Practicing mindfulness has proven health benefits but what if it could be the doorway into a whole new way of being, one that invites profound and lasting change?
What if, in a world that constantly pushes us toward the horizon, we were able to fully focus and immerse ourselves in the moment, here and now? What if this ability, and the subsequent experience, was accessible to everyone? And what if this changes how we experience our world? If this interests you, allow me to introduce you to Flow – a state of consciousness where time melts away and life unfolds with ease, a state where you are fully immersed in moments of effortless doing.
You might be asking yourself what exactly is Flow? Quite often referred to as moments of “optimal experience”, many of us have encountered Flow quite by accident and afterwards don’t recall how we entered it, simply slipping into this state without the realization of how it occurred. Alternatively, we may experience an episode of Flow without attaching a label to it and be completely unaware of it as another level of consciousness. Many times, these incidents are overlooked or dismissed, especially the more subtle ones. Remembering back to a time when you were at your best is a good way to explore the nature of Flow. Whether it was during a physical feat requiring skill and precision, giving a high-level presentation, or engaging in an activity that absorbed all your attention, the common denominator would be a sense of effortless doing. There isn’t a cognitive thought process occurring during these moments, just a seamless unfolding of events in which we reach a high level of coherence with our environment. The result is a fluid expression of reality in which the moving parts of our internal and external experience are flawlessly orchestrated into a finely tuned symphony. The profound satisfaction that generally accompanies this state also seems to be rooted in a deep harmonious sense of unity.
Most easily understood examples of Flow are when we talk about athletes being “in the zone.” When individuals experience complete involvement in an activity their focused attention produces deep engagement, immense fulfillment, and superior performance. These incidents are also occasions of extreme present-moment awareness, which brings us to the recognition that a high degree of presence is essential to being in Flow. In order to operate within the realm of our own enhanced consciousness, it is critical to engage all the senses through physical embodiment. The body’s inherent wisdom enables us to connect to a broader field of conscious energy and glean important information from our surroundings. The result is a more desirable outcome through the engagement of these additional resources. Our degree of presence is directly proportionate to our aptitude for entering Flow, and so the natural conclusion is that the principles of mindfulness are a fundamental bridge to “optimal experience.”
While in the Flow state we perceive the experience of time differently and time as we know it seems to be removed from the equation. It is in these moments where we are so focused on an activity or event that the “self” recedes into the background, and we connect to an awareness that is much greater than ourselves. An extreme example of this is when people report that “time stood still” during a life or death situation. They aren’t wrong and they were, in fact, experiencing time differently. When we are facing a life-threatening event we are pushed into acute present-moment awareness as our instincts kick in, and crowded out of our awareness is everything but the essentials for surviving. While the self is temporarily suspended, we experience the full engagement of all our senses and tap into a vast universal field of intelligence. The result is an expression of reality in which the outcome is shaped by these additional resources. In a catastrophic event this can be life-saving, but even in our daily lives there is a richness to be had that is often missed because so many of us remain cut off from these all-important cues.
Not only has Flow, as a concept, existed in ancient ideologies; but it is also a valuable tool for navigating the 21st century. Mindfulness, as it turns out, proves to be a powerful catalyst for entering Flow. Through cultivating a connection between our body and mind, and surrendering to our environment, we can enter prolonged periods of Flow, and increase our potential as humans.
Living in Flow: The Key to Unlocking Your Greatest Potential, is a book about this dynamic state of consciousness and how we can harness it to live with greater ease and harmony. The book interprets decades of research that have led to a paradigm shift in physics, medicine, and human biology. It also investigates how to cultivate Flow through the power of our own intent, and more easily access its beneficial effects in daily life through mindfulness practices.
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“Once there was a tree and she loved a boy,” begins Shel Silverstein in his book, The Giving Tree. And as its name suggests, the story is a tale about giving. The tree gives the boy her branches to swing from when he is bored, apples to sell when he needs money. She gives him her branches and trunk when he longs for a house and a boat, and even when she has nothing left to give, she gives her stump to sit on when he is old and tired and still, “the tree was happy.” Probably the first book that taught us about the wonderful act of ‘giving,’ this children’s book still continues to enlighten children and adults alike about generosity and the benefits that come with it. Just like the tree and the boy, millions of people have already been well acquainted with the gesture of giving and receiving, and the satisfaction and enjoyment that comes with being on the receiving end of this age-old custom. However, surprising as it might be, new studies have shown that the benefits of giving are not only reaped by the gift receivers, but also by the giver themselves in terms of their health and happiness.
