What are the main physical benefits of meditation?

physical benefits of meditation

If meditation was available in capsule form, it would be the biggest selling drug on the planet.   As the powerful effects of meditation have been validated by all manner of research teams and institutions, a gathering chorus of scientists are voicing this same theme. 

Describing the main, physical benefits of meditation in a short blog is not only ambitious, but also somewhat contrived.  The more we understand the impact of meditation, the more we realise that describing a benefit as ‘physical’ or ‘psychological’ is an artificial construct.  For example, reducing high blood pressure through meditation may seem a measurable and purely physiological benefit, but it only happens because of the psychological change that precedes it.

These qualifiers, aside, what are some of the main, physical benefits?  To quote just a few:

Reduces stress: when meditating, our breathing and heart rate naturally slows, our blood pressure – if elevated – falls and our muscles soften.  This ‘relaxation response’ described by Dr Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School continues well after a session has ended, and the effect is cumulative if we meditate regularly.  Our brain produces dramatically less cortisol, a stress-related hormone, when we meditate.  Activity in the amygdala part of our brain, which deals with stress, falls, while the executive functions of our brain thrive.  This improves our ability to regulate our emotions, know what to pay attention to, process information, and make decisions.

Lowers high blood pressure and helps treat heart disease.  Not only is meditation highly effective at managing ‘the silent killer’ of hypertension, it also slows down the impact of hardening of the arteries and delivers significantly improved ECG performance.

Boosts immunity.  Instead of ‘fight and flight’ hormones like adrenalin, our bodies switch into self repair mode when we meditate.  Instead, we produce more endorphins, the neurotransmitters needed to protect our bodies against foreign organisms.  Ditto melatonin, a powerful anti-oxidant, and DHEA which combats bacterial, parasitic and viral infections.

Slows ageing.  Cell longevity has been shown to be promoted by meditation, specifically telomeres activity is significantly higher, there is slower genetic ageing and enhanced genetic repair.  One study showed that people who had regularly meditated for 5 years had biological ages 12 years less than their chronological age.

Helps manage chronic pain.  Even people who are newcomers to meditation show dramatically improved pain management.  One study showed 40% lower pain intensity ratings on MRI scans.

Reduces mortality.  Survival rates in residential care homes have been shown to improve substantially among groups of meditators.

Helps people suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions.  Rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma are some of the most widespread inflammatory conditions.  Meditation not only helps manage their impacts, but can prevent them getting worse.

These are just a few of  the physical impacts of meditation.  You’ll find much more detail in Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate.

Look out for my blog summary very soon on the 12 main psychological benefits.

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To order Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate go to: http://www.fishpond.com.au/Books/Why-Mindfulness-Better-than-Chocolate-David-Michie/9781743319130

Happiness vs pleasure: what’s the difference?

chocolate cake

Given that the wish to be happy is universal, you’d think that happiness would be a core subject at school, and that we’d all be pretty expert on happiness and its causes.  But the truth is, most people are somewhat hazy about it.  The title of a recent book by Daniel Gilbert, Prof of Psychology at Harvard University, says it all: ‘Stumbling on Happiness.’  In the book – which I recommend highly – Prof Gilbert explains the pitfalls into which we stumble in our pursuit of happiness.

Part of the reason for the collective confusion about happiness may be as simple as the word itself.  ‘It makes me happy to reach out to those in need,’ we may say.  We may just as easily say, ‘They had my favourite cake so I was very happy.’  But the happiness we are talking about in each case is quite different.

The ancient Greeks had two different words for happiness: hedonia and eudemonia. In brief, hedonia (from which we derive hedonism) is what we take from the world to be happy.  We might call it pleasure.  Eudemonia is what we give to the world to give us happiness.  This is the more profound sense of well-being.  How do the two kinds of happiness differ?

Pleasure/hedonia  Happiness/eudamonia
The focus is on me.  The pleasure I get eating cake, enjoying comforts/luxuries etc The focus is on others.  The happiness I get is from giving others what they need or wish for.
Externally-derived.  Our pleasure arises when we come into contact with something outside ourselves. Internally-derived.  Our happiness comes from our own thoughts and feelings.
Short lived. Pleasurable experiences wear off quickly and deliver limited satisfaction when remembered later. Enduring.  Doing something meaningful for the happiness of others produces a feeling which still makes us happy when we recall it long after.
Subject to circumstances.  Even the most delicious cake will not deliver pleasure if a heated argument erupts while you’re eating! Not subject to circumstances. We feel happy if we’re able to help others even in awful conditions.
The more we experience it, the less it delivers.  The first slice of cake is great.  What about the second …. fifth … tenth?! The more we experience it, the more it delivers.  The feeling of satisfaction we get rescuing the tenth waterlogged bird in a storm may be even greater than the first one.

