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How often do you practice mindfulness?

Today is March 24 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you practice mindfulness?” Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to what is happening right now, by observing what is going on inside (your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations) and outside (your interactions and surroundings) with an open mind and without judging. With so many distractions, obligations, and commitments, it can be very challenging to intentionally allow yourself opportunities to be mindful. But the research demonstrates that doing so has some very positive benefits to help one navigate the chaos.

In an April 23, 2016, New York Times editorial, Matthew E May explained that there are two opposing approaches to mindfulness: Eastern and Western. The Eastern view is more about quieting the mind and suspending thought. One such strategy for suspending thought is the practice of yoga. One of the earliest texts regarding yoga is The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali - a collection of 196 Sanskrit sutras (aphorisms) on the theory and practice of yoga. The Yoga Sutras was compiled in the early centuries CE, by the sage Patanjali in India who synthesized and organized knowledge about yoga from much older traditions.

In yoga sutra 1.2, the second sutra of book one, Patanjali explained the definition and purpose of yoga by writing Yogash citta vrtti nirodha, translated as yoga is the cessation of the modifications, or fluctuations, of the mind. When one is finished with all of the physical postures in a yoga practice, they should be able to quiet the mind and suspend thought as they rest in a meditative state. The postures of yoga, the physical movement, and the breathing, all prepare one for the final pose, savasana. It is in that pose that one seeks to achieve the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. This Eastern approach is almost the opposite of the Western view of mindfulness, which centers on active thinking.

As Dr. Frank John Ninivaggi noted in an April 2018 Psychology Today article “Mindfulness in the West does not denote the traditional Eastern idea of emptying the mind wholly of all its objects or contents; instead, Western mindfulness aspires to a mind that can be alert and aware for significant times during the day. Intensive practices used periodically strengthen the mind’s ability to remain mindful in between periodic exercises.” Both views share the same goal: avoiding mindlessness.

As May explained “when we’re mindless, the past is riding herd over the present. We get trapped in categories created in the past, stuck in rigid perspectives, oblivious to alternative views. This gives us the illusion of certainty.” We convince ourselves that the present is something other than what it truly is.

Other researchers would suggest mindfulness does even more. For example, Dr. Daniel J. Siegel echoes May’s belief. Siegel, author of Mindsight, wrote “Research has proven that mindfulness training integrates the brain and strengthens the important executive functions that support emotional and social intelligence as well as academic success.”

George Mumford, author of The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance provides such an example and has been helping athletes understand how to stay in the moment. Mumford’s backstory is quite interesting. He played basketball at the University of Massachusetts but injuries forced Mumford out of the game he loved. The meds that relieved the pain of his injuries, however, numbed him to the emptiness he felt without the game and eventually led him to heroin.

After years as a functioning addict, Mumford enrolled in Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program and made meditation the center of his life. He kicked drugs, earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology, and began teaching meditation to inmates and others. One example is the NBA team the Golden State Warriors. The team is led by head coach Steve Kerr—who played for the Chicago Bulls during the Michael Jordan era—and was taught meditation and how to refine the inner game by Mumford. Under his leadership, the Golden State Warriors entered the most successful period in its history, reaching five consecutive NBA Finals and winning three championships in 2015, 2017, and 2018. The 2015–16 Warriors won an unprecedented 73 games, breaking the record for the most wins in an NBA season, previously held by Kerr's 1995–96 Chicago Bulls.

Kerr explained that his coaching philosophy is built on four principles: competitiveness, joy, mindfulness, and compassion. According to Kerr “We compete every day. We keep score, we make sure there’s winners and losers, and everyone’s feeling that vibe. There’s got to be joy in the gym. But we have to coach with compassion and understand the difficulties of whether it’s a season like we had last year, where everything goes wrong, or the pandemic hits and the world seems to be going sideways, And if we can teach mindfulness, which is probably the biggest challenge of all in modern life, we can put all that together and teach our players perspective in how to perform under pressure.”

Recognizing the need for self-care and its role in mindfulness, Kerr added “You have to nourish yourself. You have to fill up your own cup every single day to have the energy to lead others. Sometimes in our society, we glorify people who are workaholics, and if somebody’s in a high-pressure job and they’re seen out hiking or playing golf, they can actually be criticized: ‘Why isn’t that person in the office?’ I think that’s insane.”

Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote “In the same way as you cannot work with bees without being cautious, you cannot work with people without being mindful of their humanity.” To recognize people and to be mindful of their humanity, however, you first need to see them. To help with your mindfulness as you work to see people, the practice of samyama is always available.

As Eric Vance noted in a September 21, 2022 New York Times article, samyama is practiced by yoga teacher Jana Long, co-founder of the Black Yoga Teacher’s Alliance in Baltimore. For Long “fall is a time for samyama, a concept in yoga referring to, among other things, the meditative practice of observing an object and becoming absorbed in it. Sometimes Long looks at the grass after the final mowing of the year and spends some time thinking about what that means for a plant. Other times, she said, she examines the roses in her garden that need pruning before winter — imagining what they need and how they will change.”

  • How often are you intentionally allowing yourself opportunities to be mindful?

  • And are you mindful of the humanity of others?

  • How often do you practice the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind?

  • Is your mindfulness training more Western centric (active thinking) or Eastern centric (quieting the mind and suspending thought)?

  • How often are you mindful of the humanity around you?

  • How often do you practice samyama in order to observe an object or person?


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