An unexamined life is not worth living.
While most of us would agree with Socratesâ sentiment, how many of us actually know how to examine our life as it unfolds and how to examine it skillfully? Furthermore, how many of us think we have the time to do that? We are immersed in a society of speed, technology, and information overload. Despite extraordinary advances in science and technology, from mapping our genomes to information access via the Internet, we live in an age of increasing anxiety and increasing doubt in our capacity to make decisions and to effect change, whether in our bodies, our lives, or the world around us. Feelings of fear, frustration, stress, and confusion seem to be on the rise globally, and the elevated rates of psychiatric illness among adults and children worldwide probably reï¬ect this rising distress.
In the midst of our techno-savvy yet anxiety-producing culture, scientiï¬c investigation has become increasingly interested in the ancient practice of mindfulness as an antidote of sorts to the ills of the modern world and as a tool for skillfully examining our lives. Extracted from the religious settings in which it was developed, mindfulness practice has become a secularized tool for investigation of the modern mind. This book is an introduction to the why and how of mindfulness, from a scientist (the why) and a mindfulness teacher (the how).
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS, AND WHAT CAN IT DO?
Mindfulness may be thought of as a state of consciousness, one characterized by attention to present experience with a stance of open curiosity. It is a quality of attention that can be brought to any experience. Mindfulness can be cultivated through explicit practices, such as meditation or yoga or tâai chi, or even through creative processes in the arts or walking in nature. Mindfulness can also be enhanced less explicitly by adopting a generally mindful approach to life. As you learn the principles and techniques of mindfulness, you can apply them to any moment in the day, whether you are eating, driving, showering, or sending an e-mail.
Meditation can be considered a general term covering a wide range of practices that affect your awareness or utilize contemplation in the service of self-discovery. There are hundreds of kinds of meditation practices, including relaxation, concentration, visualization, and forms of religious chanting and prayer; a large subset of these practices, such as mindfulness meditation, Zen Buddhist meditation, and Transcendental Meditation, speciï¬cally focus on enhancing awareness, as do movement-based meditations such as yoga, tâai chi, and chi gong. While these forms of meditation may differ in how they affect your awareness, all of them are various means of enhancing or, as some would say, âexpandingâ your awareness. We coined the term âMindful Awareness Practices,â or MAPs, to refer to this general class of practices. We also call the mindfulness classes we teach at our UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) by the name MAPs.
MAPs, in general, have been around for at least 5,000 years. While mindfulness meditation as a MAP is generally seen as being rooted in the 2,500year-old Buddhist tradition, variants are evident in the practices of the ancient Greeks, Taoists, Native Americans, various religious traditions, and writings of poets, philosophers, and scientists throughout history. Although ancient in roots, mindfulness meditation is completely suited for modern times. It is a practice that can be done by anyone, regardless of age, background, or religion. The research exploring mindfulness, although still relatively new, is demonstrating that repeated practice can lead to changes in our lives, including:
- Reducing stress
- Reducing chronic physical pain
- Boosting the bodyâs immune system to ï¬ght disease
- Coping with painful life events, such as the death of a loved one or major illness
- Dealing with negative emotions like anger, fear, and greed
- Increasing self-awareness to detect harmful reactive patterns of thought, feeling, and action
- Improving attention or concentration
- Enhancing positive emotions, including happiness and compassion
- Increasing interpersonal skills and relationships
- Reducing addictive behaviors, such as eating disorders, alcoholism, and smoking
- Enhancing performance, whether in work, sports, or academics
- Stimulating and releasing creativity
- Changing positively the actual structure of our brains
The emerging research on mindfulness makes it sound like a cure-all for whatever ails us, and perhaps it could be considered a simple solution for complex problems. For many people mindfulness practice is an excellent adjunct to other approaches they may be using to promote health and wellness, such as therapy, exercise, nutrition, or medication. Moreover, although mindfulness does not remove the ups and downs of life, it changes how experiences like losing a job, getting a divorce, struggling at home or at school, births, marriages, illnesses, death and dying inï¬uence you and how you inï¬uence the experience. In other words, mindfulness changes your relationship to life. Learning to live mindfully does not mean living in a âperfectâ world, but rather, living a full and contented life in a world in which both joys and challenges are a given.
