A student was sitting in the front of the room. It was about 10 minutes before the class was to start. He was just sitting there eating some yogurt. So I walked up to him and said, “Hi Phillip! How are you doing?” He looked at me and said, “Oh Doc! Do you really want to know?” I said, “Sure.” He continued, “Oh man, things couldn’t be any worse for me. There is a guy who has been my business partner for quite a while and now he wants to sue me for some business problems. I have two papers that are due next week, I’ve got a huge exam this week, and I’m having some relationship problems with my wife.” He rattled off a few more things that were pretty serious for him. I said, “Wow! Sounds like you have a lot going on. You must really be feeling it. You’re experiencing a lot of stress, aren’t you?” He said, “Oh yeah, Doc, you have no idea! What should I do?”
I replied, “Do you really want to know how to relieve stress?”
“Yeah! Tell me, what should I do?”
I replied, “I think you should enjoy your yogurt.”
He didn’t like that answer, but it is the best answer and you’ll soon understand why.
Characteristics of the mind
I’d like to start with some principles of the mind, some truths about how you and I think. These truths will help you to understand why you experience stress all the time and will also guide you to function mindfully, so that you aren’t stressed. Let’s start with principle #1.
#1 The mind can only have a dominant focus on one thing at a time
You can never think specifically about two or more things simultaneously. You can observe several things, but you can’t focus directly on more than one thing.
It may seem like that is what you do when you observe your thoughts jumping from idea to idea so quickly. It seems like you are able to think of many things at the same time, but that’s not the case. It is not possible for your mind to dwell on two different dominant thoughts at exactly the same time.
Here’s an example: You’re driving and you get a text message on your cell phone. It’s shouting at you to read it. As you divert your attention to your phone, you can’t focus on your driving. You can bounce back and forth from one to the other, but you can’t focus directly on both things simultaneously [which is why you should never text while you’re driving].
Another example: If you are reading this article, you can’t, at the same time, watch that show on television. You can read, then watch, then read, and then watch—but the two can’t happen together.
A second important aspect of the mind is:
#2 You are always free to think anything you choose
There are no restrictions as to what your mind can think about. Some have called this our God-given quality of ‘free agency’. Ultimately, no one has control over your thoughts except you. What you choose to think about is entirely your decision. At any conscious moment, you can think about anything you want to, and your choices are unlimited. There may be consequences, benefits or rewards for thinking certain ways, but ultimately, what you think is up to you.
For example, if I asked you to think of dancing elephants on the rings of Saturn, you could put pictures in your mind of how that might look. At the same time, you have the power to think of anything else, perhaps dolphins with zebra stripes jumping over the Golden Gate Bridge. What you think is always your choice.
The Principle of Attrition
Associated with your ability to choose what you focus on is the Principle of Attrition. Not only do you have the power to choose where to focus your thoughts, you also have the power to choose where not to focus your thoughts.
And as you cease focusing your thoughts on people, situations and events that you would consider negative ones, the negative nature of those unpleasant conditions or ideas lose their power to control or influence you. Essentially, if you aren’t thinking about them consistently, they lose their negative impact.
This is not the same as avoiding or ignoring things that you find unpleasant. Ignoring or avoiding still involves thinking about them. Instead, you simply keep your attention focused on those areas of your life that you would consider positive, happy, and beneficial.
These first two principles are important to keep in mind so that you understand that your stress really does begin with your thoughts.
If you are free to choose any thought, and you can only have one dominant thought at a time, it is you that always decides exactly which thought is on the center stage of your mind. [Read What’s your spotlight on?]
Understanding these principles also helps you realize the freedom you have to change your thoughts at any moment.
Now for Truth #3.
#3 You can only directly experience this moment, right here, right now
I will ask you some questions that will lead you to understand what it means to be mindful.
Where are you right now?
This same question can be asked in a different way:
Where is the only place you can directly experience?
The only correct answer to this question, and it is the same answer every moment of your life, is HERE.
