In the last post I explained that mindfulness is often credited for a suspiciously long list of benefits, from better sleep to better marriages. But it’s hard to see quite how sitting on the floor does all that, if indeed it does.
Once you’ve established a regular mindfulness practice, you notice all sorts of happy side effects. I could list dozens in my life. They vary from person to person, but many can be reduced to three major, primary benefits that are probably universal among mindfulness practitioners.
I’ll explain what they are, and how they could possibly result from sitting on a cushion, noticing your breathing.
Everything changes when you open up
Mindfulness practice trains a quality we can call “openness to experience”: the ability to notice what’s happening in the present moment, without fighting it, squirming away from it, or judging it. This skill has tremendous practical value.
Basic mindfulness meditation is like this: you sit, and by using one technique or another, actively observe everything about what it’s like to be sitting there—the full physical and emotional experience of being a human being at an ordinary moment.
You quickly discover that your moment-to-moment experience—even the experience of sitting quietly—is layered and detailed, and is always in motion. Sounds, bodily feelings, emotional currents, thoughts, and everything else you can experience are continually flowing and changing, second by second.
Some of that experience is pleasant, some is unpleasant, some is neither. As you sit, you simply notice this stream of experiences move through you, doing your best not to judge or interfere. If you get distracted from this simple task of noticing, you just start doing it again.
It’s a little disorienting at first. We’re not used to observing without interfering, having spent our whole lives reflexively scrambling to grab the things we want and run from the things we don’t want. None of us are immediately great at being mindful.
In addition, we’re doing this while our thinking mind is constantly chattering, commenting, singing songs, scolding us, and replaying bits of TV shows. So we do it in short sessions at first, extending them as we get used to it.
Eventually something remarkable begins to happen. You start to become more comfortable with all of this coming and going.
You discover that you already have a small amount of an incredible power: you can experience passing sensations and emotions without being harmed by them, and without acting out. You aren’t a slave to reactivity.
Feelings, even “bad” ones, are eminently experienceable. They’re normal, and they happen to vary in pleasantness. They’re not always signalling emergencies, and most importantly, they pass.
This is the first of the big three benefits: You become less reactive.
You feel more and more relaxed about living in this rolling sea of thinking and feeling, which is fantastic, because you live in that rolling sea even if you aren’t aware of it. “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf,” as Jon Kabat-Zinn put it.
Because you’re less afraid of brushing against any particular experience, you start to feel quite differently towards the future—less apprehensive and more interested—including what might happen in the next few moments.
You start to notice this “unfolding” quality everywhere in life: how the air changes as you pass through a door, how a room’s mood shifts when you flip a light switch, how the scent of mushrooms finally reaches you as they heat up in the pan.
This is a rich and wonderful side-effect of having observed so many breaths, emotions and bodily tingles go through their life cycle during meditation. Everything in life is always unfolding, and it’s really satisfying to watch.
This is the second of the big three: ordinary moments become more poignant and beautiful.
We’ve all noticed these poignant little flourishes in our lives, but they can seem rare. That’s because we can only appreciate the unfolding of ordinary life when we’re (a) not lost in thought, and (b) receptive to the unfolding of present-moment experience. Mindfulness practice trains us to be both.
Whenever you’re aware that you’re in a live, unfolding moment, you feel a greater sense of choice, because you’re not swept up in neediness or aversion.
You can notice a craving as it unfolds, for example, without indulging it. It becomes easier to refrain from opening the fridge between meals, leaving dishes undone before bed, or putting a cigarette in your mouth after lunch.
This is the third major benefit of mindfulness practice: unhealthy patterns become easier to see, and break.
The urge is still there, but it’s now just that: an urge. You recognize it as only another passing experience, and you know you don’t have to crush or shoo away that passing experience by indulging in your usual habit.
So you decide to refrain this time. There’s a moment of disappointment, a slight sense of missing out. But you continue to notice this feeling too, and discover that it only lasts about 20 seconds. So you refrain again next time.
Soon you’re used to living in this new way, and there’s no longer any sense that you’re fighting anything. The new habit feels better and takes on its own momentum.
As a result, impulses and cravings in general become less compelling. We become freer to act in ways that actually benefit us, rather than simply feel good in the moment.
Mindfulness practice doesn’t instantly make us experts at any of this. Few of us are taught to cultivate openness to experience at all, let alone in the direct way mindfulness practice allows us to.
Thankfully, by doing a small amount of mindfulness practice consistently (even as a daily five-minute meditation) you gain the option of bringing it to moments throughout your day. Every time you exercise that option, it becomes more natural, bringing more wisdom and freedom to your routines, relationships, and thoughts. As it becomes more natural, it transforms everything.