“Like subterranean water, or vast oil deposits, or minerals buried deep within the rock of the planet, we are talking here of interior resources deep within ourselves, innate to us as human beings, resources that can be tapped and utilized, brought to the fore—such as our lifelong capacities for learning, for growing, for healing, and for transforming ourselves. And how might such transformation come about? It comes directly out of our ability to take a larger perspective, to realize that we are bigger than who we think we are. It comes directly out of recognizing and inhabiting the full dimensionality of our being, of being who and what we actually are. It turns out that these innate internal resources—that we can discover for ourselves and draw upon—all rest on our capacity for embodied awareness and on our ability to cultivate our relationship to that awareness. We go about this discovery and cultivation through paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.
Over the course of my own meditation practice and of doing the work I do in the world, I have come to see the cultivation of mindfulness as a radical act—a radical act of sanity, of self-compassion, and, ultimately, of love. As you will see, it involves a willingness to drop in on yourself, to live more in the present moment, to stop at times and simply be rather than getting caught up in endless doing while forgetting who is doing all the doing, and why. It has to do with not “mis-taking” our thoughts for the truth of things, and not being so susceptible to getting caught in emotional storms, storms that so often only compound pain and suffering, our own and that of others. This approach to life is indeed a radical act of love on every level. And part of the beauty of it, as we shall see, is that you don’t have to do anything other than to pay attention and stay awake and aware. These domains of being are already who and what you are.
A recent headline in Science, one of the most prestigious and high-impact scientific journals in the world, read: “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.” Here is the first paragraph of that paper: Unlike other animals, human beings spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around them, and contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or will never happen at all. Indeed, “stimulus-independent thought” or “mind wandering” appears
to be the brain’s default mode of operation. Although this ability is a remarkable evolutionary achievement that allows people to learn, reason, and plan, it may have an emotional cost. Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and “to be here now.” These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Are they right?
And just for the record, mindfulness is not about forcing your mind not to wander. That would just give you a big headache. It is more about being aware of when the mind is wandering and, as best you can, and as gently as you can, redirecting your attention and reconnecting with what is most salient and important for you in that moment, in the here and now of your life unfolding.
Mindfulness is a skill that can be developed through practice, just like any other skill. You could also think of it as a muscle. The muscle of mindfulness grows both stronger and more supple and flexible as you use it. And like a muscle, it grows best when working with a certain amount of resistance to challenge it and thereby help it become stronger. Our bodies, our minds, and the stress of our daily lives certainly provide us with plenty of resistance to work with in that regard. Indeed, you might say they provide just the right conditions for developing our innate capacities for knowing our own mind and shaping its ability to stay present to what is most germane and important in our lives, and, by doing so, discover new dimensions of well-being and even happiness without having to change anything.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Ilness