by Richard Johnson
Did you ever hear a teacher sternly admonish you or another student to “PAY ATTENTION!”? Once, when I was gazing out the window on a sunny spring day and not paying attention to my teacher, I heard those words. I didn’t say, though I thought it, I am paying attention to the gorgeous spring day out there, not you.
Back then, very few teachers knew how to teach us to pay attention. Now, fortunately, more and more teachers, in and outside the schools, know how to teach us to pay attention: most prominently, mindfulness meditation.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
Above all, mindfulness teaches us to pay attention, in two essential ways: formal practice - sitting meditation, the body scan, mindful movement (gentle yoga), and walking meditation; and informal practice, paying attention to what’s going on in and around us, moment by moment.
Formal practice helps
As you probably know, learning to pay attention “in this particular way” is simple, but not easy. To improve our ability to pay attention most effectively, we need to engage in formal practice on a regular basis, and that requires a commitment of a certain amount of time. Although informal practice does not require extra time - it’s being aware of what’s happening as life unfolds - still it requires remembering to pay attention. So why do we even bother to engage in these practices?
Here's why I have made the choice to meditate and why I continue:
- I am happier. From my first meditation, I discovered an inner space that comforts me, that makes me smile almost every time.
- Meditation helps me solve my problems. At home or at work, if I feel troubled, I meditate as soon as I can. Sometimes it takes just one meditation, sometimes many, but it always helps at a certain point.
- Writing and teaching flow more easily. Before I began meditating, I suffered from writer’s block at times. I never had that experience after I began meditating. In writing and teaching, I am often buoyed up with joy, as if a warm, tropical wind is lifting my sails and propelling me onward.
- My mind wanders less. And when it does wander, it’s less intrusive. The practice of noting or labeling thoughts as they arise, in meditation or not, helps me recognize them and let them float on out of my mind.
- Even the most difficult relationships for me can become less challenging. I have relied for years on the Loving-Kindness Meditations. Sooner or later, my angers, frustrations, and anxieties dissolve in these meditations as my heart opens and I begin to see things through the eyes of someone else. And then I see, almost invariably, improvements in how that person and I get along.
- Informal practice keeps giving me a new lease on life. When I feel grumpy, blue, or out-of-sorts in any way, returning to the breath or taking a refreshing walk in my neighborhood or a park renews my spirits.
Deep and lovely
We will all find different advantages to practicing mindfulness, and that is as it should be. But whatever the benefits we may enjoy, I believe it’s important to reflect that we may well stand at the beginning of a major cultural revolution in mindfulness. When I was young, in the 40s and 50s, I knew no one who meditated. In the 70s when I began meditating, we meditators were outliers. When Jon Kabat-Zinn founded Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in 1979, very few people knew what he was doing. He wrote a few pioneering articles in the early 80s, and now researchers are publishing hundreds every year on mindfulness.
To be sure, some of the interest in mindfulness is superficial. But true mindfulness, as Thich Nhat Hanh has written, is “deep and lovely.”
In my seven years of teaching MBSR, I have been blessed to witness hundreds of participants find practical ways to improve, and often enough, transform their lives. There are now hundreds of clinics, hospitals and other venues worldwide where MBSR and other mindfulness interventions are being taught.
Learning and practicing mindfulness provide fresh perspectives and opportunities that can help all of us pay greater attention to how we think, act and feel. This self-reflection can help us co-create a world that is based more solidly on mutual understanding and compassion. We don’t know what’s to come, but I for one look forward to seeing where mindfulness practices take us in the years to come.