By any other name

July 16th, 2008

Mindfulness practice can at first seem like an esoteric pursuit. In truth, mindfulness involves little mysticism and has direct tie-ins with the real world. Though usually seen as a tool for Buddhist spiritual practice, mindfulness practice extends beyond the spiritual realm readily maps into experiences in the mundane world.

Mindfulness is simply bringing one’s attention to the here and now. No doubt this skill is useful for everyday life. It is quite easy to lose oneself in the fast paced world and forget to take some time to just live. Forgetting to be in the present is enough of a problem we use a cliché as a reminder to live in the moment: “stop and smell the roses.” While the origins of the phrase are nebulous, this bit of cultural wisdom embodies quintessential mindfulness principle of being conscious of the present moment. You have to slow down and be present to experience of the simple pleasure of smelling flowers.

In the working world, slowing down is often not an option. Yet, mindfulness principles still apply. Here, mindfulness ideas are paradoxically used for increasing the speed and quantity of work we do. Outside of work, we often need to slow down and just be, but our business lives require that we stay busy and maintain our productivity. In this case, the concept of non-attachment is the more relevant principle. The idea of attention management centers on improving productivity by focusing on the task at hand and consciously ignoring unimportant distractions. Multitudes of distractions and interruptions take focus away from our work tasks. E-mails, instant messages, random co-worker chit chat, worries about family responsibilities, etc. all vie for our attention and interrupt our work flow. That’s not to say that the distractions are necessarily bad, but they can definitely segment our focus and hinder our ability to get things done. In a similar fashion, distracting thoughts constantly flit through our minds, leading us astray from our mindfulness. Learning to recognize and let go of the distracting thoughts is a crucial first step towards being able to stay aware of the present.

As a last example, mindfulness in action can often be witnessed by watching athletes at the top of their games. When we see an athlete make a game look effortless against equally physically talented opponents, we know that they’ve reached the special state of being “in the zone.” It is beautiful and awe-inspiring to watch a quarterback rifle passes through a flustered defense, hockey player easily flip shots past a goalie, point guard read the passing lanes, or a martial artist effortlessly counter an opponent. Given fair match ups, it’s not just physical dominance that makes the athletic performances impressive. Rather, it’s the ability of the athlete to be aware of the moment and flow with the conditions in the game. The athlete has achieved a Zen mind to perceive the game better than the opposition.

The above examples illustrate how mindfulness can masquerade under different names. They also illustrate that striving for Zen has value beyond a search for spiritual enlightenment. Mindfulness, under its various guises, has wide applicability to diverse aspects of our lives.

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