You cannot be anywhere else but HERE.
Certainly, you can think you are in other places, or simply think of other places, but you can’t directly experience any of those other places that aren’t where you are right now.
Where are you not?
You can’t be at the store while you are driving to the store. While you are driving to the store, your ‘here’ is in the car and amidst the scenery on the way to the store. But you can’t directly experience the store until you are at the store. You can only directly experience where you are.
I know, this sounds strange, but hang in there. This will all make perfect sense in a moment.
The next couple of questions are similar to the previous ones.
At what point in time are you always?
This question can also be asked in a different way:
When is the only time that you can directly experience anything?
The only correct answer to this question, and it is always the same answer, is NOW.
You can’t be in your own future, nor can you be in your own past.
Certainly, you can think of these times; you can make up all kinds of things about the past and the future, but you can never directly experience them.
Imagine—if I could experience my own future, I’d transport myself to one year from now, find out which stock has done the best between now and then, come back to now and buy a truckload of that stock. If I could relive a past event, I would go back to a decision I made that didn’t turn out so well and make a different decision so things would turn out better.
These both sound absurd because you and I cannot directly experience the future or the past. We are all stuck firmly in this moment called NOW.
There is never a time, for you, me, and everyone else, when it is not right HERE, right NOW for us. This is our reality. It is what is. Always.
Truths of the mind
- You can only focus on one thing at a time
- You are always free to think anything you choose
- You can only directly experience this moment, right here, right now
- There is no stress in the present moment, except for very rare occasions [less than 0.01 per cent of the time]. HERE and NOW is a stress-free place.
- When you bring your attention to the present moment—HERE and NOW—you get relaxation.
You can focus your thoughts directly on two places to discover what is happening here
The first place is from the information that comes from the outside world that reaches your brain by way of your senses. You hear something through your ears that is happening externally. The sound goes in your ears and you think about the nature of the sound. What you hear is reality. You directly experience the sound of the bird.
This works similarly with your other senses. You see a bird fly overhead, hear it chirping as it goes by, and you recognize that you are experiencing the bird—it is real.
The other place you can observe what is [happening] is internally. You have many sensations that are going on inside of you that are every bit as real as the things that happen outside of you. Perhaps you have a sore throat or a knot in your stomach. You may notice that gravity works when you drink some water. Unless you’re upside down, the water goes down into your stomach instead of up into your head. There are other internal sensations you can experience directly including a headache, arthritis, muscle tension, heartbeat, respiration or any other currently functioning physiological process.
I realize this might be a new concept for you. For most of us, we’ve been taught the value of looking to the future to see where we’re going, and recalling the past so that we can learn from our mistakes. I’m not suggesting that we stop using our mind in those useful ways.
Here’s the next powerful principle:
#4 HERE and NOW is free of stress
The next principle of the mind suggests that your HERE and NOW that I just described is a safe and stress-free place. There is no stress in this present moment except for very rare occasions—less than one per cent of the time.
How could that be possible, if stress seems to be such a constant concern in your life?
The only function of the stress response is to keep us safe in the presence of physical danger. If you accurately assess your experiences, you are in physical danger less than one per cent of the time. Your moment-to-moment experience is not a dangerous one.
If you take the time to really examine your thoughts that lead to activation of the stress response, they are focused on either the past or the future.
Examples of future or past threat thoughts:
- You stress about the upcoming speech that you have to give in front of a group of people [Future]
- You relive, in your mind, the argument you had with someone earlier in the day [Past]
- You feel anxious about calling the person who owes you money [Future]
- You feel embarrassed because you said something to some acquaintances that you think they took the wrong way [Past]
These future and past thoughts send a message to your hypothalamus and nervous system to activate the stress response if there happens to be any threat thoughts among those future and past thoughts. But none of those false emergencies are happening right now. What is happening right now is almost always free from any danger or any real threat.
