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 and practice the art of living well.

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. In yoga sutra 1.2, the second sutra of book one, Patanjali lays out 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 (where he roomed with Dr. J, Julius Erving). Unfortunately, injuries forced Mumford out of the game he loved. The meds that relieved the pain of his injuries, however, also 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. During the 2015-2016, season the Warriors broke the record for the best opening to an NBA season by going 16-0. After the decisive win elite point guard Stephen Curry told the New York Times, “You got to continue to just stay in the moment. When you stay in the moment, good things happen, because everybody’s just wrapped up in the process.”

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. Kerr told his players before their pregame shoot around that he wanted them to exude four qualities: Joy-Mindfulness-Compassion-Competition. Not your conventional formula for athletic performance, but it seems to be working.

The Warriors’ current streak comes on the heels of last year’s spectacular performance in the NBA Finals. In his rookie year as an NBA head coach in 2015, Kerr led the Warriors to their first championship in 30 years beating the Cleveland Cavaliers 4 games to 2. Kerr uses mindfulness to help this team stay in the present moment.

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.” How often are you intentionally allowing yourself opportunities to be mindful? And are you mindful of the humanity of others?