Getting Unlost in the Forest of Thoughts: How Mindfulness Can Improve the Quality of Your Life and Relationships
Posted on July 14th, 2013 at 9:00 am
"The only true enlightenment is awareness of the vivid reality of life, moment by moment." – Kosho Uchiyama
There is an old Japanese saying, Yawata no Yabu shirazu, “Being lost in the forest of Yawata.” There used to be a huge forest of bamboo at Yawata city so thick that sunlight could not penetrate. It was said that when someone entered this forest they would never find their way out. It is meant as an analogy for how we can become trapped by our thoughts and lose sight of our daily life.
How do our thoughts get the better of us? One way is through stress. Does this sound familiar: Rushing to an appointment, to work, or trying get a bunch of things done, in your haste you find you ruined your new pants, forgot your wallet, upset your partner, or tired yourself out so you cannot really enjoy your evening? Eating so quickly to get to an appointment you suffer indigestion. Walking head down, texting you miss the interactions around you. Many of us rush through our daily activities in order to get to the next thing, thinking we can then relax, but the next thing just keeps coming. Our lives are filled with constant stimuli—phone calls, emails, texts, social media, keeping up with expert advice. There is little time to experience life and enjoy what each moment has to offer. When stressed, the limbic system becomes activated, and a traffic light becomes a life or death struggle. Mindfulness can help you find your way out of the thicket of thoughts, get centered, and be more present, opening up the richness that life has to offer and allowing you deal with difficult issues. And reactivity dissipates in the face of awareness and presence.
Mindfulness is the art of being attentive to life, participating fully in each activity, present in each moment. It is a refined faculty of paying attention to your physical body and to your interactions with the world. Studies have shown mindfulness to have a number of positive benefits, including improving relationships, lowering stress, increasing grades, and helping deal with difficult emotions like anxiety, anger, or depression. It is often critical self-judgments about negative emotions that makes them so difficult to accept and which, paradoxically, keep us caught in the emotion. By using mindfulness to be present without self-criticism, the emotion does not seem so overwhelming. And by keeping awareness, for example, “I see my angry thoughts,” they can pass on their own accord. Mindfulness lets you experience emotions as being like waves lapping at the shore; you can feel solid like a mountain in who you are and how you respond (Rockwell).This is different than repressing, distracting, or ignoring emotions; it is seeing that the whole of your life is greater than time-limited thoughts and emotions.
Below are a few suggestions on bringing mindfulness into your daily life:
Breathing: Breath is one of the best ways to be mindful. Simply bring your awareness to your breath. Breathe deeply, extending your diaphragm as far as possible. Mindful breathing is not “thinking about the breath so much as feeling its texture, riding its waves a bit like you might ride a wave on the ocean.” When your mind wanders from your breath, simply return to it gently. “You don’t have to shut out other parts of your experience, [such as] thoughts, emotions, body sensations, sounds. Just let them be there in the background as you attend gently to the breath” (Heaversedge & Halliwell).
Physical Mindfulness: Another good way to be mindful is to attend to your physical state, focusing on what your body is doing and how you are holding yourself. Your body often stores tension; mindfulness can help both dissipate stress and cue into being present. On recognizing a tense area, give yourself permission to let it relax and notice what happens. Stretches, slow yoga, or a body scan can help (start at your feet and scan your entire body for tension).
The Art of Tea: Mindfulness is a vivid participation in the present, seeing the ordinary as extraordinary. D. T Suzuki describes the depth of attention involved in the Japanese tea ceremony: "As we pour a dipper full of water into the kettle we can see the clear mountain stream from whence the water came. The sound of the kettle boiling is like the breeze passing through pine needles." Mindfulness is not a specialized activity or a mystical state, but rather a full of presence in each moment. It is an awareness that each activity as special, and you can practice this when making tea, coffee, or even drinking a glass of water. A check-in might be, “How does my body feel when drinking a glass of cool, clean water?”
Washing Dishes, Eating Dessert: Life’s richness is always here-and-now rather than in the future. Thinking about the next activity or about how you do not like what you are doing detracts from the moment. Thich Nhat Hanh explains:
I know that if I am in a hurry in order to eat desert sooner, the time of washing the dishes will be unpleasant . . . . If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them so I can go and have dessert, I will be equally incapable of enjoying my dessert. With the fork in my hand, I will be thinking about what to do next, and the texture and the flavor of the dessert, together with the pleasure of eating, will be lost. I will always be dragged into the future. (pp. 26-27)
Instead, focus on the taste, texture, sounds, smells, and your breathing when performing any task or activity. In so doing, you may find life becomes less of a rush and more of an experience.
Driving: Are you on autopilot when you drive, ruminating about a current problem or focusing on the driver who did not signal and cut in front? Turn your music off and bring your attention to your physical posture, your breath, and your driving. Note how the seat feels on your back, your hands on the steering wheel. Scan your mirrors and the road ahead at regular intervals, being aware of your surroundings—other traffic and road conditions (a basic tenet of safe driving). Use every stop light to re-set your breathing. Take a few deep breaths every time you enter or leave your car, breathe as you notice the car ahead pull in front with no signal.
Relationships: Being mindful can help lower reactivity and improve intimacy. For example, visualize yourself getting triggered by your partner—hearing something said a certain tone. Now see the emotions that are triggered and see yourself not reacting to them. Breathe, check-in your with your body, and create a pause between trigger and response. This space allows you to avoid getting tangled in thoughts and emotions, and allows empathy and patience to become the go-to response, an essential activity for successful relationships.
Mindfulness increases awareness of what you are experiencing and pulls you out of thought and emotion traps. Awareness allows you to more fully experience the interactions and appearances which give meaning to life. In the long-term, mindfulness is more efficient, because when in a rush you miss out on the richness of daily life, getting to the end of the journey empty. John Keats called the world, the “vale of soul-making.” Mindfulness recognizes that daily activities are the cathedral within which life is experienced.