Currently viewing the tag: "Mindfulness"

Meditation Los AngelesWhat is meditation? Is it what we speak of when discussing mindfulness? In short, no – meditation is tool, while mindfulness is a state of mind. A good reminder from a previous article is that we spend the bulk of our waking time on auto-pilot. This habitual activity-mode allows us to think while we drive, talk on the phone while typing, or discuss vacation plans while having sex. It is a state of mind; one which we specifically differentiate from being laser-sharp focused – or mindful.

Meditation, on the other hand, is a practice. Without a doubt, regular meditation strengthens focus, and thus it strengthens one’s ability to enter mindfulness, but it is purely a tool, one that needs to be practiced regularly and earnestly to become effective. Greater mindfulness is a consequence of consistent meditation. But meditation is not the only path to mindfulness, it just happens to be an extremely effective one. For sure, the Bhagavad Gita discusses meditation as a form of yoga, and it is a path to awareness, but by no means is it solely so: in fact, greater mindfulness is merely one consequence of many for the meditator. Meditation can be used to come to know the Self, to connect with the Source (or Absolute in Vedantic philosophy), and ultimately to unionize with the Source (samadhi). It achieves these aspirations by dissolving the boundary between self and other, between the one and many, and between sensory experience and reality.

To practice meditation is to attempt to go to the “other” side of thoughts: to allow what comes to come and what goes to go. Meditation is the start to separating the Self (true nature) from the self (body, mind, and sense of individuality). By repeatedly practicing awareness and focus, the proper conditions are beings set for release of self to Self. This state of being is called samadhi and is known to many spiritual disciplines. Because reaching this state is purely experiential, you cannot fully understand it with words alone. In fact, this is true for every stage along the way to samadhi as well, such that meditation leads to an inner unfoldment, a progression, where each layer spread out brings one closer to one’s true Self (not the self of the physical body and mind).

Mind Dissolves Meditation, by virtue of this inner unfoldment, leads to a greater receptivity to reality. As awareness expands, illusions become shattered and nightmares neutralize as a greater sense of oneness and orderliness flood the consciousness. Purpose becomes clearer, problems unite with solutions, and visions sharpen; meditation opens channels to understanding and inspiration.

Even the physical body changes morphologically through regular meditation. Studies show that meditation is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking. While taking on meditation to attain physical or intellectual prowess might be mundane, these are a few interesting side-effects regular meditation brings.

Understanding that meditation is a tool is imperative, because it is easy for some to mistake the tool for the goal, which can lead to a discontinuation of practice for sheer lack of interest or significance to the practitioner. It can also lead to a false sense of achievement and thus stagnation in others. Understanding that meditation is simply a tool to achieve varying levels of awareness helps the practitioner stay on track and open to each layer of Self as it unfolds. It also allows the practitioner to remain unattached to the tool, because Self-realization can and will occur outside of meditation as well. Attaching to the tool can prevent the practitioner from reaching deeper levels of awareness by holding onto the illusion that the tool is necessary. It isn’t. It’s just a tool.

Deep sleep meditation coursesThat tool is used ultimately to get you to different states of consciousness. Recall that mindlessness, our typical waking state, is the state of unconscious consciousness: minimally aware of moment-to-moment details. And mindfulness is conscious consciousness: intense awareness of moment-to-moment details. Samadhi, then, that state of oneness to which we aspire through meditation, is an entirely different state altogether: we can call it a state of conscious unconsciousness. This is a strange concept to anybody hearing it for the first time…conscious unconsciousness? Appreciating this term is best done by associating it with something we do every night: deep sleep. The sleep cycle is split into four stages: light sleep, moderate sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep. Deep sleep is about twenty five percent of each sleep cycle and what we call restorative sleep. When a person is in deep sleep they are unaware of everything: their body, their mind, and their individuality. They are conscious in the general sense that they are not dead, but they are dead to the world for the period they are in that state. An even better example is the person who is put under anesthesia, like I was in 2006 to have my appendix removed. Just before the operation the anesthesiologist told me, “This is going to be your cocktail for the night, Mr. Campos.” And the next thing I knew it was, “…Mr. Campos, Mr. Campos, wake up, you’re done.” And that was that, time passed but to me it was instantaneous. I was in a state of unconsciousness, and I was unconscious to it.  We go there every night in deep sleep. Every person has had the experience of waking up and thinking, “Where am I, how did I get here?” That’s unconscious unconsciousness. Samadhi is being in a deep-sleep-like state, yet being aware and conscious throughout. Weird, huh? But that’s what it is, conscious unconsciousness: a truly experiential phenomenon. Words cannot describe.

