing mode’ leading to ‘automatic pilot.’
Most schools do a great job in bringing up children and I was a teacher myself for 10 years, but the emphasis in my experience was heavily on passing on a body of knowledge and achieving the highest grades possible. This obviously has its advantages but there are problems with it too.
If you train a child year after year to focus on the future and on achieving certain goals, that is what they are going to do. Some teachers and parents are aware of the imbalance in society and take time to encourage children to look at that tree, to enjoy a stroll in the local woods or discuss the value of seeing beauty in the present moment rather than only rewarding material success. If this doesn’t happen, it’s easy for the child to become an adult and keep looking for satisfaction in the next job, the next relationship, the next child, the next paycheck or the next holiday – never stopping to enjoy the here and now.
I would guess that for some people this sense of wonder is briefly experienced on holiday. They may be fortunate enough to find a few moments of peace and see the sun setting or the full moon on a cool summer’s evening. Suddenly they are filled with a sense of awe – they remember that the world can be a mysterious and stunning place, beyond their own inner problems and issues.
The very fact that they are alive, here and now, is a miracle in itself. But these moments come when we’re not focusing on where we’ll find the money for this month’s rent, or how to get out of this current bout of depression – which is totally understandable. We need to be fortunate enough that our lives are relatively safe and secure – and if we are lucky in that sense, it’s important to find space and time to reflect on the miracle and mystery of our own existence and the universe around us. Actually I have sprinkled the importance of embracing the mystery of being alive throughout my Mindfulness For Dummies book as I feel it’s such a key aspect of mindful living.
Elisha: How can you be more mindful in balancing work and life?
Shamash: In my book, I include a story of a lumberjack, which I can summarize for you now. Out in a wild forest lived a busy lumberjack who had to chop trees to earn a living. One day as the lumberjack was busily chopping trees down and looking more frustrated than ever a wise person happened to be passing by. He looked at the lumberjack’s axe and noticed that it was blunt. ‘Why don’t you stop and sharpen you axe?’ said the wise man calmly. ‘In this way, you’ll be able to chop the trees more efficiently and have time to rest with your family and friends.’ The lumberjack retorted ‘I don’t have time to stop! Can’t you see how busy I am! I have too many trees to chop!’
Sometimes our attitude is the same without realizing it. We are feeling tired and need a rest, some space, some silence for mindfulness and meditation, but we think we’re just too busy or too tired. However without sharpening the axe of your own mind with mindfulness, you can end up trying to work even harder, putting more pressure on your relationships at home and increasing the likelihood of illness, inefficiency and frustration. So, make some time in your life for yourself and be still and quiet and rest – you’re not doing nothing, you’re recharging your batteries, and all batteries need recharging if they are to continue to work.
Here are some of my tips for bringing space and therefore more mindfulness into the workplace:
- Set an alarm or reminder to stop and feel your breathing for 1 minute every hour
- Try meditating at the end of your work day. This helps clarify the boundary between home and work. Many of my students love to do this.
- Spend some time every month to reflect on how you can work smarter rather than just harder. Think of creative ways of integrating more mindfulness into your daily schedule.
- Go for a short mindful walk at lunchtime. Feel your feet on the ground as you walk, or enjoy looking at the sky for a few minutes.
- Use the time you spend in the washroom as an opportunity to center yourself using your favorite mindful practice. This is one of the few times in the day where you have some privacy and space – make use of the opportunity. Going to the washroom will never be the same again!
Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was truly suffering, what advice would you give them?
Shamash: First of all I would do my best to listen to them, not just with my ears and not just listen to their words, but listen to their emotions, their inner attitudes, their bodies and their facial expression. I would try and recall times in my life when I have suffered and be as compassionate as I can manage.
There’s no one solution for all of life’s struggles, and the right thing to do depends on each particular situation and the character of the person that is facing the difficulty – I would avoid giving too much advice and encourage them to consider what they think may be the best thing for them to do through asking specific and open questions. I believe in trusting one’s own inner intuition – this has been shown to be immensely quick, intelligent and wise. They know themselves far better than I do.
However, I would remind them of the importance of physical exercise, socializing with good friends or family, eating healthily, and practicing mindfulness help look after themselves at this difficult time – these methods have been well proven to be immensely beneficial for mental and physical well being.
Finally, if appropriate, I would remind them that the nature of life means there will be suffering. It doesn’t mean that there life is going wrong – it’s part and parcel of being alive. You are not a failure at life because you are suffering. Just as the sky is not a failure if it’s filled with clouds, so you are not a failure if you’re filled with suffering. Everyone suffers in one way or another. Suffering does present a challenge and although it may seem intolerable at the moment, this is the time where a huge amount of growth and learning is taking place. This is the time to be as kind and gentle with yourself as you can.
Thank you so much for your wisdom Shamash.
To the readers: Please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.