Life is full of ups and downs. Yes, this is absolutely true. But the question is what can help us live through the difficulties with greater ease and even find the joy in everyday life. Mindfulness is one of those tools, but how about zen practice or ninja training? Dr. Richard Sears is full-time core faculty member of the Psy.D. Program in Clinical Psychology at Union Institute & University, and is the Director of the Center for Clinical Mindfulness and Meditation. He also has a fifth degree black belt in ninjitsu and once serve as a personal protective agent for the Dalai Lama. He’s author of many books and most recently Mindfulness: Living Through Challenges and Enriching Your Life In This Moment.
You can see maybe why I wanted to bring him here today to talk about why mindfulness is helpful for our present day maladies, a helpful tool from Zen practice, and what we can learn from ninja training to get out of our heads and into our lives.
Elisha: Why is mindfulness so effective in working with our personal mental, emotional and physical maladies?
Richard: I begin to feel like a snake oil salesman when I talk about all the research demonstrating the benefits of mindfulness, but the key factor is awareness. By paying more attention to how things actually are in this moment, we can recognize the automatic reaction patterns we get caught up in, and can make more conscious choices about what we do in each moment.
In this fast-paced world of amazing technology, it becomes so easy to get lost in our heads, stuck in our thinking. The more intelligent we are, the more we can get caught up in worries about all kinds of possible future problems, and the more we can fall into ruminations about all the could/should/would-have-beens in our past.
All this thinking and rushing around triggers the body’s stress response, which can cause long-term mental and physical damage. In the short term, the stress response is actually a good thing. If you are being chased by a tiger, you need the adrenaline and cortisol to get your heart beating to increase your blood pressure to get oxygen to your muscles. You shut down your digestive system to give more energy to your muscles, and boost your immune system in case you get hurt. After you get away, or the tiger gets tired, the stress response shuts off and you relax. Our problem today is that we rarely fully relax. Our minds create all kinds of mental tigers — worrying about paying the bills, thinking about all the stuff we are behind on at work, ruminating about what we said to someone last week, etc. So instead of being a short-term response, our brains are washed with stress chemicals all day long, and we end up with tense muscles, heart problems, high blood pressure, immune systems issues, and digestive problems.
Mindfulness involves becoming more aware of what is happening right now – what our senses are telling us, what our thoughts and emotions are doing, and what is going on in our bodies. Reminding ourselves of where we are and what we are doing in this moment, and taking a deep breath, helps prevent the continuous activation of the stress response. The more we practice doing this, the more joy we can discover in our moments, and the more we can genuinely engage with the people around us.
Mindfulness practice also helps us become more kind to ourselves. Instead of thinking I’m a terrible person for having a negative thought about myself, I can recognize the thinking as a sign of stress. Instead of getting anxious about my anxiety, or mad at my anger, or sad about my depression, I can give myself permission to feel whatever I am already feeling, and make a conscious choice about how to take care of myself. We often spend huge amounts of time and energy battling ourselves.
Interestingly, practicing mindfulness not only reduces stress, but a “side effect” of being present in what you are doing allows you to get more done. When you are writing a report, you become better able to just write that report without constantly worrying about all the other reports you haven’t written yet. You begin to realize that you can only be present in the moment you are in, and while you may sometimes choose to take the time to plan for the future or learn from the past, you live less in your head and more in your life. All of your experiences can become more enriched when you actually show up for them.
Elisha: I know you had a background in ninja training, what did you learn there that can help the rest of us work through difficulty and enrich our lives?
Richard: When I began my ninja training as a young teenager, I wanted to become a kind of “superhero,” able to stand up to bullies and to protect people. However, I quickly discovered that our worst enemies are in our own minds. The most insidious forms of violence take place from lack of understanding. Peace comes from first facing our inner demons. This is where I began my mindfulness training. In order to slay the dragons of ignorance, I had to become more aware of my patterns of thinking, my old emotional patterns, and the dynamics of relationships.
I found that my physical training and techniques became a wonderful model for understanding how my mind works. If I was thinking too much about what I was going to do next, I would be thrown to the floor. If I was berating myself for getting thrown, or even praising myself for a cool move I just did, I was no longer in the moment, and would again lose the match. It taught me to stay fully present in each moment as things unfolded.
Perhaps the greatest lesson was about power of intention. No matter what my thoughts were screaming, or what my emotions were telling me, I could still take decisive action when necessary. This has probably saved my life, in both a literal and metaphorical sense, many times.
Elisha: I also know you have a background in Zen. Without getting too specific about the differences within the traditions themselves, what is the difference to you between Zen and much of the mindfulness that we practice with today stemming from the Theravada Buddhism? How do you see the value of each?
Richard: I see the many traditions in the world as paths taking us to the same place. Each school emphasizes different aspects of working with the mind, but there is only one present moment.
For me, someone who works in academia and relies a lot on the intellect, I found Zen a very direct way to cut through the habit of living in my head. My Zen teacher, Venerable Wonji Dharma, defines Zen practice very simply as, “What do you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste, moment after moment after moment?” In other words, we practice coming to our senses right now. Everything else only exists in our heads.
Working with koans, which we might call “mindfulness in dialogue,” is a process in which the teacher asks the student a series of questions, such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” This training shows us the many ways our minds create problems where none exist, as the answers to questions like this are very simple and direct. It also teaches us the way our minds operate, how often we get “hooked” or worked up by nonexistent problems.
Elisha: As we bring this interview to a close, do you have a practice that you can share with us that can help us bring more mindfulness into our lives right now?
Richard: I once attended a mindful breathing class with my ninja teacher Stephen K. Hayes who gave us a very simple homework assignment: Breathe 6 times a day. We all laughed at first, since of course we breathe thousands of times a day. But his point is very simple. If we can remember more often to stop and take a breath, we can begin to interrupt the “go, go, go” habit of compulsive doing and thinking. Taking a breath resets our stress response system and brings us back into this moment, where we can start fresh. He jokingly noted that some overachievers may wake up first thing in the morning and do all 6 of their breaths to “get them done,” but even that will begin to change the habit of rushing into the day.
Thank you for your wisdom Richard.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.