A 2008 study conducted by Michael Norton and his colleagues from Harvard Business School revealed that people are happier when they spend money on others versus themselves. One of the three tests conducted was a national survey whereby 632 American men and women were asked how much their salary was and what their monthly expenditure was in terms of bills, expenses, gifts for themselves, and what they spent on gifts for others in donations to charities. They were also asked to rate their level of happiness. The findings for the test showed that those who reported spending more on others also reported a greater level of happiness as compared to those who spent on themselves.
In addition, the act of giving not only makes you a happier person, it is also good for your health. A broad spectrum of research has lead to the conclusion that generosity and better health, even among the sick and elderly, are inter connected with each other.
One way ‘giving’ improves an individual’s physical health is by a decrease in stress levels.
A study by Rachel Piferi of Johns Hopkins University and Kathleen Lawler of University of tennessee reports that people who provided social support to others had lower blood pressures as compared to participants who did not attesting the fact that ‘giving’ has a direct relationship to physiological benefits. Moreover, in the book Why Good Things Happen to Good People, Stephen Post who is professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University writes that ‘giving to others has been shown to increase health benefits in people with chronic illness, including HIV and multiple sclerosis.
Whether it is by giving help to others, volunteering for organizations, or donating to charities, your act of ‘giving’ can help you and the many others around you and I hope all the research on generosity’s positive benefits might inspire even the worst cynics in us to reconsider their giving behaviour.
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Diverse organizations such as Google, Aetna, Intel, the Seattle Seahawks and General Mills all have something in common. All of these companies provide mindfulness training to their employees. Mindfulness is an awareness of the present moment, without judgment—a noticing of what is arising. Since the workplace is more fast-paced and competitive than ever, many companies are increasingly turning towards the practice of mindfulness to help their employees deal with the stresses of the workplace environment. Below are just some of the benefits of practicing mindfulness in the workplace.
According to Business News Daily, workplace stress is a major “health epidemic of the 21st century” costing American businesses up to $300 billion a year. Mindfulness can curb the stress and tension of everyday work whilst enhancing creativity and clarity of mind and focus, and boosting working memory. Researchers at the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic have found that mindfulness-based techniques, including meditation, can lower stress levels in a demanding work environment leading to happier, more engaged employees. In addition, the practice of mindfulness also induces health benefits to the mindful individual. Research has shown that mindfulness can help reduce the aging of the brain and build a stronger immune system. Employers are turning to workplace-based lifestyle interventions like meditation to enhance employee self-care and decrease illness-causing stress, helping to control employee healthcare costs.
Meditation also has a long-lasting influence on human cognition, including how we conceive new ideas since mindfulness mediation works to enhance creativity and innovation. Moreover, mediators are quicker to adjust brain waves that screen out distraction, explaining their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts while reducing distractions in the workplace. Those who completed the mindfulness meditation training “made faster and significantly more pronounced attention-based adjustments to the alpha-rhythm” compared to those in the control group, shedding light on how meditation can help the brain reduce distractions6 (The Harvard Gazette).
Research finds that improvements to working memory are another benefit of mindfulness. A study conducted with the military showed that within the meditating military group, working memory capacity increased with meditation practice. In addition, meditation practice was directly related to self-reported positive affect and inversely related to self-reported negative affect7 (American Psychological Association, APA).
There are many benefits of mindfulness to the individual that confer to their employer and their workplace, as employees become less stressed and more clear, creative and focused to name a few. For more on these studies, visit the Krame Center research page https://www.ramapo.edu/kramecenter/research-news-links/
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It is no secret that college students today are facing more stress than ever. Between the pressure to do well in school, work, and maintaining relationships, students experience a number of circumstantial and emotional stressors each day. Anxiety disorders have become one of the most common health problems on college campuses. This heightened state of stress makes it hard to focus on tasks such as taking tests and completing projects. In fact, 30 percent of college students report that stress has negatively affected their academic work according to the 2015 National College Health Assessment.
It is almost impossible to change these outside stressors, but what students can do is change their response to their stressors and give less power to them. Kailen Krame, author of Put It In Perspective: A Teen’s Guide to Sanity, suggests five important methods and traits to help students change how they respond and deal with the stress in their lives.
