“Mindfulness” has become a buzzword in recent years, used to describe everything from meditation to healthy eating to yoga. But what does it mean to be mindful?
Merriam Webster defines it as “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.” While no doubt accurate, the definition is vague.
Taking it a step beyond simple awareness, to me, mindfulness encapsulates experiencing each moment of our lives fully and as a result making choices that are positive, purposeful, and not fear-based. Who wouldn’t want to live this way?
Intellectually, we all understand the benefits of being mindful, yet we still find ourselves daydreaming, or gossiping, or cheating on a diet, or spending too much time on social media. These examples are just a few of the ways we lose focus and get sidetracked from what we really want to be doing.
Don’t start judging yourself; for one, you can’t shame your way into mindfulness. Instead, examine those moments when you check out at work and reach for your twitter feed or a cookie; there is a scientific explanation that goes far beyond lack of discipline or mindlessness. From an evolutionary standpoint, our primal brain experiences a pattern described as “trigger, behavior, reward.” Our ancestors who lived on the vast plains of Serengeti would feel hunger (trigger), hunt for food and eventually find it (behavior), and then would not only be satiated but would now know where food could be found (reward.) This same process is still at work in our modern minds today, but because we aren’t fighting for our literal survival with every meal, it is overworking us into unhealthy habits and addictions.
Psychiatrist Judson Brewer has studied this mechanism of habit development and discovered a very simple, yet deeply profound, tactic that has helped his patients quit everything from smoking to overeating: getting curious.
“In my lab, we studied whether mindfulness training could help people quit smoking. Now. . . they could try to force themselves to quit smoking. And the majority of them had tried this before and failed — on average, six times. With mindfulness training, we dropped the bit about forcing and instead focused on being curious. In fact, we even told them to smoke. Yeah, we said, ‘Go ahead and smoke, just be really curious about what it’s like when you do.’ And what did they notice? Well here’s an example from one of our smokers. She said, ‘Mindful smoking: smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals, YUCK!’”
He goes on to describe how this participant knew cognitively that smoking was bad for her — of course, she did because she was an active part of a study that would help her quit. But what curiosity offered her was not just knowledge, but wisdom. Getting curious about smoking helped her to be aware of how unpleasant it actually is, and instead of just understanding it was bad, she now knew and felt in her body that it was bad. From there, she became increasingly disenchanted with the behavior until the desire to smoke was gone entirely.
As a result of his work, Judson Brewer has formulated an even more practical definition of mindfulness: “seeing really clearly what we get when we get caught up in our behaviors, becoming disenchanted on a visceral level, and from this disenchanted stance, naturally letting go.” Curiosity can disrupt the deeply ingrained trigger-behavior-reward gap.
In order for this to work, we have to first get clear on what our negative habits are. Smoking and overeating are easy examples because we all know that those will adversely affect our health fairly quickly. But what about the subtler habits? Online shopping, obsessively checking our phone or email, speaking negatively about ourselves or others — these affect us just as much but we may not see the effects as acutely.
The kabbalists teach that where we place our consciousness is where we are and ultimately what we will become. Because our consciousness determines our thoughts, it will also inform our words and eventually our actions. In essence, it is what creates our lives. Let’s look at this from the point of view of gossiping, something that might seem pretty harmless. When I look at another person and I choose to see darkness, whether that is a judgment of them or of their actions, I awaken that darkness within myself. If I spend a day judging ten people — “they have such a bad attitude,” “I can’t believe she made that choice again,” “that is so wrong” — then I have brought an equal ten elements of darkness into my own life. Next time you have an unkind thought about someone, get curious. Why does their behavior irk you? What is it about them that you really dislike and is it possible that their characteristic is mirroring something you don’t like about yourself?
We can almost say that curiosity and mindfulness are interchangeable. They lead to the same place: consciousness.
The next time you find yourself engaging in behavior that you know isn’t serving you or those around you, simply pause. You don’t even have to try and stop yourself, just get curious about what you’re thinking and feeling as you’re doing it. Maybe you’re stressed out, feeling like you aren’t good enough, you’re afraid of letting someone down, or you’re afraid of not being accepted. Often people judge when they feel that something is unfair. A busy co-worker will harbor resentment toward someone in the office who seems to have an extra 4 hours a day to peruse Instagram. That resentment, if one gets curious about it, will stem from feelings of victimhood. Whatever your feelings are, observe without judgment and follow your curiosity back to the source. From here you can break the spell of your own negative beliefs and thought patterns and in so doing, release the habits that keep you from your joy.
We are in Sagittarius, the month of miracles and blessings, and the energy of this month is supportive and expansive. It is the perfect time to do this deep work of becoming mindful and creating habits of positive thinking and increased consciousness. There is so much Light available to us and all we have to do is be curious and let our curiosity lead us to our blessings.
THOUGHT INTO ACTION
When you feel yourself having a judgment or behaving reactively, simply get curious. Don’t try to force yourself into feeling better; instead curiously examine what you’re feeling in the moment and see what shifts.