Susan Stone believes that the quality of your life depends on where you focus your attention. You might not need to get a new job or move to a different city to live a better, more fulfilling life. Instead, you could pay closer attention to the here and now. “We think the more we do the better. We multitask. We plan the future and reminisce about the past, and rarely is our mind in the same place as our body,” says Stone. “So, tragically, we miss a lot of our own lives.”
Susan Stone teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes at the University of Virginia’s Mindfulness Center, where students learn practical strategies “to be present to the present moment.” She also teaches at the Fluvanna County Correctional Facility for Women; more than 100 inmates have attended classes and Stone hopes to expand the program to include correctional officers as well.
Stone has been studying Buddhism for 25 years, and though the MBSR curriculum profits from practices derived from the Buddhist tradition, it is not religious. “Mindfulness has no relation to what you believe or don’t believe,” says Stone. “It is a practice, not a belief system.”
Indeed, the practice is lauded by the medical community after evidence showed that it reduces the symptoms of illnesses such as heart disease, chronic pain and addiction. MBSR was developed by a molecular biologist, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who studies the clinical applications of meditation and its physical effects on the brain at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Stone’s students practice mindfulness daily by listening to 45-minute guided meditations on CD. “It is a lot of work. But mindfulness is a practice, and unless you do it, you can’t learn it.”
One exercise that students do in class is eating raisins. Stone asks them to focus all their attention on the physical experience of eating. What does it feel like to chew? Where in your mouth do you register taste? “Most people read or talk while they eat, so they’ve never noticed what part of their tongue registers sweetness,” says Stone. It wouldn’t be practical to eat this way all the time, but the very act of focusing one’s attention is valuable. “You do the exercises, and then mindfulness starts to spill over naturally into your daily life.”
It might seem that MBSR is an unusual course offering at a university, but Stone explains that the classes not only teach practical skills for dealing with stress, but also prompt experimental philosophical investigation. “Mindfulness reaches into the very core of who we are as human beings and what we are doing on the face of this earth; it engages with the grand affair of life and death—the big questions.”
As daily life becomes more media saturated, the skill to make choices about where we place our attention becomes increasing valuable. “When we let our minds be hijacked, we can’t see clearly what is going on.” A breathing exercise might allow you to gain useful insight into a problem or notice a simple truth, like the flavor of a raisin.
Exercises you can do anywhere
Breathe. “Whatever you are doing, you can always stop for a moment and breathe. It’s like giving yourself a short vacation.”
Get present. “Come back to yourself when your mind is running on. Be aware of what is happening right now.”
Be kind to yourself. “We are usually very harsh with ourselves, very self-critical. Try gentleness and appreciation.”
Be kind to others. “It becomes easy to see the humanity in others when we recognize it in ourselves. It becomes clear that when people do things that annoy or anger us, they are only trying to be happy.”
Let go. “Unhook from thoughts that are carrying you away. Let them pass. You don’t have to go over things over and over.”
A few benefits
Symptoms of illness significantly reduced.
The UVA Mindfulness Center was involved in a study that showed that patients with heart palpitations have reduced symptoms after MBSR training.
Better relaxation and self-esteem.
“When we are mindful, we are able to relax more deeply and have greater appreciation for ourselves.”
Deepened spiritual belief.
“I have found that participants often feel a stronger connection with their own faith.”
Better decision making.
“If we react without clarity, we do so according to our conditioning. If we respond mindfully, we pause and understand what is going on in a new way and see things clearly for what they are. We can make utterly different choices.”
A mature ethical sense.
“The real consequences of our thoughts and actions become very clear.”
Susan Stone leads a class in meditation.