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With depression on the rise across all age groups, and stress now being a more than common occurrence in many people’s lives, it is safe to say that something about the way we are living is bringing us down. Due to reasons ranging from social media usage and technology at our fingertips to weaker community ties and excessive materialism, the reasons that many of us are feeling increasingly stressed and depressed are intricate and heavily intertwined.
While the standard of living has advanced greatly for the Western world, our mental wellbeing is suffering. All of this might it a contributing factor to why more and more people are turning towards mindfulness as a way to alleviate some of the burden of modern day society – and for good reason. Mindfulness practice is a powerful tool to help manage the underlying suffering we are experiencing, promoting a greater sense of inner calm, contentment, and happiness.
One of Buddhism’s core teachings is that of contentment, a state of being that can be achieved through bringing compassionate, non-judgmental awareness to the inner workings of the mind. Mindfulness practice and meditation as a way of reaching contentment has been practiced for centuries.
To better understand how Buddhists use mindfulness to achieve contentment, we can first familiarize ourselves with a basic understanding of the term “dukkha.” While commonly translated as “suffering,” there are other ways we might define the term. Dukkha can be considered to be:
To better understand how mindfulness helps to increase our experience of peace and contentment, we can separate these two experiences into separate categories, the first being a sense of peace and inner calm.
Calm defined is a state of being that is “free from agitation, excitement, or disturbance.” Perhaps more metaphorically put, and as it relates to the weather, calm can be defined as “a period or condition of freedom from storms, high winds, or rough activity of water.” When we feel calm, the waves of life have little effect on us. In these moments, we are more like the rocky bed beneath the sea.
Numerous studies have shown that mindfulness does indeed reduce anxiety and promote a calm state of being. Some of the findings are listed below, though this is not an exhaustive list of the research that has been done:
There are a few different mechanisms by which all of this occurs. From our neural pathways to our hormones, a couple of explanations for mindfulness’ ability to reduce stress and anxiety and increase our experience of calmness can be noted:
Mindfulness meditation activates the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain that controls our thinking and emotion. It also engages the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the anterior insula, two additional areas of the brain involved with controlling worry.
Mindfulness of the breath often leads us to deepening its flow. When we are stressed, we tend to breathe only shallowly, a way of breathing that initiates the fight-or-flight response. As we observe the breath and as it deepens, the body’s relaxation response is activated. This engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system brings our blood pressure, heart rate, and hormone levels back to balance. The experience of stress in mind and body is eased.
Contentment and happiness often go hand in hand, though they are not quite the same. Contentment as it relates to mindfulness can be defined as a sense of satisfaction for the present state of reality. Happiness is more commonly associated with pleasant feelings and is often desired. While the difference may come down to semantics, we might consider that contentment is the simplest or purest form of satisfaction. When contentment is the goal, happiness often follows.
Mindfulness promotes our experience of happiness through our increased satisfaction, or contentment, with the present moment. Whatever situation we find ourselves in, mindful awareness of our direct experience can help to naturally lessen our propensity to hold expectations and increase our acceptance of whatever is occurring.
Contentment and happiness increase through mindfulness practice in a variety of different ways, including the following:
As we practice being more mindful in everyday situations and through exploring mindfulness meditation, we start to notice where our thoughts loop around in a continuous circle. By observing this cycle we take away some of the steam that fuels it, finding ourselves more deeply connected to the present moment. Fears of the future or regrets from the past (or other negative thoughts that attach us to some different place in time) naturally begin to melt away.
As our attachment to negative thoughts is observed and released, we become more aware of the present moment and more grateful for what we have at present. As we reconnect to our inner state of being, we come to realize that in each moment, we are perfectly whole as we are. This helps to fuel our sense of contentment with the present state of reality.
It is often said that energy flows where attention goes. As we become more mindful of all the positive things in our everyday lives, we fuel and attract more of those blessings that naturally promote peace and happiness.
Mindfulness practice helps us to regulate our emotions by reducing the tendency to be swept away by them. As we start to identify rising emotions as the observer, noting inner experiences such as grief, sadness, and anger, the power they hold over our thoughts and behaviors is lessened. We become better at watching the way these energy currents flow through us rather than holding onto their stories.
Mindfulness can be implemented into our lives in numerous ways. The most common form is through mindfulness meditation, but the applications of this practice are much wider than that. We can practice harnessing mindful awareness in all situations, from brushing our teeth to overcoming a personal struggle to taking the dog for a walk. There are also a variety of mindfulness exercises and worksheets that can deepen our personal practice.
To promote contentment, happiness, and an inner state of calm, the following tools and techniques can be practiced.
Practicing mindfulness is most challenging when our defenses are triggered, such as when we feel a strong negative reaction to something someone has done or said or when we are in the middle of an argument. We can strengthen our ability to remain calm and compassionate in these situations by becoming mindful of what is running through us rather than what is “wrong” with the person or situation in front of us.
To enhance your ability to communicate mindfully and compassionately:
When strong emotions or feelings of unease arise, practice watching them as if you were an outsider. It is easy to become attached to our emotions and their associated stories, but instead we can try mindfully noting them as being energy bodies that are separate from the core of who we are.
To practice separating ourselves from the waves of emotion:
We can increase our contentment by mindfully noting all of the things we are grateful for in the present moment. Practice this with eyes closed or while observing your surroundings. Make note of things big and small, tangible and intangible. Consider:
The opportunities for feeling into our blessings are endless. When you first begin this practice, you might like to make a written list of all the things you are grateful for. Add to it throughout the day, allowing this practice to grow effortlessly as you move through life.