The best way to do this is to practice a mindfulness meditation routine for a half hour every day. Remember that regular meditation is known to strengthen the orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain that processes positive feelings and controls negative feelings, that reduces messages of fear from the amygdala. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction improves immune system functioning and helps with chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and eating disorders. Mindfulness-based therapy for depression proves to be more effective at preventing relapse than traditional methods.
Don’t try to be the best at meditation. Don’t worry about doing it the right way. Don’t expect it to make you happy. Think about it as a lunch break for the mind. Sometimes it’s delicious, but mostly it’s just fuel and rest. The benefits aren’t immediately evident, but it pays off in terms of perspective, awareness, and energy. You will get skillful at it without effort, just with practice. Even when you get good at it, it won’t always feel good. In fact, some days it can be very painful, as you discover feelings that weren’t on the surface. But don’t let that stop you, it’s something you need to go through.
In addition to learning mindfulness meditation, work on applying the values of mindful attention in your life. Here are some important skills to practice as you go through the day:
• Observe your brain as it does what it does. Don’t think about what you’re thinking about, think about how you think. Don’t merely feel your feelings, watch what they do to you. Develop your inner mind, the one that observes your everyday mental functioning. Become a student of your mind at work.
• Stop judging. If you practice mindfulness meditation, you will probably notice how you are constantly judging what’s in your mind. I’m thinking about the report I have to do—that’s bad, I should stop worrying. I’m having trouble focusing—damn it, I’m no good at this. Not only in meditation, but constantly, we are evaluating and categorizing our experience. It’s left brain activity focused on consciousness itself. It’s just what the brain does, but it’s a destructive habit. Attaching little value judgments to things and stuffing them in mental pigeonholes deprives us of the ability to look at each thing carefully and objectively, to appreciate its uniqueness. It’s an immediate, knee-jerk reaction that is just a symptom of our hypervigilance. OK, this is good, that’s bad, the next thing is neutral. I’m ready, what’s next? We don’t look for the bad in the good or the good in the bad, and we just overlook the neutral altogether. What an empty, black-and-white world! We can miss all the details, and in doing so we miss out on the real stuff of living. We spoil things for ourselves—waiting in line is such a waste of time is an idea that will spill over and dominate the entire ten minutes you’re in line, when you could be using the ten minutes to just think, or observe, or remember.
• Be present. Shift from doing to being. Be in the moment. Be still. Stop using the left brain so much. Pay attention to what’s going on in all your senses right now, and work on being less distracted by the perpetual stress response trying to get your attention. Being mindful of what we are doing means doing it much more effectively. The distractions will still be there when we’re done.
It’s hard to describe what being present means because language doesn’t have a good way of conveying transcendental or spiritual experience. There is no special meaning to what happens when we are deliberately present in the moment. Rather, what we experience is a heightened sense of meaning in general. It’s as if our senses gradually improve so that we can see, hear, touch, taste—be aware of—things that went right past us before. We can look more deeply in, and see the complexities. Applying that to the self, and to our daily experience, simply leads to a richer, deeper, more meaningful life.
• Recognize stress at work in yourself. Remember that what you think is normal is not what your nervous system thinks is normal. The stress response is all-or-nothing. If you’re safe from the predators, there should be nothing to worry about other than where the next meal is coming from. But today, there’s plenty more to worry about, and our brains and bodies are full of the hormones and neurotransmitters of stress. Our brains try to make sense of these experiences, and translate them, in our naturally self-absorbed way, into something personal. We add content to our own fears based on our assumptions about the world: It must be my fault. No one can love me. Dad always thought I was a weakling, I guess I am. I just can’t cut it. Try not to take it so personally. Much of what we experience as fear is the manifestation of the stress response, not our own inadequacy. So challenge your assumptions about what’s normal. Recognize how contemporary life works to rob us of meaning and connection, and do what you can to get them back. Don’t blame yourself.
• Stop trying to boost your self esteem. Start trying to be a good person. The only way to gain self respect is to do the right thing as often as you can. Though we all face situations where we can’t know what is the right thing, most of the time we do know. Most of the time, unfortunately, it is the more difficult thing. Be honest. Don’t cheat. Don’t take advantage. The golden rule applies.
Virtue is a habit, argues Plato, and Buddha says it’s a skill to develop. It gets easier as you keep practicing. After a while you will begin to think of yourself as a better person, and the wrong choices won’t even tempt you.
