Dr Thanh-Tam Pham - 7/9/2020
Mindfulness is awareness of the present moment without mental commentary.
The human mind is constantly thinking so to observe without our personal interpretation from past experience is very difficult and needs a lot of training. So if we see and judge the present through the eyes of the past we get a totally distorted view of it. We therefore cannot see the reality as it is but we are often deluded by our own thoughts giving rise to sufferings.
Mindfulness is extremely difficult because we cannot instruct the mind not to think and we had the habit to identify ourselves with the thoughts and that through the years help us to build a personal identity, an ego. We receive information from the outside world through our five senses but that information is automatically changed by our personal interpretation to suit our needs and emotions such as like, dislike, craving, aversion, lust…
The benefits of Mindfulness
Yesterday is a memory, tomorrow is the unknown, Now is the only real moment we live in. We thought that we remember the past accurately but in reality we only remember any events that had most impact on our life and those events are mostly causing us grief, unhappiness, guilt, anger, shame or realisation that the happy times are gone. The future is unknown and is only in our imagination and it can bring anxiety that something bad could happen or our future goal could not be achieved. If our mind oscillates between the past and the future, we will cycle through depression and anxiety. We only live and act at the present moment and if we live fully and do the best now, the future will be better. If we spend some energy to think about the past and some energy to the future, we do not have much energy left to do anything now. That is why depressed or anxious people
are always tired and do not have any energy left to do anything.
Some people would like to escape the present moment as their situation is deemed to be so miserable by taking alcohol or drugs but they soon find themselves in a worst condition than previously. The best thing is to accept the adverse life events and they can find a solution to the problems rather than break down and being deep in depression. Even if we are diagnosed to have a serious illness, we only make things worse by adding another mental illness on top of the original disease.
Practicing mindfulness will give us peace and tranquillity in the mind. We can achieve wisdom as we are able to see the reality as it is, without being distorted by our own subjective interpretation, and to witness the impermanent nature of everything as things are disappearing and new things are arising not only each day or hour but in every moment. Mindfulness in living will help us to develop a power of concentration and this will result in more efficiency and success in most of the things we do. It will also help us to develop a keen sense of observation of people’s behaviour to be able to communicate and integrate in the society. Most importantly it helps us to accept ourselves and have an insight into our own mind.
When we are mindful, we realize that we have to be completely responsible for how we live and we can no longer lie to ourselves that our unhappiness is due to other people or the society. It is easy to blame others for our suffering and we can justify it because we had unjust and miserable parents, or maybe other people are mistreating us or exploiting us or not understand us or doing cruel things to us. This is a complete waste of time if we spend the rest of our lives to blame someone else.
In meditation, we initially practice to be aware of the breath in and out through the nostrils or the abdomen rising and falling. We do not focus on the chest as it can cause a tightness feeling in the chest and if we take too much deep breaths we can have hyperventilation and panic attacks.
The breath is a natural process of our body that continues as long as we live whether we are aware of it or not. We just are content to be aware of each inhalation and exhalation without controlling it in any way. Do not try to get anything from meditation because when the mind is trying to achieve or attain things we can become frustrated easily.
At first the mind wanders off often. Once we are aware of it, we gently return back to the breath. We have to be patient and train the mind like a mother trains her child with love. Our mind is used to associate one thing to another or form an opinion about everything. The mind tends to be tense and restless if it cannot do that. It is like a wild horse when it is first harnessed, it gets angry with the thing that binds it.
When the mind keeps wandering, we get upset and are discouraged and may give up. If out of frustration, we try to force the mind to be tranquil, we can only keep it up for a short while and the mind is off somewhere else again. Even the thought “I should not think” is just another thought. To avoid the thoughts, we have to be mindful to recognize them- that is insight and wisdom. If we hate ourselves of not being able to do it or feel discouraged- that is ignorance. We need to watch the flow of our mind but do not get caught in those thoughts. We keep recognizing them without evaluating or analysing them and the thought comes and goes and is not permanent and eventually the thought arises less and less and stops.
