For most people just starting their journey into a regular meditation practice, they are mainly seeking the psychological benefits of mindfulness. While it can no longer be argued that meditation helps measurably reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, the ancient principles of mindfulness can also be incredibly helpful in dealing with the mental-emotional obstacles of everyday life. As almost anybody stumbling across this article is likely to already know, meditation is a very old practice, that far predates our ability to measure its effectiveness. Though the modern boom in meditation is mostly due to newfound science backing it, meditation was once an entirely spiritual undertaking. It’s roots lie in self-observation, awareness, perception, stillness, and breath. On a personal level, the principles of these old lessons have been equally beneficial for my everyday life as the stress reduction aspect of the practice. Learning and actively practicing them has helped me to better understand the way I show up in the world. They have helped me improve rational decision making, helped me embrace non-objectivity, and have helped me surrender more readily to the natural flow of my life. Learning how to accept the aspects of life we cannot control, is indeed one of the most important things to overcome in better managing the things we can.
This list includes 7 of the most commonly taught mindfulness principles, but there are certainly a lot more lessons than just these. This is a list of some of my favorite lessons and principles, ones that have helped me transform the way I see the world and move through it.
Breath & Physical Awareness
Probably the most simple thing we learn through meditation is to be aware of our breath and body. In many forms of meditation, we focus our attention on the sensations we feel all across our bodily space. This focused attention actually helps us gain a better understanding of our body by noticing with more detail the way it usually feels, as well as noticing as our perception of those feelings. As part of this bodily awareness, many meditations feature the central focus on breath. Breath, oxygen, and everything it does for our body is a total utter lifeforce. Our breath provides us with the ability to control our physiology. It is a tool for altering heart rate, and thus mental-emotional state. Through the breath, we can calm ourselves down, focus in, and release tension. Thorough and continued practice of this skill can provide a strong understanding of bodily states, and a keen skill in knowing how to calm, accelerate, and slow them down as needed. Who needs anxiety when you know that you are capable of calming yourself down with nothing more than control of your breath. Breath is perhaps the most underrated tool left behind in modern medicine. Mastering breath and body awareness are some of the most powerful things meditation can teach us.
Equanimity & Non Reactivity
In modern society, our attention, and of course our stress levels are being poked and prodded from all angles. You overcommit your time, your boss is tightening the deadlines, your friend have too many expectations of you. Whatever it may be, at the end of the day, your response to the situations of life is usually the only thing you have total utter control of. Reacting negatively to these situations is in essence, throwing that power out the window into the proverbial mud put below. In simple terms, equanimity is the art of allowing the world to be the way it is, and to show up the way it is, without the need to change, control, or be frustrated by it. It is the art of just allowing it to unfold, without allowing a negative effect of any sort to take over the space of your mind. When someone cuts you off in traffic, you move on, accepting it, and letting go. When something shows up in the opposite of how you wanted it, you take a deep breath, accept the situation, and move on. Equanimity and non-reactivity are powerful tools that our world’s best leaders all possess. These leaders are solid, unswayed by the variance of everyday life. It is a quality of resilience. At the end of the day, the only thing we can control in our life is the way we choose to show up. Our energy is our superpower. When we let petty things slowly suck up little bits and pieces of that energy throughout the day, there is less leftover for excellence, improvement, advancement, connection, health, happiness, etc. Guard your energy, accept the world for what it is, and you will be almighty. Mindfulness and meditation are a training ground for this skill. When you practice non-reactivity in your daily sit, you create the mental framework for the retrieval of that skill in all the other areas of your daily life. It becomes a mental habit, carved into the physiology of the brain. Stuff happens, and that is simply part of life. Whether you choose to react or respond to it, is entirely your decision.
