Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mindfulness Helps Us Show Up for Our Lives

Everywhere I look these days, I see mindfulness this, mindfulness that, and even worse, I see Buddha heads in every store, seemingly offering even the most self-obsessed consumer the appearance of a tranquil mindfulness practice.

The commercialization of mindfulness is grotesque and not at all surprising.

But don't let the jaded materialism of it deter you from adopting this practice in your own life. If we really want to grow up as men and embody an integrated and healthy masculinity, learning to be mindful is an important part of the process.

Free Will and Neuroscience

Just the other day, neuroscientist and atheist Sam Harris informed us that "You do not choose what you choose." There is considerable evidence that he is correct when he says,
My choices matter, but I cannot choose what I choose. And if it ever appears that I do -- for instance, when going back and forth between two options -- I do not choose to choose what I choose. There's a regress here that always ends in darkness. Subjectively, I must take a first step, or a last one, for reasons that are inscrutable to me.
Brain imaging studies show that our brain often makes decisions well before we become aware of having made a choice, and in the absence of having consciously made that choice, we construct an explanation or rationalization for our decision. This has been shown to be true in politics as well, where we might have an intellectual reason why one candidate is better than another, but when it comes time to cast our vote, we vote with out gut (or heart).

In the end, we more often than not vote with our emotions (body-based) than with our reason (brain-based) - after the fact, we will construct a rational explanation for why we made the choice we did.

Here is the meat of Harris's article:
I will now perform an experiment in free will for all to see: I will write anything I want for the rest of this blog post. Whatever I write is, of course, something I have chosen to write. No one has compelled to do this. No one has assigned me a topic or demanded that I use certain words. I can be ungrammatical, if I pleased. And if I want to put a rabbit in this sentence, I am free to do it.

But paying attention to my stream of consciousness reveals that this notion of freedom does not reach very deep. Where did this "rabbit" come from? Why didn't I put an "elephant" in that sentence? I do not know. Was I free to do otherwise? This is a strange, and strangely vacuous, question. How can I say that I was free to do other than what I did, when the causes of what I did are invisible to me? Yes, even now I am free to change "rabbit" to "elephant," but if I were to do this, how could I explain it? It is impossible for me to know the cause of either choice. Either is compatible with my being compelled by the iron law of determinism, or buffeted by the winds of chance; but neither looks, or feels, like freedom. Rabbit or elephant? Or why not write something else entirely?

And what brings my deliberations on this matter to a close? This blog post must end sometime -- and now I find that I want to get lunch. Am I free to resist this feeling? Well, yes, in the sense that no one is going to compel me at gunpoint to eat lunch this minute -- but I'm hungry, and I want to eat it. Can I resist this feeling for a moment longer? Yes, of course -- and for an indeterminate number of moments thereafter. But I am in no position to know why I make the effort in this instance but not in others. And why do my efforts cease precisely when they do? Now I feel that it is time for me to leave in any case. I'm hungry, yes, but it also seems like I've made my point. In fact, I can't think of anything else to say on the subject. And where is the freedom in that?
For someone who has been meditating for many years, this is a relatively blind stance.

Mindfulness and the Mind

One of the things that mindfulness teaches us to do is to see our thoughts arise, seemingly like an endless train emerging from a tunnel. It takes years to master this process, and most of us will work on it for a lifetime.

But even a novice like me can, over a period of years, begin to see the gap between thoughts, the vast eternal space that true masters can learn to inhabit. Becoming aware of these gaps allows us to begin to find a space between our thoughts and feelings and the actions that arise in response.

There are five basic elements in mindfulness practice:
  • Quieting our mind. Acknowledge that we have racing thoughts and constant internal dialogue which, for the most part, is negative. Mindfulness equals less negative chatter. We need to rid ourselves of the chatter that bogs down our ability to pay attention to what’s happening in our lives at any given moment.
  • Focusing our attention. How do we dial into what we are doing in a particular moment (listening, talking, project, etc.)? One simple technique for focusing our attention is breath awareness. Consciously controlling and slowing the breath can help release stress and anxiety that prohibit us from focusing on the moment.
  • Focused intention. Realizing that our thoughts — positive and negative — have a powerful influence on our life. Through positive intention and creative visualization we can make mindful changes in our lives.
  • Handling negative emotions. Every day we are faced with vast opportunities to express our emotions. Are they going to be positive or negative? Negativity is inevitable and usually dominates. We need to make a conscious decision to change, and become a positive thinker.
  • Acknowledge self and others. Acknowledgment of ourselves begins where we have already been successful. Seek out achievements that have already been created with gratitude and joy. It is also important to acknowledge others and their achievements without judgment or competition.
When we practice mindfulness, one of the basic injunctions is to sit on the cushion (or a chair, or whatever) and focus our awareness on the breath. Watch the breathe come in, feel it in the nose, the chest rise, and then the pause; and then watch the breath go out, the relaxing of the chest and belly, the air moving through the nose. Repeat, for 10 minutes or 20, or an hour.

One thing you will notice right away is all the stuff going on in your mind that distracts from the breath. Some teachers call it "monkey mind," referencing the seeming total lack of total control we have over our thoughts.

But we learn to bring attention back to the breath, over and over and over again. The wandering of our mind is sometimes seen as a failure, our inability to control our thoughts feels like failure.

I prefer to see this as the whole point.

This practice of seeing our mind wandering off, and then gently, compassionately bring it back is the important learning for me. It is this process that teaches to be aware of what is happening in my body and mind.

This awareness is important to our work with masculinity.

Mindfulness and Men

A big piece of becoming conscious men is becoming conscious of our thoughts and feelings. When we grow up, we tend to be embedded in the cultural ideas of masculinity, which are still highly traditional and limiting. Until we wake up to this, we act out those stereotypes and prejudices in a completely unconscious way.

But if we adopt a mindfulness practice, we can begin to gain some awareness of our unconscious beliefs, and with awareness we have the ability to change those beliefs or "habits of thought" that do not match our values.

Maybe this is not exactly free will, but it is a freedom that only comes through our dedicated effort. Self-awareness is a powerful key to helping us show up as mature and healthy men.

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