Health Corner: Living Through “Mindfulness”

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by Lindsey Newman

A man who, as a physical being, is always turned toward the outside, thinking that his happiness lies outside him, finally turns inward and discovers that the source is within him” (Kierkegaard, as cited in Baird D., 2000)

Life as a teacher in a foreign country is a rewarding and enjoyable one. Yet, it does not go without times of frustration and stress. Diet, exercise, work, rest, and play are obvious things that impact our daily state of well-being. However, in this article I would like to concentrate more on a certain philosophy and way of thinking that I have found useful in leading a happier/healthier life, one being the practise of mindfulness.

Mind and Body

As a complementary therapist I was always surprised to find clients who viewed their mind and body as two completely separate entities. I cannot emphasis enough that strength of the body is nothing without strength of the mind. Should there be stress in the mind, the body will also suffer, and vice versa.

The mind and body should not be viewed as separate entities (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons).

This effect is most commonly seen when anxiety/stress leads to physical manifestations in the form of headaches, migraines, insomnia, and sickness. You only have to look at how many Japanese teachers have had cancer or taken leave because of stress to see this relation. The problem lies when we do not address the emotional reaction to a physical ailment. This is where Western medicine and the Japanese love for prescribing drugs can fail. It is often thought that

“Unscientific concepts of spirituality and vital forces which are assumed in holistic therapies are not readily accepted by biomedicine, for they do not conform to the doctrine of specific aetiology and illness as a result of an external pathogen” (McKee, 1988).

However, to ignore the mind/body link is to be a blind man in the dark. As Osho explains,

“Physiological processes and psychological processes are not two separate things, and you can start from either pole to affect and change the other” (2003).

In the same way, “Being happy doesn’t mean that everything is perfect. It means that you’ve decided to look beyond the imperfections” (2003).

Motivation and Moderation

In order for us to maintain a healthy lifestyle and mind while in Japan I think it is very important that we each find an outlet which allows us to relax and unwind. As Kent H. (1993) said,

You cannot lead a balanced life without periods of relaxation…it is the vital process of letting-go”.

To preserve your sanity take up a hobby or sport. Find things that challenge, stimulate, and inspire you. Maintaining motivation is key in fighting stagnation and boredom. However, whether your release is going to the gym, watching a movie, playing video games, or going out with your friends, moderation should also be kept in mind. It is easy to overindulge in things we perceive as making us happy. Definitely go out, get drunk, and have fun, but if you find that consuming a bottle of whisky a night has become part of your daily routine than maybe it is time to acknowledge when things are becoming excessive and actually causing more harm than good. Lao Tzu once said,

“The sages’ freedom from ills was recognising the sickness of sickness” (Thomas Cleary, The Essential Tao, 1991).

That is, it is only by recognising potential problems that we can overcome them. Listening to our bodies and the hints it gives us is the first step in combating any imbalance and for this all one needs is a little bit of mindfulness and self-awareness.

What is Mindfulness?

The term ‘mindfulness’ comes from the English translation of the Pali word sati, which denotes awareness and attention (Germer C.K. et al, 2005). It is a concept taken from Buddhism and is used as a tool for obtaining the right kind of awareness and mind control.

Mindfulness is the deceptively simplistic way of relating to all experiences and has long been traditionally used to lessen life’s difficulties (Germer C.K. et al, 2005). It is the practise of keeping the mind focused on the immediate task at hand in the present reality and aims to have thoughts free from ignorance and conflict (Clifford T., 1984).

T.N. Hanh (2005) refers to it as “being fully alive and committed” to each moment in life, for it is said that

“If we lose present time we lose all time” (D. Baird, 2000).

Mindfulness can be practised any time and is not so much concerned with faith but rather experience (Rinpoche A.T., 1994, Mah A.Y., 2001). Rowe D. illustrated mindfulness as neither “good” nor “bad,” but simply “is,” demonstrating that it is a way to carry oneself throughout life (Rowe D., 2007). Like Fritz S. (2004) said, a human doing is not as mindful as a human being.

Mindful exercises can include introspective meditation, perceptive awareness of bodily movement, breath centring techniques, anatomic alignment postures, and contemplation of our energy flow through exercises like Tai Chi, Yoga, and Qigong (the practise of a routine of movements based on breathing – search Youtube), etc.  These kinds of practises generate energy and concentration and can help offer attentiveness in our work, just as regular exercise releases those beloved endorphins. Research into meditation also proves therapeutic as it operates as a means to encourage individuals to cognitively take “time out” from daily stress, thus promoting a “let-go” attitude conducive of ease(Chow Y.W.Y, Tsang H.W.H., 2007).

Due to the healing nature of mindfulness it is also currently being integrated into the world of psychotherapy and for people with chronic conditions of depression and anxiety (Segal Z.V. et al, 2002). MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy), for instance, is a programme offering mindfulness to help individuals change their patterns of negative thinking by becoming more aware of their mental processing. It was noted that since people were now ignoring the stresses of real life and evading trivial thoughts, fears were reduced (Chow Y.W.Y, Tsang H.W.H., 2007).

As a result, it would make sense then for the teacher to exercise mindfulness to help dispel negative thoughts and enable us to see the important things in life (Chow Y.W.Y., Tsang H.W., 2007). We should concentrate our energy on the positive aspects of our jobs, for “Happiness is not the absence of problems but the ability to deal with them.” As Groucho Marx adds,

Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead; tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.

Right now, think about all the things you do have in your life for which you are grateful, and smile and relax. Appreciate what you have now. Hold that feeling and carry it with you throughout the day. For it has often been said that “it isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about” (Unknown).

Another positive consequence from living mindfully is that is allows us to develop our self-awareness as discussed below.