Attachment Vs. Commitment
This is one of my favorite distinctions in the lessons of modern mindfulness. This principle truly is as simple as it initially sounds. Attachment and commitment may seem similar to one another, but they are, in practice, entirely different ways of living. Attachment is a rigid viewpoint. It is a perspective of strict guidelines and expectations. When we are attached to an outcome so badly that we will not accept any other variety of outcome, we are strangling the world of possibility. When we are committed to an outcome, we open our goals and expectations up to the massive world of possibility. Commitment is flexible in nature, and adaptable. Commitment is synonymous with resilience, perseverance, adaptability, acceptance, and it is equanimity in practice. The art of surrendering our attachments to the world of the unknown is scary, and uncertain. But it is the key to creating anything wonderful and transformative. Next time you find yourself attached to an outcome yet to occur, take a moment to ponder why you feel that way. The choice to be attached in this way, is a conscious choice to suffer. Once you can begin to become aware of the attachments you carry, you may begin learning how to shift your automatic response to one with a powerful force of potential. Commit to your goals and hopes, and allow them to play out however they need to in order to bring that to fruition. Likely, they will never show up how you planned.
Stories Vs. Reality
Most of the way we perceive our reality is entirely subjective to our own understanding of the experience. In more simple terms, the real-world events that happen in our lives, are often tainted by the stories we tell ourselves about them. For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic and scowls at you, that is definitely a thing that happened. The scowl may have not even been in bad taste, and had come purely from the fear of the other driver. In moments like these, and of course most negative or positive interactions in our lives, we make up stories that we cling to desperately, as if their negativity somehow fueled our ego temporarily. Maybe we tell ourselves that the other person did it because they hate us, because they notice the out of province/state license plate, or because they thought we were a loser with a crappy car. Whatever the case may be, the likelihood of these stories being true is ridiculously improbable. And even if they are, they are still absolutely irrelevant! As I mentioned before, our energy holds all our power and our potential. If we cling to things that drain us dry of our power, we won’t have any left for ourselves. Almost all of us run wild with stories each and every day. “She thinks I’m ugly”, “he must not care enough to respond”, “I’m not good enough”, “they can tell I’m awkward”, “I must not be lovable”, “they think I’m slow”, “she thinks I’m dumb”, “nothing works for me”. These are all made up realities decided by ourselves. At the end of the day, we are all just complicated and confused humans, trying to have our own experience as best we can. We’re all just living in our own little world, making the best of the skills we know. Stories, are nothing more than stories, and understanding how to detach from the negative stories we are addicted to, sets us free. Mindfulness practice is an excellent way to actively learn and understand which stories we cling to on a personal level. It becomes a space where we can actively practice the art of separating from that story, from the reality of what is so. Taking the time to reflect provides us with the awareness of ourselves, which is the very first step to changing our habits. This change is never an immediate practice, but a consistent effort during meditation has the potential to transform the habits of our mind.
The Root Of Emotions & Feelings
As many wise men and women before me have often said, self-reflection is an important part of the recipe for happiness, and likely success as well. At the end of the day, you cannot be happy without the self-awareness of knowing what makes you tick, what works for you, what doesn’t, and what makes you deeply happy on an individual level. In knowing this, we can be intentional about seeking, and having more of it. In the modern world, we live amidst an epidemic of emotional repression. We are taught to hide what we feel, and avoid diving any deeper than the surface. The result of this is quite simple, confused people. Individuals who do not know how to observe, alter, and control their emotional and spiritual state. Individuals with repressed emotions that build up stress in the body and mind. Stress that often times, manifests as very real health issues in the physical realm. By taking the time to sit, meditate, and be mindful, we provide a safe space to consider the root of our feelings. In addition to potentially understanding their origins, we can take time to openly feel them for each of the emotions and sensations they provide. At the end of the day, it is only in feeling and experiencing the state we are in, that we can truly process our emotions in a sustainably healthy manner. The happiest people are those who are confidently themselves with nothing to hide. They feel their lives, they experience them in every degree they can, including the bad, difficult, and hard. They bask in feeling and experiencing their own emotional authenticity. They are powerfully themselves. In this way, mindfulness can be a powerful tool for uncovering our big “why’s”, understanding who we are, and therefore opening the gates of personal expansion. This stuff takes work, the good thing is, the work is enjoyable and soothing along the way.