This brings us to the final mindfulness principle. Notice the synergy.
#5 Whenever you bring your attention to the present moment—HERE and NOW—you feel relaxed
Once you understand that you are always free to choose any thought, that you can only think about one thing at a time, that HERE and NOW is your only reality, and that HERE and NOW is a safe place, you come to the final mindfulness principle that pulls each of these together.
Since HERE and NOW is safe, and you’re free to choose to focus on HERE and NOW by turning your focus to this present moment, you get relaxation.
Since you can only focus on one thing, and if it is focused on a safe, threat-free something, your body-mind will recognize the safety and NOT turn on the stress response.
Imagine that you’re driving your car and you find yourself in a traffic jam. You’re on your way to work and this traffic jam is causing you to be very late.
The reality is that you are HERE and NOW sitting in your car amongst a whole bunch of other cars. There is nothing inherently stressful about being in this situation. In other words, there is no reason for your body to turn on the stress response.
The stress comes in when you catapult your thoughts into your own future and make up all the horrible things that are likely to happen to you because you are late for work.
When this happens, your nervous system and hypothalamus—not being able to distinguish between thoughts about future events and thoughts about present moments—think you’re in trouble NOW.
Responding to the imaginary ‘threat’, your body turns on the automatic program for survival—the stress response.
How to reverse the stress response
When you bring your focus, your dominant thoughts, back to the reality of HERE and NOW, and keep your attention there [remember, you can only think of one thing at a time], your body systems won’t be hearing any threat thoughts, and as a result, you’ll not experience any stress.
Rather than dwell on the bad outcome—since you can’t do anything about the traffic jam anyway— you can put your total focus on things that are immediately available to your senses: What do you see, hear, smell, sense, etc., while you’re sitting there in the car.
I’m not saying that when you finally arrive at work you won’t have to handle the issue of being late with your boss. But while you’re in your car, you can either experience stress, or you can feel peaceful.
In class, I ask my students about the upcoming tests they will be taking. I ask them if the tests are stressful. They respond that they definitely are. If we analyze this accurately however, we see how the tests themselves have nothing to do with their stress.
Which part of taking a test is threatening? [Remember that stress is the body’s response to prepare for or deal with a physical threat.]
- Is it the part when you walk into the room where you will take the test?
- How about when you put the pen in your hand and begin reading the questions on the test?
- Are you somehow in danger while you read the words on the page?
- Does the real danger occur when you write stuff on the paper with your pen? That must be the threatening part.
- Is it when you pick up your paper, walk over to the desk where all of the other tests are stacked and you lay yours on top? That must be the dangerous place.
At no time during the entire two hours of test taking were you in any sort of danger.
Why, then, would you feel stress?
Stress happens when your thoughts project into your future or past, and those thoughts include pain of any kind. It is rarely, if ever, the current experience or event that causes the threat.
Think about this
Consider this common scenario of a basketball player shooting a foul shot in an ‘important’ basketball game. Let’s say you are the coach of the opposing team. Your team is ahead by one point and there are two seconds left in the game. One of the other team’s players is at the foul line shooting two shots.
If you are a wise coach, what do you do in this situation?
The obvious answer is that you call a time-out. You do this because you want to make the player think about the shots.
What you are really hoping the player thinks about are all the painful consequences of missing the shot—the team will lose, people will be disappointed in him, the team won’t make it to the playoffs, etc.
If he thinks of these painful consequences that will happen in his future, he will unintentionally, but automatically, turn on the stress response. When that happens, many of his muscles—his fight-or-flight muscles—will tighten up or contract, causing him to shoot the ball differently than he normally would. He is much more likely to miss the shots.
If he were shooting foul shots in his driveway at home, he could probably sink a hundred shots in a row because the only thing he is thinking about, while playing at home, is how much fun he is having in the present moment.
However, during the time-out, when he thinks of all of the pain associated with missing the shot and losing the game, he ’tightens up’ or ’freezes’ and is less likely to sink the shot.
