Wellbeing is the scientific term for happiness. It takes place at the level of thought and feeling. Not surprisingly, pleasant thoughts create pleasant emotional states and unpleasant thoughts create unpleasant ones. The reverse is also true: when we experience unpleasant emotional states, the brain is more likely to generate unpleasant thoughts—and a self-perpetuating cycle takes place. This has important implications in terms of wellbeing because unpleasant thoughts and feelings, if experienced chronically, are at odds with wellbeing and are physiologically harmful. They create emotional distress, which generates physiological stress, and chronic physiological stress contributes to disease. One of the most effective ways to increase wellbeing is to learn to think in healthier ways.
For almost three years I have been writing informative, but intellectual articles on my personal blog. Recently, I have been inspired by the authenticity and transparency seen in the writing of my close friend Will Meecham, MD, in his Psych Central blog http://blogs.psychcentral.com/childhood-adversity/ That inspiration is motivating me to share on my new Psych Central blog some of my personal suffering along with the mindfulness-based practices that led me out of that suffering. My hope is that this writing will inspire and serve you. I will try to balance good evidence-based information with openhearted, honest sharing about my personal struggles to climb out of suffering, which has resulted in some improvements in my health. Living with physical and emotional pain all my life had left me with a sense that I was flawed, not only physically, but as a human being. A sense of shame colored everything in my life. I had been relentlessly criticized and shamed by my mother on a daily basis as a child. I believe my daily emotional distress led to chronic physiological stress, which in turn eventuated into several chronic medical conditions.
In Part One, I described a life of living by your personal values while keeping your goals in the back of your mind. In Part Two, I describe a practice that makes such a way of life possible. It is the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is foundational to living by your values because it allows you to objectively observe your behavior and consciously choose to keep redirecting your actions in alignment with your personal values and goals. Think of the last time you were doing something that wasn’t going well, and you were feeling time pressured and irritated. Now, objectively observe your behavior in that instance. How could you have improved the situation? If you’re living a vibrant life, at the instant when you become aware (thanks to a mindfulness practice) that you are behaving in a way that isn’t aligned with how you want to live, you can recognize that you actually have the power to tune in to how you want to live in that moment. You can consciously alter your behavior.
Mindfulness practices have grown exponentially in recent years worldwide. In this article, I will introduce you to a powerful application of mindfulness practice that is often overlooked during trainings at Buddhist meditation centers or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction courses: living by your personal values and goals in each mindful moment. You are not likely to function well in the world without identifying what you stand for, what you want to be about, what really matters to you, and how you truly want to live your life. These things are all reflective of your personal life values. Examples are acceptance, authenticity, transparency, intimacy, self-connection, self-valuing, community, and service to others. Recognizing your personal values is an essential a priori requirement to identifying your goals. And living without goals is like trying to sail a rudderless boat; goals serve to keep you on course as you live by your values. Examples of goals are supporting the family, having a satisfying job, living in a beautiful place, learning to play a musical instrument, and finding a path for personal growth.
Are you one of the many people who received training in vipassana, Zen, or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction but found you just couldn’t seem to stick with a daily sitting meditation practice? The most common reason I have heard for this is, “My mind just keeps wandering all over the place.” When I hear that, I always explain that this is true for all of us, and that the practice simply involves nonjudgmentally returning to the object of focus—most often the sensations of breathing—as soon as you realize the mind has wandered. Still, many people simply do not want to set aside time each day for a sitting meditation practice. This means they are not reaping the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Research shows that just eight weeks of daily mindfulness meditation improves brain structure and function. Admittedly, the changes that take place in that length of time are extremely small; studies reveal much more profound improvements among monks and others who meditate for several hours every day. Yet this “dose-dependent” evidence isn’t enough to convince most of us to actually commit to any daily regimen. Let’s face it: setting aside hours for formal sitting meditation practice in order to get this dose-dependent benefit is not realistic for most of us who work for a living and have family and other responsibilities on top of that. In fact, most people are not willing to set aside even a half hour a day for mindfulness meditation.