The modern world is a busy and noisy place. While the Internet has given us unprecedented access to information, it has also provided us with a source of perpetual stress and anxiety. From uncertainty about our financial future to pessimism about the state of the planet, we are flooded by negative news and dystopian predictions. On the flip side, thousands of carefully curated accounts on social media show off their seemingly perfect and worry-free lives, setting unattainable standards for reality. This extreme dissonance can have harmful effects on our mental health, leading us to feel overwhelmed and insignificant.
In fact, the easy access to information may be a trap in itself, as we become accustomed to receiving the news we want instantly. This constant availability extends not only to the information we consume but also to ourselves. Our need to be continuously updated on the events of our social circle and the world has us hanging on our devices like a lifeline. This attachment has enabled convenience in many aspects of our lives but has also crippled us in others. The mindless scrolling, the fear of missing out, and the pursuit of positive feedback are all symptoms of our addiction to dopamine, a feel-good chemical that is released from the brain when we perform successful interactions on social media.
In the Eye of the Storm
Add to our frayed nerves a massively traumatic event such as the COVID-19 pandemic—which does not seem to want to go away—and a large number of people are experiencing symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. According to research, 21 percent of adults in the United States are suffering high levels of psychological distress, with 17 percent having physical reactions such as sweating or trouble breathing when they think about the outbreak. Caught in the tempest of doom and gloom, bright booming distractions, and the pressure of performing in this strange society, it is no wonder many of us feel lost and adrift. Amid such turbulent times, how can we anchor ourselves and relieve our stress?
“Live the actual moment. Only this actual moment is life.” This quote from Vietnamese Buddhist sage Thích Nhất Hạnh captures the essence of an ancient practice known as mindfulness. From Buddhism to Islam, yoga to kung fu, mindfulness is a practice that has been around for thousands of years. Mindfulness is the practice of cultivating moment-to-moment awareness of their life as it unfolds and gains the ability to view it without judgment. This practice is inherently powerful because it dissolves concern and worry about the past and future and only focuses on the present.
In the moment, our thoughts, feelings, motivations, and reactions are but fleeting events that flutter past our being. As we practice objective introspection, we gain clarity over our minds and learn to allow disruptive emotions and ideas to simply pass by. This detachment from non-beneficial thoughts and practices, such as anger, fear, and self-victimization, helps us to release ourselves from the negative emotional cycles that we may have been clinging to unknowingly. By placing our attention on our inner selves, we can find our ‘center’ and remain at peace despite any drama occurring in the external environment.
A Serene Encounter with Reality
While meditation is a fantastic way to achieve mindfulness, it is but one of the multiple pathways to tranquillity. Likewise, a yoga routine can be a great way to incorporate mindfulness into your life, but so can brushing your hair, washing the dishes, or taking a bus. Truthfully, a mindfulness practice requires nothing but a person and an object of focus. Whether you are eating, resting, walking, or talking, there are many ways to be mindful in your daily life. That said, it can be difficult for many people to get started on their mindfulness practice without guidance.
In 1979, American professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, a student of Thích Nhất Hạnh, blended eastern practices with western medicine to create an eight-week stress reduction program for chronically ill patients who did not respond well to conventional treatments. The program would eventually come to be known as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Due to its integration with western science, mindfulness training for stress reduction has become the most established and thoroughly-researched mindfulness training program available to the public.
Scientific research has shown that mindfulness practice can positively impact our attention and focus, improve cognition and memory, help us cope with anxiety and depression, and provide us with more empathy and compassion—for others as well as ourselves. Our brains are made of billions of neurons that are growing and changing each minute. By practicing mindfulness and introspection, we are retraining our brains to respond to external stimuli in a less reactive manner. Through understanding our inner selves, we build the mental muscle to become the “calm within the storm”.
Mindfulness is not the evasion of reality but rather the art of infusing every action with deep purpose. Through mindfulness training, we can learn to rein our minds back from the chaos of the world outside and generate the rejuvenating energy of peace and contentment.