Breaking Free From The Ego
This aspect of mindfulness is likely the most esoteric on this list, but it is certainly a very important thing to cover in this article. Let me start by explaining what the ego is, and why you should care about it. In simplistic terms, the ‘ego’ is the part of your consciousness that identifies you as an individual ‘self’, separate from the world at large. From this understanding of the term, it actually does not sound so bad. The thing about the ego that is not so helpful, is when it decides to show up and defend itself. The ego is inherently something that disconnects us from people. It is something self-serving, and is willing to denounce opportunities, threats, or really anything it feels threatened by. At the end of the day, many of our impulses come from our ego’s desperate need to fuel self-righteous individuality. That shirt we need to buy that will make us look cooler, that Instagram post that tells everyone how exciting our life is, that little comment at the office we just had to make to make sure everyone knows we are better than them. In Good To Great, Jim Collins shares the findings of his research, outlining that the best-performing companies and work teams are all led by egoless management. These people have learned to make decisions based on their self-descriptive principles of who they want to be, not what their impulses pull them to do in the moment. Not what will make them look cool, good, or smart. They have separated themselves from the petty influences of the ego. Breaking free from the ego allows us to make decisions based on a set of values, morality, ethics, the end goal, etc. It allows us to be there for people, to process information with less of a self-aggrandizing filter, and to live a life based on what we care about, and not what will make us look good to others. Making decisions that originate from this self-aware place support the creation of a life that is uniquely our own. Living free from the need to please or impress others is an underrated quality I make sure to show appreciation for whenever I stumble across it. Imagine sitting each and every day, detaching from the distractions around us, in order to practice being ego-less, even if just for 5-10 minutes. Meditation in itself, is just a temporary experience for the duration of the sit. The real benefit of the practice is that all the skills we cultivate during meditation, become skills we utilize and consciously bring to other aspects of life. When we bring ego-lessness into our life through regular practice, it becomes part of our mental repertoire, and habitually shows up in other areas more and more frequently.
Everything Is Subjective
At the end of the day, the world is a big weird place where a lot of stuff happens. One thing we have been taught through a lifetime of social conditioning is to view things as either good or bad. At the end of the day, labeling something in this way is a completely human and artificial description of what it is, or what happened. Good and bad, are nothing more than perceptions that we choose to define things as. By learning to assess the way we label things, we can take steps toward transforming our view of the world. One of the main aspects of NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) is to begin changing the way we speak about the occurrences of life. Everything we stumble across in life simply is the way that it is. The way we perceive the situation is a choice we are able to decide for ourselves. This is in essence quite similar to the practice of embracing equanimity. In mindfulness practice, we can practice the acceptance of every experience in our life for exactly what it is. In doing so, we can learn to simply observe situations, refraining from labeling them as either good, bad, or anything else. This exercise helps to create space to choose our perception of everything we do and see. Choosing to view each step through life more positively can completely change our mindset, our levels of contentment, and our results. Before moving on to the next paragraph, take a minute to think about what this could mean for you. How would the most powerful and happy version of you think and perceive the world?
Mindfulness As Presence
Last but certainly not least, is the cultivation of a heightened state of presence. Mindfulness and meditation, are in themselves, an exercise of presence. Whatever we exercise and practice more of we get better at. This is certainly true for both physical and mental abilities. Presence is a skill, and it can and is cultivated through activity. Meditation is often times, centralized around presence. Whether that comes in the form of focusing on bodily sensations, or on consciously opening our awareness to pay attention to sounds coming from far away, presence is key. One of the main things I have noticed through my ability to both calm my physiology through breath’, and bring my focus back to what is right in front of me in the present moment, is that I bring a new level of presence to each and every interaction I am a part of. Whoever I am speaking with, I am fully there. Whatever I am doing at work, is given my full attention. Wherever I am exploring and experiencing, I a fully dialed in. It is an experience unique to the newer, meditating version of myself. As the renowned Flow researcher Steven Kotler has mentioned, researchers around the globe are finding that presence is one of the most important components to true happiness. Living in the moment is a recipe for abundance, connection, and satisfaction that can’t be outdone by any other shortcut.