Again, thoughts that focus on the future have a likelihood of turning on the stress response. Thoughts that focus on the experiences of the present do not.
- Whenever your thoughts don’t focus directly on what is happening in the present moment, you increase the possibility of turning on the stress response.
- When you turn your focus to what is happening in the present moment, the stress response turns off, automatically.
Are you starting to sense how powerful this can be for you?
Wouldn’t it be better to live each moment peacefully rather than with stress?
Once you get the hang of this, and start applying it to all of your moments, the peaceful feeling that follows becomes addicting.
There are several steps that automatically bring your mind back to your HERE and NOW. They involve thinking about things in a certain way, a different way, that doesn’t involve thoughts about the future or the past.
But first, let’s get a good handle on what it means to be mindful.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be described as intentional, non-judgmental, moment-to-moment awareness of the HERE and NOW. It may be thought of not so much as a technique, but as a way of being.
Mindfulness is not considered a relaxation technique. Rather, it is a mental state that reduces susceptibility to future/past threat thoughts that turn on the stress response.
The result is that stress can be prevented through conscious living.
- Mindfulness is the process of learning how to be fully present in all experiences while being less judgmental and reactive.
- Mindfulness suggests being present in the here and now, attending to and observing whatever unfolds, and remaining focused and relaxed.
To understand what these definitions mean, let’s begin with a very common example, which you have probably experienced.
Consider how you function mentally when you drive your car and you notice that a police officer is driving directly behind you. There are no lights flashing. He is just following you. What happens to your level of present moment awareness?
When you drive with this level of alertness, you usually try to be as completely aware of everything that is going on as possible. You are aware of the distance between your car and the one in front of you. You are aware of how fast you drive. You are totally aware of all aspects of your driving such as how soon you will have to turn on the signal to indicate that you are making a turn, how quickly you shift lanes, and if your lights are on. In essence, you are completely tuned in to your immediate environment. This is mindfulness.
By contrast mindlessness is demonstrated when you drive along a stretch of road, and before you realise it, you have travelled 15 miles and have no idea about the stretch of road you have just driven on. You suddenly catch yourself and marvel that you didn’t have an accident for failing to pay attention.
Mindlessness occurs when your thoughts are not in the present moment and when you tune out what is happening. Your mental focus is on times and places other than here and now. You ignore the present moment because your attention is focused elsewhere.
How to be mindful
There are four primary mental characteristics that immediately move you into a state of mindful awareness. They are these:
Let’s look at each of them individually.
The first thing that you can do to bring your focus more into the present is Stop. Stopping means turning off a lot of the mind chatter racing endlessly like bumblebees around a hive inside your mind. Much of your mental monologue consists of thoughts about things that aren’t happening HERE and NOW.
Stopping means consciously bringing control to those out-of-control thoughts. Remember, you have a choice about which thoughts you think. Stopping means taking responsibility and using your power to direct the parade of your thoughts. Once you’ve done that, the next thing you can do is Look.
Looking involves paying attention to what is happening with all of your senses. It is almost a passive observing. You are getting in touch with what you are currently experiencing, right here, right now.
The easiest way to do this is by simply moving through your senses and asking yourself, “What am I noticing now?” Focus your thoughts, without making judgements, on what is happening:
- What do you see—right now?
- What can you taste—right now?
- What do you smell—right now?
- What do you hear—right now?
- What do you sense physically—right now?
- What internal sensations do you observe—right now?
To help you do this, you might think something like, I am noticing. . . and then let your senses bring to you whatever happens to be unfolding in the moment.
Not too long ago, I was talking with a good friend of mine, Kevin, whose son, Mathis, is a very good golfer. He plays for one of the local high school teams and consistently performs very well. However, when he plays in tournaments, there are times when he finds himself thinking too much about the outcome of the shot or the problems he encountered on the previous hole. When that happens, when his mind races into the future or in the past, his ability to hit shots well decreases dramatically. In a recent tournament, Mathis shot a 100 [a very poor score] on one day and shot an 80 [a significantly better score] on the next. It had taken him 20 more strokes to complete the same course on the first day. Obviously, his skill level hadn’t changed, but his thinking had.
