The 2015 U.S. Open Professional Tennis Championship finals saw the defeat of three-times winner of the U.S. Open, Roger Federer, by Number 1 seed Novak Djokovic, who had lost three of the previous four U.S. Opens.
The track record of the two “gladiators”attest in part, to the intensity with which they fought. For Djokovic (28), it was clinching his 10th grand slam title and the third of the calendar year with four-sets victory over Federer. Federer (34), three-times winner of the U.S. Open, came with a record 17 Grand Slam titles to boot.
It was a grueling 3 hour 20 minutes match that started after a 3-hour rain delay! Fiercely fought late into the night, the tournament was a testimony to the power, endurance and resilience of the human spirit. The sell-out crowd rooted for Federer while Djokovic saved 19 of 23 break points against him even with several falls and bad bruises. Case in point: Mental toughness!
It is not just people of such extraordinary talent that can carve their way through tremendous challenges. Ordinary people do it every day – the refugees who risk all to traverse across continents via feet and rocky boats to find a haven; warriors against cancer, AIDS, and other fatal diseases ….
What is heartening is also findings of new scientifically based studies that people have the means, even those with severe pain, anxiety disorders, or clinical depression, to recuperate and even surpass previous states of well being.
And what is this magic formula for reaching such heights? The practice of “mindfulness.” But before we delve into this phenomenon, it is useful to take a self-portrait.
As we may have already discovered, our minds tend to have a strong negativity bias. We tend to remember more vividly the negative things that happen to and around us (e.g. scandals) rather than the positives. One example from politics: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is likely to elicit an immediate response of “Bridgegate”; less often do we have an associative response of his effective handling of the effects of Hurricane Sandy.
We are also constantly comparing ourselves to others. Like the wild life around us, we are pressing hard to position ourselves on top of the herd in any number of ways — e.g., to have more friends; more power; be more loved; to become a star in a given field; to gain a better physique; be more attractive; thinner… the list goes on.
Getting to the top does not translate into staying at the top. Even the Olympic gold medalists are eventually going to be dethroned. And yet, many of us have a hard time accepting setbacks in life. We are overcome with sadness, sense of disappointment, and some of us start thinking that we are failures.
Change in general is difficult for many of us and it starts early in life. Children, for example, resist potty training and going to school because they are not ready to accept change. Similarly, parents have difficulty “letting go” of their children for college.
In short, many of us have a pre-disposition to be needy, emotionally insecure, and often, pessimistic. But these states are not cast in stone. We do not have to go through life with such vulnerabilities. Here is where “mindfulness” practices come in. A brief overview of the idea’s emergence and development follows:
In a broad sense, mindfulness connotes awareness and acceptance of the present as opposed to avoidance and escape from the present. Mindfulness practices are not new. While they are very hot in scientifically oriented psychotherapies these days, their origins go back to Buddha, 2500 years ago. Mindfulness practices were first recorded in the “Pali” language in which the historical records of Buddha were first written down.
Their credence in today’s scientific community is based on a plethora of studies confirming their effectiveness as an alternative to drug therapy for dealing with not only every day problems but also with more severe forms of physical pain, addiction, and all levels of psychological distress, including chronic anxiety disorders and depression.
The ideas behind the practices were recently highlighted on CBS in a documentary by Anderson Cooper of “60 Minutes.” Cooper who was invited to an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program by Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, was reporting his experience at the retreat.
As noted in the documentary, “When are we ever really present? Though we may not be conscious of it, we’re constantly seeking ways to distract ourselves. We feel pressure to check our phones for emails or texts, refresh our Instagram feeds for new photos to peruse, be the first to spot a breaking news story on Twitter — the list goes on.
Cooper haltingly gave up his mobile devices at the retreat, but was later glad that he did. In an exchange with Zinn, he noted: “I’m on mobile devices all day long… I feel I could go through an entire day and not be present. It’s exhausting!
Cooper went on to add, “I don’t feel I’m very present in each moment. I feel like every moment I’m either thinking about something that’s coming down the road, or something that’s been in the past.” To this, Kabat-Zinn aptly responded, “So ultimately all this preparing is for what? For the next moment, like the last moment, like, and then we’re dead … We’re only alive now.”
Mindfulness is about being aware of our thoughts, physical and emotional sensations, and surroundings — purposefully and non-judgmentally. Instead of fighting, avoiding or escaping pain and discomfort, it is about finding ways to accept challenges and live through them, and thus gain mental strength and a sense of sublime peace.
Many psychiatric interventions are designed to decrease the intensity of painful or uncomfortable experience. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is designed to increase our capacity to bear or be with discomfort.
Courage within this context is not about “not being terrified” but doing what it makes sense to do even as we feel fear. It is not “feeling nervous” that is the problem. It is avoiding things to try not to feel nervous that becomes our problem. Furthermore, trying not to feel anxious by avoiding or escaping from discomfort is found to be at the heart of anxiety disorder.
So how does the exercise work? Here is a sample: Focus the mind on the intake of our breath. Follow the breath to the beginning of the inhalation to the end of the exhalation. Notice the sensations and feelings that are happening as we breathe in and as we breathe out.
It would not be unusual for thoughts to enter our mind during the process. We are not going to chase them away. But instead of following each thought as we normally do, we are going to let them rise and pass like a cloud showing up and leaving the sky, gently returning our attention to our breath, thus training our mind to come out of the thought stream into sensory reality, i.e., to our sensations here and now.
More such exercises may be downloaded for free by going to www.midfulness-solution.com
Mindfulness practices are based on the premise that our mind is quite unruly. It tends not to listen to instructions, it wanders into places we do not want it to go, and it does not pay attention or stay focused. In short, there are lots of moments of mindlessness, mind wandering, or getting lost in thought stream, i.e., constant narratives going through our mind.
By living increasingly in the present through mindfulness practices, scientific studies (particularly in the past four decades) have confirmed that, we get less caught in discomforts and thought streams.
We get it that thoughts aren’t facts and that we are not our thoughts. We gain greater awareness that everything is in a constant flux, constantly changing, and so we are less liable to be freaked out with changes happening to and around us. We also realize that if we change our relationship to thinking and start to see all thought patterns as unreliable as the weather, then living through challenges becomes much easier.
Other caveats of mindfulness: All of the self-esteem concerns (e.g., of not being good enough in such and such, etc.) start to settle down since we are not always comparing ourselves with others. We are not centered on our selves anymore.
When depressive thoughts enter our mind, we know not to refute or talk our way out of them reactively but instead recognize that they are just mental constructs, not to be confused with facts. Such awareness is found to translate into less anticipatory pain, anxiety, or fear.
Science based experiments conducted on Buddhists monks and other experienced practitioners (by today’s neurobiologists, psychologists and psychiatrists) have collected irrefutable evidence of the above-discussed state of well being among mindfulness practitioners.
So for those of us who are “naysayers” or dismissive of mindfulness meditative practices as Anderson Cooper was before the retreat, it may be worth our while to try it before we knock it. What do we have to lose? We may also choose to read the poem, “The Guest House” by 13th Century Islamic mystical poet Rumi since it captures the central ideas imaginatively and succinctly.
In closing it is significant to note that this article is by no means suggesting that anxiety and depression does not have genetic roots or serious pathology in terms of childhood abuse, etc. The message here is simply this: We are not helpless or powerless beings. The more we engage in mindfulness, the more we are seeing our thoughts as coming and going like an itch or an ache or like clouds coming in and going. Within this context, experts claim that depression when it strikes can become easier to handle and so also milder forms of mental distress.