Self-awareness

Self-awareness as defined by Edelman C.L., Mandle C.L. (1994) is the process involving the unconscious, which influences behaviour, potential, and judgements regarding the self (Edelman C.L., Mandle C.L., 1994). However, here I am simply referring to the continuous and evolving process of getting to know one’s self (Burnard P., 1997).

It has been said that from self-knowledge comes a wisdom that can cure all disease and pain (Clifford T., 1989). For the ALT self-awareness is fundamental as we often strive to instill feelings of self-development, creativity, and growth in our students. Edelman C.L., Mandle C.L. (1994) state that the self is the greatest tool during any interaction and so to be used effectively the person must be fully aware of how it functions. How can we come to know and understand our students (and colleagues for that matter) if we first do not know ourselves? As Edward Bulwer-Lytton says,

The best teacher is the one who suggests rather than dogmatizes, and inspires his listener with the wish to teach himself.”

Being self-aware is another part of healthy mindfulness (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It can be seen therefore that in order to help bring about a change in others the teacher must first have the ability to stay attentive to their own self-improvement (Baird D., 2000). Just as Joseph Joubert (1842) clearly puts it,

To teach is to learn twice.

Mindfulness can increase self-awareness as it allows precious time to get to know oneself. This is due to the assumption that mindful awareness helps reconnect people through body awareness (Brazier D., 1995). As Hansen M.F. (2001) relates, it is a means by which people can practise being human, to practise being who they are. Hann T.N., a leading authority on mindfulness, also promotes its use for self-discovery in work. As he put it,

When mindfulness shines its light upon our activity, we recover ourselves and encounter life in the present moment” (2005).

If neglectful of one’s own development, then it is said that the world is seen in an unclear way that gives rise to confusion and suffering (Rinpoche A.T., 1994). However, the practise of everyday awareness allows a mind that was once troubled by idle and frivolous thoughts and distractions to be strengthened, “like a fletcher who straightens an arrow” (as cited by Brazier D., 2001).

A disadvantage of the notion of using mindfulness to alleviate all suffering is that people do not generally tend to look inwards for salvation (Graham H., 1990). This is particularly seen in the world of Western medicine, and sometimes here in Japan, where patients are, in theory, encouraged to look to others to free themselves from responsibility (Machanic, 1979). As a result, what is happening is that people look outwards to others to sort their problems (Graham H., 1990). Therefore, it can be argued that what is needed is the realisation that comes from being present, that we are all in charge of our own lives (Burnard P., 1997). As Buddha once quoted,

Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without” (as cited by Baird D.).

Conclusion

With the high demands and expectations placed on teachers in Japan it does not come as a surprise that some become drained and completely exhausted. As such, it is important that we acknowledge when things are becoming tough or too much, not only through our self-awareness, but also through intuition and listening to the hints our bodies give us. Applying a little mindfulness will also help protect and prevent us from absorbing the negative energy that sometimes surrounds us at work.

Another obvious by-product from mindfulness is that it increases our ability to understand ourselves and, in the process, others, too. Living in the present lets us see situations as they really are, free from preconceptions, judgments, and fear (Germer et al, 2003). Ailments and worries are also alleviated through this, and a heightened sense of confidence, control, and sincerity in work is developed (Graham H., 1990).

If we do not live mindfully, appreciating each moment from the mundane to the sublime, we inhibit awareness and invite destructive thoughts. Thus, wasting our time and mindlessly rushing throughout our days on auto pilot (Benjamin Hoff, 2002). As John Lennon said,

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” (cited in A Thousand Paths to Tranquillity, 2000).

Finally, in closing, please remember:

The secret of teaching is to appear to have known all your life what you just learned this morning.” (Unknown)

For further reading: “The Secret”

References

Baird D (2000) “A Thousand Paths To Tranquillity” London, MQ Publishing Ltd

Brazier David (1995) “Zen Therapy: A Buddhist Approach to Psychotherapy” UK, Robinson

Germer C K, Siegel R D, Fulton P R (2005) “Mindfulness and psychology” New York, The Guilford Press

Gunaratana H (2002) “Mindfulness in Plain English” Boston, Wisdom

Hanh T N (2005) “Present Moment Wonderful Moment: Mindful Verses for Daily Living” Delhi, Full Circle Publishing

Lupton D (2000) “Medicine as Culture: Illness, Disease and the Body in Western Societies” London, Sage

Mitchell A and Cormack M (1998) “The Therapeutic Relationship in Complementary Health Care” UK, Churchill Livingstone

Osho (2003) “Body Mind Balancing: Using Your Mind to Heal Your Body” New York, St. Martin’s Press

Page C (2003) “Spiritual Alchemy: How to transform your life” UK, Rider

Rinpoche S (1998) “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” US, Rider

Rinpoche A T, (1994), “Taming the Tiger; Tibetan Teachings for Improving Daily Life”, London, Rider

Segal Z V, Williams J M G, Teasdales J D (2002) “Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse” New York, Guilford Press
Chow Y W Y, Tsang H W H (2007) “Biopsychosocial Effects of Qigong as a Mindful Exercise for People with Anxiety Disorders: A Speculative Review” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 13 (8) pp.831-840

Rowe D (2007) “Why Do People Lose Their Innate Ability to Live in the Present” Open Mind: The Mental Health Magazine 147 pp.15

One comment

  • Beck

    Great article, and REALLY great for the uninitiated! I would also recommend “Sit Down and Shut Up” written by an American who became a Zen Buddhist monk in Japan. It didn’t inspire me meditate, but it did change my perspective on life and consciousness a bit!

    “to ignore the mind/body link is to be a blind man in the dark”…shouldn’t that say light? In the dark a blind man would probably have a leg up…