• Stop trying to be happy. Start trying to be grateful. Consumer culture for the past hundred years has been telling us that happiness is a commodity that can be bought and sold. Even more demoralizing is the implication that if we’re not happy, it’s our own fault, because this is certainly the best of all possible worlds. We’ve lost sight of the simple fact that happiness is not an end in itself, it’s a result of living a certain kind of life. Essentially, that’s a life that combines doing the right thing with enjoying what life has to offer. We’ve just talked about recognizing the right thing. Enjoying life—gratitude—is another skill to learn. Being present helps; you enjoy the small things more—the sunshine, the taste of coffee, a stranger’s greeting. You can go further and deliberately set out to heighten awareness of good feelings. Become a connoisseur of small things. As one patient said, enjoying a really good grilled cheese sandwich, Happiness is a lot smaller than we think.
Don’t fall for the belief that there is something you need in order to be happy. That just gives in to the mindless “I want.” It starts a search that will never end. Not that we have to overcome all wants, but we do have to realize that happiness sneaks up on us when we accept life as it is.
• Stop trying to be smart. Start trying to be wise. In any difficult situation, find a middle path between emotions and cold logic. Do what will work, what will get you the result you need, rather than doing what you want to do, or feel you have to do, or feel is necessary to set the record straight. Play by the rules. Don’t get into situations where you have to justify or explain yourself; let your actions speak for themselves.
See things as they are, not how you want them to be, or how you believe they should be. Accept the reality principle. In reality, the only thing we have control over is our own behavior, and it’s a continual quest to develop more control over that. Seeing things as they are, conduct yourself skillfully. Use intuition and logic, right and left brains, together.
• Don’t neglect pleasure. Positive psychology has found that the simple act of focusing on good things and pleasant events has a lasting effect on overall happiness. There is a difference between pleasure (anything that makes you want to smile) and fulfillment (working toward goals that bring you lasting pride and joy). It’s also true that some pleasures can be destructive to self or others, and we should avoid them. But it’s important not to get the idea that somehow pleasure is cheap and meaningless. Pleasure brings spice to life. We need to smile, to laugh, to feel connected. Most pleasures are harmless and often bring joy to others as well. So play every day; find ways to have fun. You generate endorphins, which help the immune system and block pain, and most important enhance your ability to enjoy life in general.
• Free yourself from possessions, envy, greed, and mindless competition. Stop striving so much. Learn to ride the waves of craving like a skillful surfer. If we’re troubled by the disparity between what we want and what we have, one approach is to get more; but the other solution, perhaps wiser, is to want less.
This is admittedly a very tall order. I don’t expect myself to ever stop craving, to not want a nice car or a new plant for my garden, and you shouldn’t expect yourself to stop wanting either. But so much of our lives is ruled by mindless craving that any work we do towards diminishing its effects will help us enormously. We’ll have much more time left over for productive or pleasurable or relaxing activity. We won’t be driven by the hormones of desire. And besides, we’ll have more money, and therefore more autonomy.
• Notice when you’re mindless. This follows from the previous point. What sends you into a mindless state? Use a journal to keep track, because your defenses will work against your awareness. Most likely, fear is making you mindless. It may be very cleverly hidden away. But tracing it down may help you identify an old wound that is causing you great pain. Or it may be just the Perpetual Stress Response making itself felt; the mind’s experience of the fight-or-flight hormones coursing through the body. Other fears are knee-jerk reactions, the baggage of past experiences added to today’s reality. Much of the time our defenses are up so high that we’re not even aware that fear is motivating our mindless activity. Use mindfulness to get underneath the defenses. Face what you fear, and you’ll be free. There may be some temporary pain, but it will be manageable, and you won’t be a prisoner of your fear any longer.
• Be mindful of your environment, and use it to remind you to be mindful. Make your surroundings as pleasant as you can, as a way of showing respect for yourself. If you have trouble concentrating or remembering, build in cues to remind yourself to be more aware—set the alarm clock, have a daily phone date with a friend, post messages to yourself. Turn off the television. Use music to amplify your mood, to calm yourself down or bring yourself up. Use music also as a focus for mindfulness: listen with full attention. Get out of the house and into nature. Expose yourself to views that will make you think out of the box. Have things that depend on you, like plants and pets.