In creating a more joyful New Year, another key element is to live fully in the moment. To be truly joyful and fully productive, try to focus your mind entirely on whatever you are doing in the moment (this is called “mindfulness”) without worrying about the future or the past. Of course you’ll need to plan for the future at times, but most of us spend far more time thinking, planning, and reviewing than we really need to.
Especially as academics, we spend most of our time living in our thinking minds, which naturally operate in a pretty scattered way – the Buddhists call this phenomenon “monkey mind.” Especially when we have a lot going on simultaneously, this can easily result in the classic absent-minded professor behaviors (forgetting where you left things, missing appointments, etc.). Another classic symptom of monkey mind from our overloaded schedules is anxiety and worry about the future. In an effort to stave off worry about all the things that could go wrong in my full life, I’ve evolved into a master planner and organizer. While these are certainly useful skills, life is simply too unpredictable to ever maintain anything beyond the illusion of temporary control for long.
Last year, in the midst of various personal and professional challenges, I decided it was time to do something about the worry that was still plaguing my life and I began practicing meditation. There has been substantial research in recent years demonstrating the benefits of meditation and other mindfulness training (see, e.g., a research summary created at the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center [MARC] at UCLA). There are many programs and books that teach mindfulness (see MARC’s resource page for a listing of the secular programs). One of my favorite secular books is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, and he has some nice recordings as well (see http://www.mindfulnesscds.com). I’ve been primarily working with the Buddhists, who were the original masters of these techniques, through the Prairie Sangha. After a year and a half of regular meditation practice and one 9-day retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center last summer, which makes me still a beginner in Buddhist circles, I’ve been astounded at the benefits of these techniques, both in terms of increased joy and dramatically reduced worry.
The most fascinating aspect has been to learn and actually experience what the Buddhists call the dual nature of mind. I’m currently reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and Sogyal Rinpoche has a beautiful metaphor in it that nicely captures this dual nature. The typical untrained monkey mind that we all live with is called the “relative mind” and its thoughts and moods come and go like the weather, only usually far less predictably. Through mindfulness training, you can learn to step back from the relative mind and begin to live in the “absolute mind,” which is like the vast blue sky above the weather that is always there and always peaceful. Everyone experiences this state on occasion, like when a breathtaking sunset or witnessing a birth can instantly transport your mind from its day-to-day buzz into peace and joy. Like an airplane that pops out of the rain and clouds into the calm above them, you can train your mind to let the thoughts and emotions come and go while remaining in equanimity and peace. Most beginners get only brief glimpses of that state during many years of practice, but the view is so awe inspiring and the early benefits in reducing stress are so great that it is well worth the journey.
The most important element in developing mindfulness is to practice regularly, regardless of what technique you choose to practice. Currently I’m practicing an hour a day in two 30-minute sessions, but even 15 minutes a day would be beneficial. When I tell people about my practice they are often amazed that I can find time for it, although if I told them that I watch TV for an hour a day I suspect that most people would be unfazed (in 2009, Nielsen reported that the average American watches about 5 hours of TV each day). By taking this regular time out of my day, not only am I more productive while working, but I’m also more focused with family and friends and better able to stay in equanimity when conflicts arise. Furthermore, there are stress-reduction activities that I used to do and just don’t feel the desire or need for any more (Jacuzzi time, reading trashy novels, massages, yoga, etc.), so that saves time. As the author Peter McWilliams said, “Some people think that meditation takes time away from physical accomplishment. Taken to extremes, of course, that’s true. Most people, however, find that meditation creates more time than it takes.”
Barbara Minsker, January 2011