With this understanding, it’s easy to see how so many of us get into trouble in the pursuit of happiness.  Money (beyond a fairly low threshold), toys, and status are common routes to ‘happiness,’ but what these things actually deliver is pleasure.  And, as we can see pleasure is short lived, unreliable and subject to circumstance.

If it’s happiness we’re after, the well-being of others is a surer way forward – the basis of the Dalai Lama’s frequent encouragement for us to be ‘wisely selfish.’

This is a subject I explore in much more detail in my book Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate.

(Thank you http://forkandtravel.com/devilishly-delicious-chocolate-cake/ for the wonderful cake pic!)

For future blogs on this and related subjects, please click the ‘Follow’ button on the bottom, right hand corner of your screen now.

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Video – David Michie launches ‘Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate’

video launch pic

Just sharing the video of the short talk I gave recently to launch Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate at The Bodhi Tree Book Cafe.  Thank you to Karen Kotze and the wonderful team at The Bodhi Tree for making the evening such a success. Thanks also Graham and Scott for your help with the video!

Chocolate front cover

To order Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate go to: http://www.fishpond.com.au/Books/Why-Mindfulness-Better-than-Chocolate-David-Michie/9781743319130

8 ways that mind training is like physical training

Yogaonbeachimage

As a regular gym goer, as well as long-term meditator, I am often struck by the similarities between mind training and physical training.  The same rules that apply to an exercise regime – be that the gym, yoga, bike riding or running – also generally apply to meditation and mindfulness.

Here are a few of them:

  1. No instant results.  You don’t expect to build a body like The Terminator a week after joining the gym.  In the same way, you are unlikely to experience Zen-like tranquillity a week after taking up meditation practice.  At the gym I go to, there’s a sign along the lines ‘8 weeks for you to notice.  12 weeks for your friends. 16 weeks for everyone else.’  Much the same could be said for taking up meditation.
  2. The benefit of a teacher/coach.  Few people think of embarking on yoga or a gym routine without taking classes or having a personal trainer.   The same should go for meditation.  An experienced instructor can assist you with technique, keep you motivated, and ensure you avoid unhelpful habits.  They can answer the many questions you may have in the early stages.  A teacher can’t do the work for you, but they can help you get the best out of your sessions.
  3. Group sessions can be useful.  This point doesn’t apply to everyone, but many people find it helpful to be part of a wider group of people on the same mission.  This helps normalise our practice when it’s new to us and we usually learn a lot over the water cooler from people a bit further down the track from ourselves.
  4. We’re more likely to stick at it if we make it part of our regular routine.  As soon as we make a session a question of ‘Shall I or shan’t I?’ we find reasons not to.  Especially when starting out, it’s useful to give yourself a period, like six weeks, when you are committed to regular sessions, come hell or high water (see http://davidmichie.com/blog/2014/06/14/take-the-six-week-meditation-challenge/).
  5. The ripple effect.  When you realise how much effort it takes to burn off a chocolate bar, you’ll think twice about over-indulgence.  So, even though you signed up to work on cardio-vascular fitness, you may find a shift occurs in your diet and other activities.  The same goes for meditation.  You may sign up to work on stress management, but find your enhanced mental clarity helps you see opportunities, conversations and other people in a different light.
  6. It’s the means to an end.  You may focus on your workout session, or time on the meditation cushion, but initially at least the reason you’re doing it is mainly for the other 23 hours of the day when you’re not at the gym or meditating.  You are working to create a fitter or more mindful life that makes you far more effective in taking charge of your physical and mental destiny, both for your own benefit, as well as for the benefit others.
  7. The more you do it, the better you get.  Whether it’s yoga, resistance training or meditation, the dosage effect means that this is a journey which brings enhanced results the more you practice.
  8. Improved body and mind.  Just as physical training enhances your state of mind, so too mindfulness training has significant physical benefits including boosted immune systems, reduced inflammation and high blood pressure – if you suffer from these – improved longevity and holistic well-being.

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If you can think of other parallels between mind training and physical training, please add your comment.  I’ve no doubt there are plenty more!

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To order Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate go to: http://www.fishpond.com.au/Books/Why-Mindfulness-Better-than-Chocolate-David-Michie/9781743319130  (If a ‘Sold Out’ button appears, try after Thursday this week – the book is currently being reprinted).