The main point is that meditation is a tool to get you to a state – the state of conscious unconsciousness. Once you are there the goal changes, but I will leave that for another article. Most important for you, the practitioner, the aspirant, is the revelation along the way. This unfoldment of Self is what changes life for good.

MindfulnessI’ve been teaching mindfulness and meditation courses for the last six years. The big question beginners usually have is what they will achieve from taking on the practice. This question can come in many forms, sometimes with statements like: “Will mindfulness increase my energy?”, “Does mindfulness really work?”, and “What will I get out of mindfulness?”

Many benefits come as a result of taking on mindfulness or meditation practice, from the physical to the mental to the spiritual, but most importantly it allows one to come to know oneself more deeply. This may not sound so enticing to the person looking for some real magic to come from their efforts, but I assure you that the depth of your being is far more exciting and magical than you can understand at this point. The most I can get across without your experiencing it yourself is that you will develop and learn more than you might imagine at this point – you do not even have the reference point yet to understand, but you will in time, along with a number of progressively developing powers.

The primary power you will attain is best illustrated with a story. Almost everybody is familiar with the image I’ve posted. It is a Pulitzer Prize winning photo of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức, who burned himself to death on June 11, 1963 in protest of the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. Buddhists were banned from flying their flag in Huế city on their holy day of Vesak, the birthday of Gautama Buddha. In dissent of these orders, Buddhists gathered with their flags to protest the edict and were fired upon by government forces. Nine protesters were killed that day by gunfire.

As a result, U.S. journalists were contacted and told of an important event that would take place the following day outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. Reporters who were there saw a procession of 350 monks and nuns carrying banners denouncing the South Vietnamese government and its policies toward Buddhists. A sedan carrying Quảng Đức rolled ahead of the procession. When it reached its destination in front of the embassy, three monks, including Quảng Đức exited the car. Quảng Đức calmly sat down on a cushion in the traditional lotus position, closed his eyes and began meditating. Another monk, removing a five gallon gas canister, came over to the meditating monk and emptied the entire contents of the canister over Quảng Đức’s head. Quảng Đức rotated a string of wooden beads while repeating a Buddhist mantra; he then struck a match and dropped it on himself. The flames engulfed him quickly and furiously. Quảng Đức remained poised throughout. He was a master of mindfulness – he never broke his concentration.

David Halberstam of The New York Times, who was one of the reporters present that day, described it like this:

“Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think … As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”

I once told this story in one of my classes, and the attendee, a doctor, asked, “Why are you showing us this picture?” It is simple; I want you to understand what is capable by the human mind. You see, humans have only two instincts: reproduction and survival. Like all living things, humans are driven to spread their genes and persist as life forms. And like all other life forms, humans have an instinctual drive to survive. If you are attacked, chances are you will do whatever necessary to survive – you will run, hide, fight, scratch, bite, climb, swim, and anything else that might keep you alive. You might even eat human flesh if there is nothing else available. That is what happened to Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, later known as Andes flight disaster, a chartered flight of 45 people, passengers and crew, which crashed over the Andes Mountains in 1972. The surviving 16 spent 72 days lost in the mountains before they were rescued, and ultimately had to resort to cannibalism, albeit reluctantly. They did what was necessary for survival. Their ordeal was made into a movie called Alive.

