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Why Meditation Isn't About Relaxing

Plus, the mental shift that can keep your thoughts from 
stressing you out and hijacking your mind.
Published July 24, 2017 by Gigi Falk

Meditation Experiment

"Try a little experiment. Close your eyes and say to yourself: I wonder what my next thought is going to be. Then become very alert and wait for the next thought. Be like a cat watching a mouse hole. What thought is going to come out of the mouse hole? Try it now."

Eckhart Tolle offers these meditation instructions in his book The Power of
Now. His guidelines lay out in simple terms what it feels like to meditate.
But still, so many people think of meditation as an opportunity to practice
some breathing, count to 100 or bore themselves to death.

An ancient practice of understanding the self and recognising the reality of
life in the present moment somehow got muddled down to a boring breathing exercise in our culture. But in the below interview, Jeff Brantley,
MD, a psychiatrist, Buddhist practitioner and one of the founders of Duke
Integrative Medicine, addresses this common misconception, offering a
unique perspective on what it means to study our own minds through
mindfulness meditation.

The first time I sat down with Brantley, I was beginning my sophomore year
of college and had just recently discovered meditation. About 100 questions
and two hours later, I knew I’d stumbled upon a completely different way of living and being.

Our conversations prompted me to spend last summer at a Buddhist
monastery, go on my first silent retreat and ultimately accrue about 250
hours of meditation. Brantley has shown me how to investigate the most
complicated and subtle parts of myself and how to understand an
incredibly rich practice that has taken on a new life in our modern world. In
the below interview, he shares some of this wisdom.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mindfulness - Dr. Jeff Brantley Interview

Thrive Global: How would you describe mindfulness in just one sentence?

Dr. Jeff Brantley: Mindfulness is about directing attention in a particular
way for a particular purpose.

TG: When you practice mindfulness, what should be going on in your

JB: Mindfulness is an ability simply to notice what’s happening. And the
paradox with mindfulness is that we don’t really do it. We say that as a
function of our language, but really mindfulness is about being and not
doing. Mindfulness really means to pay attention in a way that is simply
noticing what’s here, inside the skin and outside, in a way that is not trying
to fix it or change it or judge it, but simply to notice sensations, sounds,
thoughts, tastes, whatever might be coming into awareness.

TG: Our culture’s interest in mindfulness has exploded in the last few
decades, with everyone from psychologists to business leaders practicing
mindfulness. Why do you think that is?

JB: It’s an ancient human tendency to be curious and to have this capacity
to be present. But what really propelled mindfulness forward was the
emerging ability to study brain and genomic activity. Instead of just doing
simple psychological tests, researchers could actually observe the changing
function of the brain and, in some cases, gene expression in those
meditating. So there was real evidence linking the physiology, neuroscience and gene expression with meditation and attention. But at the same time, people were experiencing firsthand the benefits of being present and being mindful. One of the main motivators is the actual shift in awareness and the shift in perspective that people who practice mindfulness have experienced.

TG: What do you think most people misunderstand about mindfulness?

JB: Lots of people think being relaxed and being mindful are the same
thing. The goal in mindfulness is awareness, not relaxation. People need to
stop judging how aware they are by how relaxed they feel, but rather by
how closely they notice what’s actually happening. If you understand that
mindfulness is about letting things be as they are and making peace with
the conditions of the moment, then you just rest with awareness of that.
Something else to note is that when you’re practicing mindfulness, you
already have all you need. So that moment when you notice you’re sleepy or agitated, just learn to trust the noticing before you get lost in thoughts. Then you cultivate the ability to rest in that noticing more often through different methods of practice.

TG: Do you need to have a goal when you’re practicing mindfulness?

JB: I think the goal is to observe the way things are. To notice what’s here
and what can be known. To put down the busyness and the activity in order
to look more deeply. Another way of putting it is that the goal is to
understand what it means to be human. That sounds kind of trite, but we’re understanding our humanity by sitting with it and watching it with
awareness. Ask yourself, “what happens if I simply pause and systematically
investigate through awareness?”

TG: When I tell people that I meditate, they often respond that they don’t
do it because they’re worried they won’t be able to quiet their mind. What
advice would you give them?

JB: Well, we’re not trying to quiet the mind, actually. It’s a paradox. We don’t have to make the thoughts go away. We are just seeking to notice when the thoughts are there and when they are not and what they are. But the paradox is, when we stop interfering with our thoughts by creating more thoughts, like judgments or ideas, the mind at some point will find its own way and we might actually experience moments when there’s awareness but there’s no thinking.
Then we can experience the very significant truth that we are not our thoughts. So many people have spent so much of their lives living in their thoughts that they’ve really lost connection with the experience of being in their body. So once we realise that our thoughts can be listened to without being believed, then the power of our thoughts to dominate us or misinform us or hijack us or stress us out diminishes a lot. And then we’re a lot freer from the tyranny of our own thought patterns.

TG: How can mindfulness help us avoid the stress and burnout epidemic
that so many people are experiencing?

JB: People are more isolated, more distracted and more frightened by the
news and everything that’s out there today. So to remember that they have
a capacity to touch a part of themselves that is not disturbed, that is at ease and peaceful, to remember that and to explore that is a huge gift to the world.

TG: What advice would you give someone who’s never practiced
mindfulness meditation before and wants to start today?

JB: Remember that you’re there to explore and discover. Drop all the ideas
you have about yourself and about meditation and simply pay attention.
You could sit in a chair and just notice your body sitting there. When you
notice your mind gets impatient, rather than giving up, just notice that
that’s impatience and impatient thinking. Bring your attention to here and
now and simply notice. And if the mind is really busy, you could focus your
attention on a sound or on the breath sensation or some sort of anchor. But
really it’s about taking the position of awareness and letting the experience
of being in your body and in this life and in this moment come to you,
without trying to change any of it, for even five minutes.
An easy way would be to pause as you go through your day and let yourself
feel your breath or hear the sounds or smell the smells. Just come back to
the present moment. Notice what’s happening, even for a breath or two. It
begins to take on a life of its own after a while.

TG: In your book Daily Meditations for Calming Your Anxious Mind, you
say “The way of awareness thrives upon a great curiosity about what life
is really about.” How do you cultivate that curiosity in your daily life?

JB: Curiosity is an energising factor. When we get curious about something,
we tend to find some energy and some interest in what we’re doing. First of
all, it’s important to just value curiosity. What if we shifted at any moment
and became curious about things?

What I find to be a helpful device in nurturing my curiosity in any activity or
moment is to actually lay that out as an intention. I ask myself, “what if I
were more curious right now?” And I’ll just think of a few questions about
what’s going on that helps me pay closer attention, and then see what
might be revealed about the moment. It can be the most ordinary things that can lead us to some remarkable experiences. The present moment is vast if we just start looking around.

Dr. Jeff Brantley is a psychiatrist and a mindfulness instructor. He is the
author of Calming Your Anxious Mind: How mindfulness and compassion
can free you from anxiety, fear, and panic and is the co-author, with
Wendy Millstine, of the Five Good Minutes series. He’s meditated for 30
years with some of the world’s most well-respected meditation and
Buddhist teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Larry Rosenberg, Christina
Feldman, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. He is also also one of the founding faculty
members of Duke Integrative Medicine where he helped launch Duke’s
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program.

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