The first method is acceptance, both self-acceptance and embracing each situation that occurs rather than resisting it and creating more stress. Once you accept the situation, you can respond to it with compassion and kindness. It is also important to remember that it is okay to take care of yourself. Resilience will help you to let go of your problems instead of allowing them to interfere with your present or future. Finally, fearlessness will allow you to step out of your comfort zone and open yourself to new experiences.
Based on the book Put It In Perspective: A Teen’s Guide to Sanity by Kailen Krame
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Finals week is coming and for students that means studying, writing papers, and feeling stressed. In fact, Mental Health America calls it “the most stressful time of the year for college students.” To combat this, students can do the obvious things like exercise to clear their head, eat a well-balanced diet for energy and brain power, and establish a to-do list with priorities.
Students can also use mindfulness to help them get through the stress of finals week. A mindful pause is a powerful tool. By taking a brief meditation before writing a paper or taking a test, students can increase focus, creativity, and energy. Those few seconds of breathing, noticing and scanning the body, and calming the mind can help reduce anxiety and stress.
Both the 8-4-8 breath or the square 4-4-4-4 breath are helpful options to help students take a mindful pause. The 8-4-8 breath is taking an inhale to the silent count of 8, holding it to the silent count of 4, and then exhaling to the silent count of 8. The square 4-4-4-4 breath is inhaling, holding, exhaling, and hold the breath each to a silent count of 4.
It is also important for students to recognize and accept their limits and to remember to feel proud at the end of their hard work!
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Research has shown that mindfulness in the workplace helps employees manage stress; and improve focus and the ability to work together. What is mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, non-judgmentally, in the present moment.”
One’s work life can be fulfilling but often stressful. Mindfulness practice is proven to help participants re-perceive their stressors. These practices do not have to be extensive. A five to ten minute breathing meditation or body scan can help to refocus the mind and reduce anxiety.
“At work, take a moment from time to time to monitor your bodily sensations. Is there tension in your shoulders, face, hands or back. How are you sitting or standing in this moment? What is your body language saying? Consciously, let go of any tension as best as you can as you exhale and shift your posture to one that expresses balance, dignity and alertness. Try to stop for one minute every hour and become aware of your breathing. Use these mini-meditations to tune in to the present and just be.”*
You can then go back to your work a bit less stressed.
*excerpt from Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn
From the Krame Center for Contemplative Studies and Mindful Living at Ramapo College
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In my classes, I often talk about how mindfulness and meditation are not spa-days. People sometimes arrive to a meditation with the expectation that I will make them happy with magic meditative guidance. Apologetically I inform them that this is not the practice of meditation.
Mindfulness practices increase feelings of well-being and alters our relationship with stress and anxiety, as well as with suffering and life in general. This takes practice, and not just in one session. We do not expect to run a great marathon time without running daily, and the same goes for finding a sense of peace in one’s life. It takes practice.
This practice is not always blissful. When we allow ourselves to simply be present, we often meet resistance. We feel sleepy, hungry, bored–all sorts of feelings arise, some that are truly here, and others distracting us from feelings we may unconsciously be trying to ignore; stress, anxiety, sadness, fear.
Pushing away or avoiding unwanted feelings is an unsuccessful strategy and actually perpetuates the avoided feeling. Ironically some people avoid good feelings too. Sitting on a beach on vacation and yet the mind is wondering where the next vacation will be, or reminiscing on last year’s vacation. We have developed a habit of disconnecting from the only moment that we can actually experience—right now.
People come to meditation because they are looking for an alternative approach. They decide there must be a better way. However often they want that alternate approach to feel like a spa day and “cure” them… all in the span of the next 15 minutes.
We are practicing cultivating kind-hearted moment-to-moment awareness. Sadness is here in the moment – Okay, how is it? Sleepiness is here – Beautiful, what is it like? The sun is warming my face – what is warmness feel like? It is not easy and yet it is simple. Often we find that when we allow ourselves to touch our experiences with awareness they change. We may find that what we are avoiding is not the feeling of sadness, but our thoughts that sadness will continue into the next moment, and the next, forever. Believing that if we allow ourselves to feel sadness, it will never leave. Paradoxically it is actually avoiding a feeling that keeps it lingering around. With enjoyable feelings, we fear that if we do not plan on how to get more it will “runout”, meanwhile we miss the experience all together.
Do not take my word for it. Experience it for yourself, stay curious, and give the practice a chance. When we learn to be present to our moment-to-moment experience, we learn how to meet our challenges and enjoy our spa days.
Categories: Krame Center