This book explores how to be more mindful in day-to-day life and how to use a mindfulness practice to promote well-being. But this book is also about our individual differencesâboth in our genes and in the environments that shape usâand how these differences affect our capacity to live more mindfully. Mindfulness meditation is itself a tool for discovering more about ourselves and how we relate to the world around us. This inward investigation, using the tool of mindfulness meditation, may help us understand more about ourselves from a ï¬rst-person viewpoint just as science has done using a third-person lens of investigation.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Fully Present grew out of the collaboration of a scientist, Sue Smalley, and a mindfulness teacher and practitioner, Diana Winston, at their center, the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California at Los Angeles. MARC is dedicated to increasing mindful awareness through education and research to promote individual well-being and a kinder society. Through MARC, we teach doctors, professors, students, teachers, mental health professionals, parents, seniors, and youth the science, art, and practice of mindfulness in MAPs classes, workshops, and trainings and conduct research on its effectiveness in promoting well-being.
Both of us are deeply committed to mindfulness and have a strong curiosity about the interface of the science, art, and practice of mindfulness. Even though science is the dominant cultural paradigm in the United States, we believe that the ancient practices from the East can inform, affect, and complement life in the modern West. We hope to articulate mindfulness in a way that feels relevant for our times. How can a secular language, based in science, be used to describe what once was the realm of the mystics and philosophers? And practically, how can mindfulness have a positive impact on lives in the twenty-ï¬rst century amid the technology of Blackberries, iPods, iPhones, and the Internet? This book attempts to answer these questions by examining mindfulness through the lens of a scientist (Sue), the lens of a mindfulness teacher (Diana), and the lens of a practitioner, you the reader, as you learn the experiential practices we offer.
ABOUT THIS BOOK
This book arose because we found ourselves at a loss when participants in our MAPs classes would ask, âWhat book do you recommend?â While many excellent books on mindfulness are available, their orientation reï¬ects the authorâs concernsâsome are tied to Buddhism, some are directed toward mental health professions or neuroscientists, and some address speciï¬c issues like stress. We sought to present mindfulness in a way that reï¬ects our own view, one that is focused on a balance of science (or reason) and art (or intuition). That balance is different for each of us, so this book attempts to ï¬nd the balance point between these two orientations by combining our two voices. We hope that we have created an easy-to-read and user-friendly handbook that not only will offer you the practical, how-to aspects of mindfulness but will guide you in using your own reason and intuition to discover how these practices might beneï¬t yourself as well as society.
Each chapter of Fully Present offers a scientiï¬c and experiential look at how mindfulness can shape your life, along with practical exercises, alternating between what we call âThe Science,â âThe Art,â and âThe Practice.â The practices are guided meditations that can be read aloud, pre-recorded, or read by someone to you as you practice; alternatively, comparable meditations can be freely downloaded from our MARC website, www.marc.ucla.edu.
Beginning with some practical and basic information, the early chapters explore âWhat Is Mindfulness?â and âGetting Started.â We then look at the various facets of our lives in which mindfulness can have an impact: experiencing physical pain in the body, feeling negative and positive emotions, paying attention, engaging in stressful thinking, and working with obstacles we encounter. In the last chapter, we leave the art/science/practice format to explore our thoughtsâsupported by science when availableâabout taking mindfulness out into the world.
As we continue to collaborate with scientists and practitioners at MARC, we frequently discuss the need to describe mindfulness as a state of mind that can be initiated, cultivated, or enhanced by a variety of meansâincluding the mindfulness meditation practices described in this book. All practices that enhance mindfulness promote self-discovery and awareness, but each of us must ï¬nd the route that suits us best; your experience is likely to be very different from ours or that of anyone else. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden:
Direct your eye right inward, and youâll ï¬nd
A thousand regions in your mind
Yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be
Expert in home-cosmography.
Home-cosmographyâthe inner universe of your mindâis your own experience, and that is what we hope to foster with this book.
Mindfulness meditation has been helpful to us, and a growing body of research supports its effectiveness for many people, but we would stress that there is more than one way to âdirect your eyesight inward.â Believing that one method is superior to another is a trap that we would urge you to avoid. If you look within, without preconceived notions, and let yourself be guided by the discoveries to be made in your inner universe, you may be surprised. Lao-Tzu, a Taoist master, wrote: âA good traveler has no ï¬xed plans and is not intent on arriving.â May the journey lead you toward a more fully present life.