  1. Don’t forget the free raffle to win one of five copies of Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate at a Rafflecopter giveawayFind me on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/pages/David-Michie/308276665884246?ref=hlTwitter: https://twitter.com/DavidMichieOm

Mindfulness vs Meditation: what’s the difference?

 seashore at sunset

Mindfulness is ’paying attention to the present moment deliberately and non-judgmentally.’  This is perhaps the most widely-accepted definition.

If you were to ask a room of 30 people to practise mindfulness for a minute, and then asked them what they’d been mindful of, chances are you’d get a variety of answers, ranging from mindfulness of ambient noise, such as birdsong or traffic, to mindfulness of the decor in a room, the sensation of the breeze blowing through the window, or the inhaling and exhaling of breath.  Any of these are valid mindfulness experiences.

When we meditate, we choose a specific object of meditation and try to stick with it. That object may be physical – very commonly an aspect of breathing, such as the sensation of our breath at the tip of the nostrils as we inhale or exhale.   The object could be a lot more subtle, such as a visualisation or even mind itself.

Meditation is therefore the application of mindfulness to a specific object for a specific period of time.

How are meditation and mindfulness related?  By way of illustration, if we regularly go to a gym, yoga class or engage in other physical improvement activities, we tend to focus on the detail of what we do during our sessions.  Little by little we may add weights, repetitions or our ability to hold a pose correctly. If we can keep up the discipline for a few months, we detect meaningful changes and are encouraged to do more.

Although the mechanics of what we do at the gym or in class are our main concern, in reality we’re mostly doing it for the 23 hours a day we’re not in training. We may monitor our regime with keen attention, but the main benefit is that our improved cardiovascular fitness, capacity for weight-bearing or flexibility means we can cope with much greater ease with whatever life hands us.

Precisely the same applies to the practice of meditation.

We may begin on the recommendation of a doctor, or in seeking our own solution to stress, depression or anxiety, or in response to a more general wish to enjoy greater mental well-being. If we can keep up the practice for a couple of months, encouraged by our teacher, we’ll inevitably experience the benefits. And while we may monitor our regime according to the minutes we spend on it each day, the types of meditation in which we engage and/or our subjective experience while doing it, the real benefit is in the 23 hours and 50 minutes a day we’re not meditating.

Meditation enables us to deal with life’s inevitable ups and downs with greater mindfulness, along with providing associated benefits—equanimity, inner peace, spontaneity and zest for life, to name just a few.

Regular meditation therefore supports a more mindful life in the same way that going to the gym supports a fitter life. We can practise mindfulness without meditating regularly, just as we can try to get fit through incidental exercise. But it seems a bit pointless. For the sake of just ten minutes a day we might as well benefit from a daily meditation session.

What are the benefits of a more mindful life?  In a word, incalculable!  I plan blogging about some of these in the months ahead.  If you’d like to read more, please click the ‘Follow’ button at the bottom right hand of your screen now.

Don’t forget – you can get free downloads of a range of meditations from my website – just click the Sign Up button.

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To order Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate go to:

http://www.fishpond.com.au/Books/Why-Mindfulness-Better-than-Chocolate-David-Michie/9781743319130  (If a ‘Sold Out’ button appears, try after Thursday this week – the book is currently being reprinted).

Don’t forget the free raffle to win one of five copies of Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate at a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Win one of 5 free copies of ‘Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate’!

Chocolate front cover

Dear Fellow Meditators and Readers,

FIVE FREE COPIES OF ‘WHY MINDFULNESS IS BETTER THAN CHOCOLATE’  UP FOR GRABS

I am delighted to let you know that that I’ll be mailing free, signed copies of my new book to the FIVE winners of a raffle, held over the next week.

Entering the raffle is free of charge, and should take you no more than about 30 seconds .  To do it now, click here a Rafflecopter giveaway

JOIN MY WEBINAR ON TUESDAY 24th JUNE

Separately, my Australian publishers, Allen & Unwin, are hosting a webinar this coming Tuesday, 24th June at 6.30 pm Sydney time, which you are very welcome to attend, wherever in the world you live.

If you’d like to register for this free event, click here https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/6831638836534929922)  The link will also show you when time the event will be in your local time zone).

FOLLOW MY BLOG

I enjoy sharing insights about meditation and Buddhism on my semi-regular blog.  If you haven’t checked it out already, please feel free to do so at: http://davidmichie.com/blog/    The ‘Follow’button is at the bottom, right hand of the screen.

Stay tuned for my next blog on the difference between mindfulness and meditation.