MindfulAnother film, called 127, staring John Franco, is the story of avid mountain climber Aron Ralston. Ralston goes climbing in Utah but fails to tell anybody where he was going. He has an accident and gets his hand caught between a rock and a hard place. After several attempts to free himself over days, he ultimately has to amputate his own arm. As grueling as this sounds, it is a true story, Aron Ralston did what he needed to survive. Most people would do whatever they could. It is human instinct.

And this is precisely what I want to get across with the story of Quảng Đức. What would most people do if they were on fire? Naturally, one’s instinct kicks in and they will attempt to extinguish the flames: rolling on the ground, patting themselves, and screaming at the very least. But not Quảng Đức – he sat there in quiet meditation, never moving a muscle. How did he do it? Was he some superman? Did he have special powers? The answer is no. Quảng Đức was a human being no different than you or me. He had one element, however, that he had mastered: his ability to focus his mind beyond all physical and mental distraction. It was this power that kept Quảng Đức in a peaceful composure throughout, completely overriding his human instinct for survival.

Now if this isn’t awe inspiring, I don’t know what is. Does that mean one will be inspired to emulate Quảng Đức? No but think of the potentiality of the intense focus and to what ends it may be used – it is exhilarating! If one can transcend even one’s own instinct for survival through mindfulness, what cannot be endured; what cannot be accomplished? Thích Quảng Đức has become the empyrean of mindfulness practice, the highest potentiality we can wish to attain in our own practice; to approximate, if not to become.

Mindfulness brings many benefits to the practitioner. A powerful, laser focus is the foundation for so much more. Think of the physical (sports, games, sex), intellectual, and spiritual accomplishments you can muster with such potent focus. Think of the circles in which you can play with strength of focus. Truly the world will become your playground when mastering the power of mindfulness. Your time and energy is a small price for such an enormous attribute. Start working today and increase your mindfulness potentiality to Thích Quảng Đức power. You too might affect the world long after your flame has flickered out.

simon-migaj-Yui5vfKHuzs-unsplash (Copy)Mindfulness has become a fashionable term over the last few years, for good reason: as an ancient practice cultivated to allow practitioners to come to know themselves, mindfulness has been shown scientifically to reduce mental and physical effects of stress. Stress can be both beneficial and detrimental, depending on how one perceives it, but since most people tend to experience stress negatively, it can lead to a number of physical conditions which ultimately break down the body. In fact, stress related disorders are estimated to be responsible for 75-90 percent of all doctor’s visits, causing such problems as headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, problems sleeping, and even sexual problems. Having a tool, then, to minimize stress and its effects on the mind and body is invaluable.

Mindfulness is the deliberate attention to Self – a moment by moment awareness of what is going on around and within oneself. It is attentively observing experience as it unfolds without evaluating or judging it and also accepting what is and what isn’t, in the moment, in present time. Mindfulness is the practice of being in the here and now in full attention. I like to call it conscious consciousness – one is consciously aware of one’s consciousness when in mindfulness. Easier said than done for the uninitiated, but reaching this state is definitely cultivatable.

To understand mindfulness one really needs to understand mindlessness. Mindlessness is not a derogatory term as it is used here – it does not mean stupid, ignorant, or thoughtless. What it refers to is the state of being on auto-pilot. The human brain has evolved for a certain amount of efficiency. Like other autonomic processes, we do not have to think about our moment to moment brain activity. To understand this, it is best to first make note of processes in our body that need no conscious awareness: breathing, digestion, nutrient assimilation, waste production and elimination, cellular respiration, and the list goes on and on. Like these processes, many brain functions require no active input on our part. In fact, our brain produces thousands of thoughts per day. It is difficult to know how many, but one really comes to understand the constancy of our thought stream when trying to quiet the mind in meditation. Thoughts are like molecules produced continuously in a cell – they happen whether we want them to or not.