At this stage, the mind becomes calm and tranquil and the breathing can become very fine. We are still aware of both the object and its periphery. With our wisdom faculty still functioning, we investigate and this is Vipassana. This is looking into and seeing the nature of whatever we experience. The body breaths on its own and it belongs to nature and it doesnot belong to us- it is non self. We become aware of the cyclical pattern of the breath, breathing in and breathing out, we see that all arise will pass away. That cycle is Birth and Death (Samsara). What arises reaches its peak then passes away. People are foolish to just want excitement, pleasure, youth, beauty and do not want anything ugly, boredom, weakness and depression. We cannot seek perfection in any part of the cycle but have to embrace the whole cycle of birth, old age, sickness and death.
We see the true nature of things is impermanent, so attachment will give rise to suffering. The conditioned world is unsatisfactory so we begin to go inwards to the unconditioned peace of mind and its silence and emptiness.
At this moment, we can be aware of the conditions of the mind, feelings in the body, what we are seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling and thinking and also the emptiness of the mind.
We always seek pleasant sights, sounds, fragrances, delicious tastes, nice physical sensation and we try to avoid unpleasant ones. Thoughts can give us a lot of pleasure or a lot of misery. We can never find perfect happiness, contentment, permanent security, permanent love or peace in this sensory world. If we expect that our life will only be one of pleasure and have no pain, we certainly will suffer. Attachment will take us to disillusion and despair.
Nirvana is a goal that can be realised in this life time. According to Ven Ajahn Sumedho, Nirvana is like a space of the mind where there is no attachment, no delusion and we are no longer demanding anything from the sensory world as everything is impermanent, it arises and passes away.
In meditation, we are allowing the mind to open up and let the things that have been suppressed or repressed become conscious because when they become conscious and we do not react to them, they tend to go away rather than being repressed again. We allow things to go away rather than just push them away.
In meditation, we practice Mindfulness internally referring to our own experience by contemplating the breathing, the physical characteristics of the body, the feelings and the mind.
We can practice Mindfulness externally referring to the experience of others.
How can we contemplate these aspects externally? The Buddha talks of development of insight in various ways, through our own direct experience and through inference and induction.
If we put our hand on fire, it burns so we learn by inference that the next time we touch it, it will burn.
From our own experience of pleasure and pain, we can know at least to some extent what the other person is feeling. When we are mindful of mind externally and we see someone angry or loving, greedy or generous, by inference based on our own experience of these mental states, we can open to and become aware of the other person’s mental state.
When we are unmindful externally, and seeing painful feeling in others, it can trigger grief, sorrow or denial in ourselves or seeing the pleasant feeling in others could trigger envy and jealousy.
When we are mindful externally of the feelings of others as well of our own, we open up for wholesome states to arise. We feel joy for the pleasant feeling of others rather than envy and compassion for their painful feelings rather than fear or apathy.
Mindfulness in daily living
Do you ever have trouble to recall what you want to take out when you open your fridge or why you walk into a certain room? Those are signs that you have a lot of things going on in your mind and you are not mindful.
Most of the time, we function and behave on autopilot gear. That is because it needs less energy in the brain to use the same habitual pathways that are formed over the years. Every time we do something new, we stimulate neuroplasticity by activating a new pathway. Mindfulness enables awareness and intentional actions and decisions.
1- Be mindful when doing ordinary household tasks: focus your awareness on the task at hand such as prepare meals, wash dishes, cleaning the house, doing laundry… Do not do with unhappy thoughts such as why should I be the one to do all the chores and others are messing things around.
Also be mindful in doing routine personal hygiene like brush teeth, have a shower, going to the toilet…
2- Be mindful at eating:
Be mindful to chose what you eat, when to eat and how much to eat. We often eat on the go, fail to taste the food, overeat and not chew properly. Eat slowly and be aware of the sensation of chewing, the taste, the texture, the temperature of the food in your mouth. When we eat slowly in mindfulness, there are more signals to the brain when food is in the mouth longer and it improves satiety. It helps with weight loss and digestion.
