Stop, breathe, and be mindful
MANY of us who enter New Year make auspicious and ambitious resolutions. Be it weight management, a healthy diet, physical exercise, improving professional skills, quitting smoking, drinking or drugs, working on honing interpersonal relationships, improving work ethics, inculcating a positive outlook or gaining spirituality. All are worthwhile goals.
However most of these resolutions, albeit well-intentioned and motivated, start fizzling out fairly soon. In the humdrum of daily existence and existential issues of daily life, they are consigned to the backwaters — only to be picked up again next year. Habits are strange creatures: sometimes inherited or acquired, they become hard-wired, tenacious and difficult to break. If complacency sets in, they tend to reassert themselves with a vengeance. The brain chemistry forged by family genes, past experiences, ingrained habits, peer pressures, simple ignorance or lack of awareness can lead to a relapse into old familiar grooves.
Most human beings by nature like to take short cuts, avoid coming out of their comfort zones and prefer trudging along familiar, well-trodden pathways.
Philosophically, time is a cultural continuum and societal benchmarks such as birthdays, anniversaries or New Year and cultural or religious festivals are significant markers and reminders of major life events. But if spent as rituals and holiday events they come and breeze past like a whiff of wind and are easily forgotten.
One such healthy resolution which could be adopted to get more focused, peaceful and balanced is acquiring the habit of mindfulness.
Sometimes derided for being unscientific, encouraging narcissism and isolation or a mere passing fad, mindfulness has nonetheless managed to make headway and come to stay: now businesses, schools colleges universities, counseling centers, sports groups, army installations and many other professions have realized its benefits and have become strong advocates.
It’s no wonder that mindfulness training centers are sprouting up in many counties and scientific studies on neurobiology and meditation are taking place.
So, why is mindfulness becoming popular? Is it due to the fast-paced and frenzied modernization and existential pressures of life? Or high and unmet expectations and unlimited desires or attachments? The advent of mechanization and instant gratification? Or have digital devices robbed human beings of intimate interactions? Or the loss in spiritual and transcendental values?
Mostly in the West, this malaise is spreading fast. Although in developing countries the copycat syndrome is catching up too. Where people are out of touch with their inner self and nature and cultural values, the need becomes stronger.
Wrenching societal changes are displacing people from traditional centers to depersonalized urban areas, affecting interpersonal relations and family ties and thereby diminishing equanimity and gratitude. Educational systems are also to be blamed: concentrating on the three Rs with no input from philosophy, ethics and emotional ballast.
Empathy and sympathy are dying out in the new generation. As if this was not enough, the communications revolution has brought the mayhem of conflict, violence, terrorism, wars, social ills and the threat of looming nuclear war into our TV screens and homes.
Mindfulness has come to have many benefits: concentration, contemplation, emotional balance, equanimity, empathy and compassion.
Here and now
The central idea of focusing on the “here and now” — living in the moment — as psychologists say, is a preventive against an overwrought and racing mind.
It is estimated that the human mind flits from moment to moment 7,500 times in a single day. From past to present; regrets, conflicts, disappointments frustrations and future plans and fantasies.
When the mind is overly and obsessively occupied, say the experts, it cannot retain its balance, poise and concentration — affecting its neural circuitry and chemical balance. No wonder anxiety, depression and related ailments are rife in societies especially beset by violence, conflicts and fast-paced life.
The “Fight or flight” response is inherited from our ancestors and the fight for survival against hostile animals and elements of nature. Although life is different now, this genetic trait remains embedded in the unconscious sometimes equated with “reptilian fear.”
Attention spans have enormously diminished: we often see students in classes flipping endlessly through their mobiles. A gold fish attention span is nine seconds, while humans in 2015 took 8.2 seconds. This is called “monkey mind”, only jumping from moment to moment.
As a teacher in universities, I find young people suffering from low attention spans: confused, impulsive, dismissive, lacking respect, compassion and also narcissistic. Knowledge is not the be all and end all unless it instills wisdom: they are two different things.
Mindfulness cannot be learnt by merely narrating its virtues or lecturing. One has to discipline oneself and do some regular exercises to strengthen mental muscles by drills and tame the troubled “monkey mind.”
Multi-tasking, overdoing things in a compulsive and obsessive manner and living in a pressurized climate has become the norm which takes away the quality, meaning and joy of life.
The medical benefits of mindfulness are multiple: more oxygen and greater release of neurotransmitters to the brain lead to more productivity, concentration, empathy, compassion and a better quality of life. It is so different from the harried, hurried and harassed style of living which is so common today.
After all, true happiness is not in amassing riches, fancy motor cars, big mansions, elevation in rank and status or even getting some award. It resides in one’s soul that is at peace with oneself and nature. One can have limited means but can be as rich in soul as sages and philosophers.
If relaxed and balanced emotionally and rationally, human nature can become more empathetic and compassionate and less egoistic, grasping and aggressive.
We need this at a time when impulsiveness, intolerance, hatred and violence pervade societies and nuclear shadows lurk over the horizon. So, why not try mindfulness, with deep breathing in the New Year for a more contented and blissful life? It can change your world.
The writer is Visiting Faculty, Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. Shanghai Daily condensed the article.