Since Mathis’s golf swing mechanics are fine, he doesn’t need to worry about that part of his game. But he does need to correct what he focuses on mentally. I suggested that when he steps up to the ball and gets ready to hit it that he focus on things that are happening in his immediate environment—to just observe. For example, he could focus on the colour or even the little dimples of the golf ball. He could also focus on his breathing or on how it feels to swing the golf club or his hands as they gently grip the club. These are all things that are part of his HERE and NOW.
Why would I suggest that he simply observe things that are unfolding moment to moment?
You see, when the mind isn’t racing with thoughts of the future or the past, there will also be no thoughts of any kind of threat. When there is no threat, the body will not turn on the fight-or-flight response, which increases muscle contraction. In golf, tightening the muscles in the wrong way will invariably lead to poor hitting. Observing passively eliminates this possibility.
Instead, the body is left to do what it has been trained to do. In this case, hit a golf ball with perfect precision.
The third mental characteristic to move yourself into a more mindful state is to be accepting or eliminate your need to judge. When you simply observe, without adding the emotional analysis of the situation, you free yourself to see things more clearly. You do this by simply maintaining your observational state of mind.
This isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. Normally, we quickly attach ourselves emotionally to how we think things ought to be. And when things aren’t turning out the way we think they should, it upsets our mental and emotional equilibrium.
Inherent in accepting and not judging is mentally detaching from the way you think things “should” or “ought to” be. This is especially valuable for things, people or situations over which you have no direct control or influence.
It’s a windy rainy day outside and you had plans to have a picnic at the park with your family and friends. You can’t do anything about the fact that it is a stormy day, so when you detach from your emotional need for the day to be a certain way, it brings you to a more mindful state.
What you focus on expands. When you focus mindfully, it expands even more. Once you release your judgment of the thing you are focusing on, you immediately experience it with greater pleasure and happiness. I call this savouring, which simply means that you let the enjoyment of the thing that you’re focusing on expand.
Stop taking things for granted!
Seize the moment!
Consider a night when you’ve been in a place where you could see the stars far more clearly, such as in the mountains, the desert, or on the ocean. Being mindful, you stop—you cease thinking of things that aren’t going on; you look—you put your attention on the billions of stars above; you release your need to judge—you observe in a passive way; and then you savour the sky—you take it all in. The more you look, the more beauty you see. The more you see, the more magnificent it becomes. These are moments when time seems to stand still; it takes your breath away, and you are peaceful. That’s savouring.
Commonly, the feeling that accompanies savouring is gratitude. You begin to recognise that things are fine as they are, and the more you focus on them being fine, the more fine they get. You feel thankful, appreciative, blessed for the beauty of the moment.
Consider examples of holding a newborn baby, watching the unfolding of a beautiful sunset, climbing to the top of a mountain and taking in the view, or snorkelling amongst the variety of fish in the ocean. In these moments, we are awestruck by the beauty and richness of the moment. We feel thankful, satisfied, enriched.
And every moment can be like these if we pay attention. We don’t just ‘stop and smell the roses.’ Instead, we ‘stop to enjoy the wonderful smell of the roses.’ That’s savouring.
Take the extra time to deliberately focus on, and be thankful for the little things, the good things that are going well in your life, and in this moment. Those good things will expand. The more you focus on the satisfaction of things as they are right now, the more you’ll experience satisfaction.
Remember, what you focus on expands.
When you combine these four mental tools: stopping, looking, accepting things as they are, and savouring, you are in the perfect mental zone for mindfulness. Interestingly, the moment you move to a mindful state, everything that is happening gets better. It expands, it becomes more interesting, and your stress evaporates.