complexityMore importantly, they happen without our taking notice. We do not have to think about our every action. We do not have to initiate every move, only the decision, and sometimes not even that. By freeing our mind of these routine actions, we are able to concentrate more on complex actions and behaviors, we are able to think about abstract ideas, and we are able to self-reflect (as far as we know, the only species that does this). Complex thinking has led to the creation of musical masterpieces, mathematical theories, and technological innovations. It has inspired timeless art, revolutionary science and allowed us to ask and ponder the great philosophical questions of life, those that give our lives meaning. Without an automation of our primary thought system, it is questionable whether we’d have ever accomplished anything more than our most basic survival. Automation of thought is the first and foremost system used by the brain on a regular basis. More than ninety percent of our day is made up of habitual actions. According to Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winning psychologist and economist, ninety-eight percent of our mental processes are of the automatic, effortless, and unconscious kind, even though we tend to believe we are making rational decisions throughout the day. Most people are thus walking through life effortlessly unaware, allowing their automatic thoughts to flow in and out of consciousness, and create a stream of time which ultimately frames their experiences. I like to call this unconscious consciousness – consciously awake, just not aware.

This influx of automatic thoughts is barely noticed, except from time to time when a thought so pleasurable or disturbing enters the awareness causing desire or fear, and even many of these come and go with little notice. For the average person, unrestrained thought-flow, or what some call mind-chatter, can lead to anxiety, depression, mental overload, fatigue and even more severe mental illness. Unrestrained thought-flow can thus become a source of stress. Add to that all the other things we must act on in any given day, and it is no surprise that the bulk of doctor’s visits are for stress related conditions.

focusWhile many people turn to drugs and alcohol in a futile attempt to quiet the mind-chatter, these mind-alterers actually make matters worse over time. The only way to diminish mind-chatter is to pull the mind into attention. That’s why sports and exercise have been popular since antiquity. By focusing on a physical activity, the mind is forced into what Kahneman calls system 2 thinking, or one which is done with our conscious mind – conscious consciousness – effortful, intentional, and controlled. Making art and music are also amazing mind-chatter reducers. So is doing math, or thinking about anything in detail, like when you strategize or follow a protocol. Anything which forces the mind to focus reduces mind chatter (one reason smart phones have become addictive). However, even these activities, when done repeatedly can become automatic. Without a doubt, people strive to make automatic as many of their activities as possible. We call this mastery. And mastery makes what was once effortful a habituation. As a result, once we master an activity, it does have the potentiality to become an automatic process.

For all these reasons, practicing mindfulness regularly through meditation is an ideal activity. Working the mind into focused attention, about nothing in particular, is like lifting weights for the body. It is a mental exercise that enhances all other activities by the sheer strength of sharpening the awareness. This, over time, allows the mind to focus its attention during routine day-to-day activities, in other words, to attain and maintain conscious consciousness. The more we achieve states of mindfulness, the better we are minimizing stress: mind-chatter reduces, awareness improves, creativity is enhanced, and communication and personal connection deepen as a result of a meditation practice. Not only does this have positive consequences for our mental health but for our physical health as well. Health challenges caused by stress – like pain, addictions, chronic infections, and sexual dysfunctions – can be reduced and even remedied by taking up a regular meditation practice. Something as simple as a daily commitment to intentional awareness has the power to improve health and create wellness.

Mindfulness is a state of mind not easily accessed without some intentional effort. Working earnestly at focusing one’s awareness trains the mind to enter a state of conscious consciousness more regularly and with less effort. Once it is ingrained into the habituation system, all activities are illuminated by increased awareness. While it, too, will become a more automated process, it will paradoxically lead to spontaneity, as we become more conscious of every moment, bringing new meaning to our experiences. Ultimately, awareness assures our growth and development, which leads to richer experiences, in a cycle of expansion and change, keeping things novel and interesting. You can continue to walk through life on unconscious auto-pilot or put in the effort to become more aware, and thus more appreciative and attentive to the details that make your life rich.

Copyright © 2013 Dr. Nick Campos - All Rights Reserved.