David

www.davidmichie.com

Take the Six Week Meditation Challenge!

meditator's lap

One of biggest challenges faced by newcomers to meditation is getting into the habit of meditating.  We may start with the best intentions.  After going to a meditation seminar, reading a book, or listening to an inspiring speaker we may decide: this is it!  I’m convinced by the many benefits.  I want to make meditation part of my life.

But despite the positive motivation, many people never get beyond a handful of sessions before their practice fizzles out.  It is for exactly this reason that my book Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate includes a chapter ‘Ten tips for getting into the meditation habit.’

One of these tips is the suggestion that you take the six week meditation challenge.  Why a trial period?  Because you’re making a commitment, but only a limited one.  Because you’re giving the practice enough time to experience some kind of benefit.  And because, even though you’re only committing to six weeks, you’re actually creating the foundation for lasting change.

Six weeks is a reasonable period of time to give meditation a fair go and see if you can subjectively detect any change. You could try a one-month challenge, but if you go this route you’ll have to be punctilious about not missing a day. I prefer six weeks because it allows a bit of leeway for the occasional lapse here and there.

Scientific studies show that the best way to create a positive habit is to repeatedly do something over a period of weeks, to make it so much a part of our routine that, like brushing our teeth, it’s not something we decide whether or not we’ll do today. We do it because that’s what we always do before going to bed.

Decide when you’re going to slot meditation into your life, such as between getting dressed in the morning and having breakfast—and for the six week trial period stick to it. According to psychologist Meredith Fuller, ‘We can actually lay new neuron pathways in our brains by repeating an action or way of thinking. The aim is to transform a new activity into an automatic habit. With repetition, it becomes something we do without thinking; in fact, we experience discomfort if we don’t do it.’

Curiously, this was exactly how I first proved to myself one of the benefits of meditation. After about five or six weeks of quite regular practice, I had one of those days when everything that could go wrong seemed to. I found myself getting angrier and angrier. It was only around lunchtime that I suddenly realised I hadn’t meditated for a few days. Life had got in the way and I’d missed my morning sessions. I discovered in a personally very powerful way how much calmer and better able to manage stress I was when I meditate regularly.

In summary, the six week meditation challenge:

  • Is a finite commitment;
  • Allows a reasonable period of time to enable an assessment;
  • Lays the groundwork to turn meditation into a daily habit; and
  • Will probably feel too good for you to want to stop!

For the other 9 tips, you’ll have to read Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate!

Don’t forget – you can get free downloads of a range of meditations from my website – just click the Sign Up button.

Chocolate front cover

To order Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate go to:

http://www.fishpond.com.au/Books/Why-Mindfulness-Better-than-Chocolate-David-Michie/9781743319130

In future months, I will be publishing excerpts and commentary on Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate. If you’d like to receive these, click the ‘Follow’ button at the bottom right hand of your screen now.

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(Photo at the top of this blog comes courtesy of DIT Zen: https://www.facebook.com/ditzendo)

 

Meditation and being ‘in flow’

 

elie in golden lake cropped

I recently had the very good fortune of hearing Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi deliver a presentation at the Happiness & Its Causes conference on one of the concepts for which he is world-famous: flow.

‘Flow’ is the state of being we all experience – however briefly or infrequently – when we become completely immersed in whatever it is that we are doing.  By definition, it is a state of complete mindfulness.

Mihaly tells the story of how he first became aware of the flow experience during the Second World War in his native Hungary, when a chess player described how he could become so absorbed in his game that he would be oblivious to the bombing going on all around him.  Even if the ceiling fell in, he said, he wouldn’t notice it.

Mihaly later heard similar stories from rock climbers, dancers and musicians.  He came to realise that this unique state of flourishing is defined by a number of characteristics.  As Mihaly listed one after the other of these, I couldn’t help thinking how in many ways they define a great meditation session:

The characteristics of ‘flow’:

  • Attention is focused on a limited stimulus field;
  • Action and awareness merge
  • There is full concentration, complete involvement
  • Self-consciousness disappears
  • There is freedom from worry about failure
  • The sense of time becomes distorted
  • The experience becomes its own reward – it is auto-telic (a good in itself)

You can, of course, debate the application of some of these points to meditation.  Matthieu Ricard, who was also at the conference, suggested that when we meditate our attention may be focused not on a limited stimulus field, but on the infinite nature of mind, an object that could not be more boundless.  That said, placing our attention at the tip of our nostrils and monitoring the breath in and out certainly falls into the category of ‘limited stimulus field.’