Enjoy eating the food at the present moment and let go of the memory if you have already eaten the same food yesterday or the day before so not to get bored if you have to eat the same thing again and again.
3- Be mindful in working.
There is a myth that multitasking make us more productive. In reality it drains us faster and when we try to spread our attention thinly to keep up with so many things at once, we are more prone to make mistakes and feel exhausted both mentally and physically. Do one thing at one time. If we remember about another job to do, we can make notes on a piece of paper to remind us about the next job to do after we finish the designated task now.
We have to be more mindful if we have many tasks to do, without being distracted by other thoughts of stress or fear of not be able to keep up with the tight deadlines.
I had that experience when my late husband was sick with cancer and he stopped working suddenly 13 years ago and I had to run 2 clinics by myself with a lot of mortgages to pay. I used to be very dependent on him for most of the dealing with the outside world. Luckily, I had a very strong sense of mindfulness so I was able to concentrate on my work and never had any thoughts of why things happen to me or feel upset, depressed. When I see a patient, I am able to give the patient in front of me full attention to solve the problem and I do not think about many other patients waiting in the waiting room so I do not feel stressed. I had to do jobs for 2 persons including medical, clerical work, taxation…. He was bedridden for 1 year due to metastatic lung cancer to the brain and I had to look after him at
night and had disrupted sleep. I was able to sleep back quickly after waking up at night as I usually did not think and just relaxed to sleep back again. I found that mindfulness is the most important factor for me to cope in hardship situation as I do not let my mind to think too much or let my emotions, anxiety and depression to take over.
4- Be mindful externally in listening and awareness of others.
Often when we are in conversation, we are not really listening to the other person. To listen mindfully, we have to bring our attention to the whole person speaking, notice the voice, the intonation and the facial expressions and the nonverbal behaviour. Notice when our mind drifts off into thinking and gently bring our attention back to the person talking.
During stressful interactions or conflict, mindfulness supports us to stay calmer and respond more effectively under pressure. Be aware of any sensations arising such as anger or fear and try to relax by tuning to the breath. It allows us to develop more constructive ways of responding to others when we are emotionally triggered.
I had an experience a few years ago when a father of a child came to abuse and threaten me after his daughter had a nick on the skin when the nurse gave the vaccination and the mother could not hold the child still. I could see behind his anger, he was suffering with severe anxiety for his child.. I was not angry with him but develop a feeling of compassion as I could see that he would suffer greatly in the future if anything more serious happen to his daughter as life can never be event free.
Over the years working as a general practitioner, my observation skills have improved so I am usually aware of the physical and psychological aspects of my patients to be able to treat the person as a whole. Usually doctors can make a diagnosis based on mindfully listening and observing the patient and physical examination helps only to confirm the working diagnosis.
5- Be mindful while waiting.
Waiting in lines in supermarkets, waiting in traffic jams or waiting to see doctors could be a frustrating experience as we feel held up in our day. We can use the waiting time to practice mindfulness. We can return to follow our breath to have a peaceful mind or by tuning in to our body, checking our feelings to notice any irritation or impatience and try to let it go.
6- Be mindful while driving.
When we just learn how to drive, we pay close attention while driving. These days, driving can be dangerous with people texting, talking on the mobile phones while driving. To drive mindfully, bring our attention to the task of driving, notice our hands on the steering wheel, feel the posture or any tension in the body and try to relax.
When we drive long distance to go interstate, a lot of people are obsessed with arriving to the destination so they do not enjoy the trip or may speed up to arrive earlier. Therefore, our journey is no longer an adventure and we cannot see the diversity of the landscape, the trees, the green pasture, the colourful flowers and the animals that present to us. By being present to the moment, we can be aware of the beauty and the miracle of life that unfolds all around us.
7- Be mindful of our cravings.
