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:
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!
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