The ‘action’ of a meditator in paying attention to the present moment may be a lot more subtle than that of a performer doing the tango, but the merging of the two so that subject and object merge into a state of non-duality most certainly characterises a great meditation session.  As does the disappearance of any self-consciousness, fear of failure, and so on.

The idea of meditation becoming its own reward is an interesting one.  When we begin, for most of us this is not the case.  Just as, I suspect, the novice rock-climber, musician or chess player faces many hours of fairly unrewarding practice before reaching a level of competency where being in flow is possible, so too a newcomer to meditation.

But with applied effort, it does happen.  We no longer require the evidence of scientific studies to tell us how beneficial meditation is for us.  We do it because we know how good it feels to be in flow.  If we practice diligently for long enough, meditation becomes its own reward.  We experience brief moments of being in flow -  and are encouraged to keep going to see what happens as these moments extend for longer and longer …

As a footnote, if, like me, you are bamboozled by how to pronounce the name Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, let me pass on a tip I learned from a Buddhist nun at the conference.  “I know I shouldn’t say this,” she laughed mischievously, brushing her face.  ‘But I just remember ‘Cheeks send me high!”  Phonetically his name is Me-high, Cheeks-send-me-high.

Just don’t ask me to spell it!

Chocolate front cover

To order Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate go to:

http://www.fishpond.com.au/Books/Why-Mindfulness-Better-than-Chocolate-David-Michie/9781743319130

In future months, I will be publishing excerpts and commentary on Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate. If you’d like to receive these, click the ‘Follow’ button at the bottom right hand of your screen now.

 

The value of guided meditations

blue buddha face

One of the biggest challenges faced by people wanting to meditate is a very simple one: where do I start?

When during my busy day should I do it?  How can I make the time?  And now that I’m sitting in a quiet room, what meditation practice should I use?

My book, Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate, has a chapter devoted to how to get into the habit of meditating because this is such an important challenge – one I intend blogging about more in the coming weeks.

What I want to highlight in this blog is the value of guided meditation downloads.  Listening to a guided meditation on a MP3 player/iPod can be a useful way of easing into the practice for several reasons.

  • Although, in time, meditation will come to feel like the most natural thing in the world to be doing, initially it will feel unfamiliar.  If you’re anything like I was when I started, you may even feel like a bit of a fraud even trying! But listening to instructions is something we’re all familiar with.  A guided meditation can therefore help us turn what may seem like a daunting challenge into an activity that is a lot more approachable.
  • Some people worry about getting things wrong.  What if I forget a vital part of the instructions?  What if I get so caught up in my thoughts that I spend the whole session daydreaming?  Guided meditations help ensure that you don’t miss out on any of the most important instructions.  The free downloads I provide also help keep you on track during the course of your session by gently bringing you back to the object of meditation.
  • How do you know when your time is up?  You can set up an alert on your phone.  You can lay your watch in front of you.  A guided meditation of a specified duration will also bring your session to a gentle close.  In the downloads I provide, I tell listeners about a minute before the end of their session so that, whatever the quality of the session up till that point, they can try to finish it with clarity and focus.  Ending a session on a positive note helps encourage us to come back to meditation again.

I think of guided downloads as being like stabiliser wheels on a kid’s bicycle.  They make a huge difference to start off with.  They encourage a sense of familiarity and confidence.  Pretty soon they will have served their purpose and you will outgrow them.  But they can provide a most useful support at that vital early stage.

I have recorded a number of downloads you can get free by clicking on the ‘Sign Up’ button on the Home page of my website – www.davidmichie.com 

Which one should you choose?  I suggest you try each of them in turn and choose to focus on the one or two that you prefer.  Meditation really is different strokes for different folks.  What matters initially is to find a practice that works for you – and stick with it.  You can always review other meditation types again at a later point once you have developed your concentration muscles.

Happy meditating!

Chocolate front cover

To order Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate go to:

http://www.fishpond.com.au/Books/Why-Mindfulness-Better-than-Chocolate-David-Michie/9781743319130

In future months, I will be publishing excerpts and commentary on the book. If you’d like to receive these, click the ‘Follow’ button at the bottom right hand of your screen now.

Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate – Read the first chapter here

Chocolate front cover

With the Australian launch of my new, non-fiction book ‘Why Mindfulness is better than Chocolate,’ I am delighted to be offering the first chapter here:

CHAPTER ONE

All of human unhappiness is due to the inability to sit still in a room alone – Blaise Pascal

Is mindfulness really better than chocolate? Come to think of it, is anything better than chocolate? Or is the title of this book nothing more than a shameless ploy to grab your attention?

As it happens, the idea that mindfulness is better than chocolate is based on compelling research. More than 2000 people in the United States took part in an innovative study using smartphone technology. Panel members were sent questions at different times of the day and night asking what they were doing, what they were thinking and how happy they felt.

The analysis, published by Harvard University psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert in Science magazine, revealed three important facts. First, people were not thinking about what they were doing 47 per cent of the time. Second, people were unhappier when their minds were wandering than when they were not. And third, what people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than what they were doing.

The researchers summarised: ‘A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.’

Long ago, Buddhists reached much the same conclusion. An ancient tale tells of a novice who asked an enlightened monk to reveal the secret of happiness. The monk told him, ‘I eat, and I walk and I sleep.’ When the novice replied that he also did these things, the monk replied, ‘When I eat, I eat. When I walk, I walk. When I sleep, I sleep.’

Buddha and the Harvard Psychology Department are most definitely on the same page when it comes to mindfulness. And the Harvard findings are rich with implications for human behaviour.

But what concerns us right now is chocolate.

The study shows we’re at our happiest when our mind is not wandering—that is, when we’re in a state of mindfulness. But ‘the nature of people’s activities had only a modest impact on whether their minds wandered’. It would seem that whether we’re washing the dishes or eating the most mouth-wateringly delicious Belgian praline, we’re just as likely to have a wandering mind. Eating chocolate is no guarantee that we’re thinking about what we’re doing.

Which is why mindfulness will always trump chocolate as a means of delivering happiness.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s one human activity where mindfulness is consistently high: sex. Only 10 per cent of people reported their minds wandering during this activity, so if I’d called this book ‘Why mindfulness is better than sex’, I would have found myself on much shakier ground.

Incidentally, one can’t help speculating on what those 10 per cent of people who reported wandering minds during sex were actually thinking about. Could the old cliché of grocery lists be true? More research, please!

I will admit, however, to being a little mischievous in creating a false dichotomy between mindfulness and chocolate. There’s no reason to choose between the two. On the contrary, the highlight of my mindfulness seminars is often an exercise I call ‘the Lindt technique’, where I invite participants to mindfully enjoy a Lindt chocolate. Their instructions are to focus exclusively on the sensation of eating a chocolate, every element in forensic detail, from opening the foil wrapper to the appearance and heft of the sphere, the explosion of delicious flavours, and savouring the smooth, liquid heart of the chocolate as it bursts in the mouth.

Are you salivating yet?

For two or three minutes a blissful silence ensues. Mindfulness applied to the eating of chocolate—there’s something that can give even the proverbial grocery lists a run for their money!

Mindfulness in the mainstream

Both mindfulness and meditation have become very fashionable of late. Just as the cheesecloth and hashish brigade of the 1970s have long since matured to become pillars of the establishment, so too our understanding of meditation has evolved in recent decades from hippie-trippy mysticism to mainstream practice.

Although the difference between meditation and mindfulness will be described in more detail later, at the outset it’s important to note the distinction between the two words. When we’re being mindful, we’re paying attention to the present moment, deliberately and non-judgementally. When we’re meditating, we’re being mindful of a specific object—such as the sensation of the breath at the tip of our nostrils—for a sustained period of time. Meditation is, if you like, the training ground for mindfulness. Regular meditation enhances our ability to be mindful. We can all enjoy mindfully drinking a cup of coffee without the benefit of meditation practice, but our capacity for mindfulness is greatly enhanced if we meditate regularly.

Doctors these days are as likely to recommend meditation for stress management as they are to prescribe medication. Many of the world’s highest profile consumer companies, such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter, actively support meditation in their workplaces, as do some of the largest financial institutions, accounting firms, manufacturers and other corporations. No best practice management school is complete these days without a mindful leadership program. The world’s most elite athletes, sports stars and performing artists employ techniques borrowed from the mindfulness toolbox. Mindfulness is a foundation practice across the increasingly popular practices of yoga, tai chi and a variety of martial arts. Meditation programs are demonstrably among the most successful deployed in prisons to reduce re-offence rates. A wave of research since the turn of the century at laboratories in California, New England, Europe and Australia is focusing on the emerging discipline of contemplative neuroscience. Even the US Marines have got in on the act, coaching soldiers in meditation-based
exercises before deploying them in the world’s most
dangerous war zones.

Mindfulness practices are millennia old, originating in eastern traditions, notably Buddhism, which has extensively practised, debated, documented and taught a range of techniques for a variety of purposes. Given that Buddhism has at its heart a reverence for all forms of life, the idea of teaching meditation to soldiers about to parachute into battle may well raise the eyebrows of some. But in describing the exercise as ‘like doing push-ups for the brain’, the US Army general responsible pithily summarised the way meditation has been reframed: just as a healthy body demands regular exercise, goes this paradigm, a healthy mind requires the same.2

This move to the mainstream has inevitably been accompanied by a flurry of books. Without any particular plan to build a library on the subject, I have on my personal bookshelves alone a section of books on mindfulness and meditation about a metre long, picked up here and there in recent years. These books espouse a variety of approaches ranging from the determinedly practical to the quirkily esoteric.

Books I don’t have on my shelves include those by an ever-expanding group of self-styled teachers and mindfulness gurus who go to quite some lengths in the pursuit of mystification. A liberal sprinkling of ™ and © signs is usually warning enough. The requirement to spend large sums of money on weekend intensives should also cause the brow to wrinkle. For the truth is that mindfulness is a simple subject—difficult to practise, no question, but straight-forward to explain.

Given all this, does the world need yet another book on mindfulness?

The dumbing down of mindfulness

Some months ago I was delivering a mindfulness seminar to a group of engineers at a business school. The participants were an engaged bunch, and a meditation exercise was followed by a lively Q&A session, during which I was asked: ‘Why do Buddhist monks meditate? After all, they don’t have any stress. All they have to do is hang around for the next meal to arrive.’

On the surface of things, this is perhaps a reasonable question. And going by the smiles and nodding, it was clear that this observation chimed with quite a few others in the room. If we assume for a moment that the questioner was essentially correct, and that the life of a Buddhist monk is one long picnic waiting for the next course to be served, it may indeed seem mystifying why stress management would be called for.

But for me the question really summed up the tragically diminished idea many people have of what mindfulness and meditation are all about. Yes, they’re great for managing stress, but that isn’t why Buddhists do them. Stress Management isn’t the main reason, nor even a particularly important part of our motivation. To put things in a current, western perspective, it was as if my questioner was asking why people who aren’t on Facebook bother with internet access. Why else would you want to go online?

I felt the need to write this book because I to share the real treasure of mindfulness—its truly transformative power, the authentic reason Buddhist monks meditate. This explanation is left behind, overlooked, dumbed down or never even explored by some contemporary mindfulness teachers—and not necessarily with bad intentions. Mindfulness Lite is an easier sell to a wide audience, and can’t the world use as many mindful people as possible, albeit of the ‘push-ups for the brain’ variety? Besides, the benefits of meditation are so numerous and now so well established by researchers that you don’t need to take people too far along the journey for them to start noticing the favourable physical and psychological effects, so why go further?

At the heart of this reluctance to venture into the heartland of meditation, I’m guessing, is also a certain fear. When people are given the tools to observe the true nature of their own minds for themselves, the experience is a subtle but in-evitable game-changer. When the rug is well and truly pulled out from beneath the confection of the ‘self’ we have come to believe ourselves to be, we can never experience ourselves in quite the same way again. Like being able to see the alternative perspective in one in those famous optical illusions, we can never go back to our former innocence. Our view of our ‘self’ changes forever.

East and West

In writing this book, I’m doing so not as a Buddhist monk—tempting though the prospect of a lifetime’s free catering may be—nor as someone claiming any preternatural mental abilities. The prosaic truth is that I’m a regular middle-aged corporate consultant with many of the usual personal, business and financial responsibilities. In the midst of this typically busy 21st-century life, I have nevertheless found, in meditation and mindfulness, practices that have transformed my experience of reality dramatically for the better. And I know from talking to other meditators that it’s the same for them, too.

My own meditation journey has been informed by Tibetan Buddhism, in particular the lineage established in Australia by the pre-eminent Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden and, more directly, through the teachings I’ve received from my kind and precious teacher, Les Sheehy. While the knowledge and experience I have acquired has been guided by them, any failure in my attempt to pass on their profound wisdom is very much my own doing.

While I will refer to Buddhist sources and insights where relevant, it’s important to note that the study of our own minds isn’t about theory or belief. It’s about seeing what’s there for ourselves. I’ll also refer to research from scientific endeavours in fields as varied as psychology, neuroscience, medicine, genetics and quantum physics.

One of the joys of being alive in the early part of the 21st century is witnessing the convergence of so many different dynamics—ancient and contemporary, outer and inner, eastern and western—in arriving at a holistic understanding of consciousness.

For some people, the proliferation of empirical studies showing the benefits of mindfulness encourages personal exploration. Others have a more intuitive understanding of the value of this practice. I hope in this book to share ideas that will inspire both intuitive and analytical thinkers, both left-brain and right-brain thinkers.

I have also intentionally interwoven chapters on mindfulness theory with those explaining how to practise meditation. As fascinating as concepts of mindfulness are, the only way they can have a powerful personal impact is if we apply them. Ideas, theories and evidence only get us so far. Then we need to move beyond concept.

In my previous non-fiction books, Buddhism for Busy People, Hurry Up and Meditate and Enlightenment to Go, I’ve shared some of the experiences of my own journey, and I do so in this book, too. This isn’t because I’m the repository of especially arcane insights, but because I hope you’ll find in this more personal account—rather than a straightforward exposition of the subject—themes and discoveries you can relate to, landmarks that may be useful in your own exploration of the mind.

An outline of the mindfulness journey

We begin our exploration with the nuts and bolts of mindfulness—what it is, why it works and how we can benefit from it in basic but profound ways. Stress management? Certainly! Boosting our immune systems and pushing back our biological clocks? That too! The physical and psychological benefits of mindfulness, even if taken no further than this, are well worth getting out of bed ten minutes earlier for every morning.

We then move onto the possibilities offered by mindfulness in changing the content of your ongoing conversation with yourself. Chatter, chatter, chatter. We’re all up to it. But are there recurring themes in this constant stream of self-talk that don’t serve you well? For example, are you a worrier, constantly anticipating all the things that could possibly go wrong then convincing yourself that the worst outcome is almost certain? Or are you a victim, feeling you can never make any headway because of your circumstances, past events or the people in your life? Or are you someone who struggles to find any compelling purpose or happiness beyond filling your days with as many pleasurable distractions as possible?

The combination of mindfulness with what has become known as cognitive behaviour training is one of the most powerful transformation modalities. Creating space amid all the mental agitation, discovering that we can become the observers of our thoughts rather than their unwitting slaves—this is another extraordinary consequence of a more mindful life. It’s a consequence that allows us to get proactive about what goes on in our mind, take charge of our own mental trajectories and thereby exercise choice over the destinies to which our every thought propels us.

The main event—mind itself

And then we come to mind itself. What it is. What it is not. We’re no longer doing push-ups here—we’re onto something much more exciting! I’ll guide you through the practical steps by which you can experience your own mind for yourself, not as a concept or intellectual idea, but directly and firsthand. You’ll be empowered to experience the nature of your own consciousness, and if you’re anything like most people who’ve never tried this before, you’ll find, in those first glimpses of
the pure nature of your own mind, an extraordinary truth. You’ll see for yourself how your mind is, quite literally, infinite. How it has no beginning and no end. How, far from being some existential void, it’s imbued with the most profound happiness-giving qualities.

You’ll experience the paradox that even though you set out to explore your mind, the result is as much a feeling as it is a perception. It’s an experience beyond concept and for which words are therefore wholly inadequate, but that may be hinted at using such terms as ‘oceanic tranquillity’ and ‘radiant love’.

Even the briefest encounter with this state is life-changing, because when we can free ourselves from the agitation or dullness that pervades our minds and encounter our own true natures, if only momentarily, we can never go back to believing ourselves to be nothing more than a bag of bones. We have experienced a dimension of being that transcends all our usual ideas of self.

We have come home.

When we begin to explore our own mind, we usually do so for reasons of self-discovery. But an interesting thing happens, because in experiencing our own true nature, we come to recognise that just as we are, others are too. Our everyday experience of people is one in which we habitually observe and judge based on what we see, at a conventional level, as their apparent characteristics.

Discovering that these characteristics are, ultimately, as temporary and insignificant as our own, a shift occurs. Others may continue the way they’ve always seemed to be, but now we know better. Aware of the more important way in which they exist, as well as the difficulties and challenges they must inevitably endure because of their profoundly self-limiting beliefs, our compassion quite naturally arises. Mindfulness is no longer just about ‘me’. It becomes panoramic.

I can think of nothing more enduringly fascinating or life-enhancing than the practice of mindfulness. No matter where you are on your own journey, I hope you find in this book fresh insights and inspiration to encourage your further exploration. In particular, it’s my heartfelt wish that you may abide, however fleetingly, in your own unobstructed mind. For there you’ll discover that your own true nature is one of timeless and transcendental bliss.

Chocolate, schmocolate. Show me the meditation cushion!

To order the book go to:

http://www.fishpond.com.au/Books/Why-Mindfulness-Better-than-Chocolate-David-Michie/9781743319130

In future months, I will be publishing further excerpts and commentary on the book. If you’d like to receive these, click the ‘Follow’button at the bottom right hand of your screen now.

 

 

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