Sometimes we have cravings to eat, to drink, to smoke or to buying spree. When we feel an urge to do something, do not fight it but do not follow or give it in either. We can simply be there to observe it with mindful awareness, acknowledge the urge, allow it to be there without getting caught up in the thought about it. In this way, we ride it out instead of pushing it away or follow it. With practice, we can eventually be free from addictive or compulsive behaviours.
8- Be mindful in using our senses.
The essence of mindfulness is the ability to let go of the compulsive chatter in the mind and to touch deeply with the stillness that lies underneath. It is a state of alertness and not lost in thinking. It is different with being absent minded as the mind does not think but is not aware of the surroundings.
We can use our five senses without mental labelling to experience the world. We can see the flowers, hear the birds singing, enjoy the smell of fresh air, taste a ripe fruit, feel the sun on our skin and the wind in our hair…
Many years ago, I used to travel a lot with my late husband to do landscape photography. We used to sit down for 1 to 2 hours watching the landscape changing colour with the sunset to find the best moment to take a shot as we used film so we could not take many photos like in digital photography.
Each of us sat in our corner without talking and I just watch mindfully the colour changes of the mountain ranges from brown to bright red without thinking at all. It was so peaceful sitting there without thinking and absorbing the beauty of nature and the sunlight. I felt a deep connection with the soil, the trees, the mountains, the nature and the universe.
Nowadays, when I drive to work on the same road every day, but being mindful I am able to see the changing of the scenery with the sunlight and I never feel bored to drive the same route again and again.
The other thing that I enjoy is to walk in the creek beds in Flinders Ranges lining with gum trees. No gum trees are exactly the same, each of them is an individual reflecting the effects of the wind, the water in their life. Some thriving to survive in precarious situation between the rocks, others fell down with roots exposed but still new shoots and new life growing from the old trunk. Those trees bear witness to the changing of the weather but still grow strong in harsh environment. I can also see pebbles of different sizes on the dry creek bed becoming smooth from the flow of water passing from time to time. We can enjoy the colourful purple wild flowers around beautiful rock formation at spring time.
With mindfulness, we can see and enjoy the details of the landscape otherwise some may only see the dry landscape with dirty unsealed roads.
9- Watch the mind through self observation.
The moment that we realise that we are not mindful, that is mind is busy with thinking, we are mindful. We are able to step out of the continuous mental dialogue of the mind and now become the observer. We are now watching the mind instead of being swept in its current.
In some people who find it very difficult to practice mindfulness in everyday life, that is the mind just keep wandering, a useful practice is to set an alarm in the mobile phone to ring every hour as a reminder. If we hear that sound, we can check where our mind is and gently bring it back to the present time.
10- Walking in mindfulness.
This is a very useful and powerful practice to do. Mindful walking simply means walking while being aware of each step, of the right foot and the left foot on the ground. It is an excellent way of clearing the mind and restoring the sense of focus especially when we are stressed.
It is advisable to incorporate mindful walking in our daily life.
11- Mindful when going to sleep.
Getting to sleep at the end of the day can be challenging for some with the mind still racing with lists of things to do. Just relax when lie down and do not be anxious about not able to sleep and expect to be tired the next day. Tune in the breath by placing hands on the abdomen to feel it rising and falling. When the mind drifts off into thinking, let go of the thought and coming back to the breath.
In summary, the present moment remains the essential factor in our life. The past gives us an identity, an ego and the future holds the promise of fulfilment. The past determines who we are as well how we perceive and behave at the present and our future goals determine which action we take in the present.
When the future comes, it comes as the Now (Eckhart Tolle). Any lesson from the past becomes relevant and is applied Now. Any planning as well as working toward achieving a particular goal is done Now.
Mindfulness is to practice to be a silent observer without judging or analysing the thought, the feeling, the emotion, the reaction within ourselves and in others and be aware of the environment, the nature and the universe.
Mindfulness- A practical guide to Awakening by Joseph Goldstein
Now is the Knowing by Ven Ajahn Sumedho
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle