Multifaith Musings: What Mindfulness Means to Aaron Geringer

Posted on February 27th, 2020 by

My name is Aaron Geringer. I am a mental health therapist at the Gustavus Adolphus College Counseling Center. Mindfulness is a guiding principle in my practice in promoting a holistic sense of wellbeing. One of my colleagues and I lead secular mindfulness meditations during Wednesday Sabbath in the Bonnier Multifaith Center. These sessions are open to all who wish to attend, students, faculty, and staff alike. No previous experience in mindfulness or meditation is required for participation.

 

“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”

– Amit Ray

We live in a world full of clutter—constantly needing to balance elements of work, school, finances, housekeeping, friendships, family, pets, hobbies, leisure, health, spirituality, etc. These are all elements of our lives that we are tasked with in order to survive, feel fulfilled, and ensure a future for ourselves. Trying to keep up with them all can be simply overwhelming. When we do not have the time or means to attend to any one of these areas of our lives, we experience stress. Stress wears us down, making it harder to keep up with what is important to us. Everyone needs the chance to set aside the clutter to give themselves rest. A chance to regain energy to move on with life.

What happens when we do not give our body or mind a chance to set aside the clutter? Stress is one of the strongest predictors of anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties, and a myriad of other psychological and physical ailments. The psychological and physical repercussions of stress render us less cognitively effective. We struggle to focus, to retain information, as our thinking becomes distorted and clouded with negativity. Basic cognitive-behavioral therapy models posit that the content of our thinking influences what we feel, and that how we feel shapes what we think. When stress, anxiety, depression weigh on us, our mind interprets the world through a negative lens and we feel crummy, which causes us to have more negative thoughts, and then we become caught in a vicious cycle. What’s more, we never have full control over our thoughts or feelings (though we tirelessly try to find ways to gain control over them). We can, however, practice and strengthen our ability to influence what we think and feel. One method of developing this ability to influence our inner experiences is mindfulness.

At its core, mindfulness is the practice (practice is the idea here) of directing and sustaining our attention. By directing our attention to our breathing, our senses, visualization, or specific thoughts, we gain the ability to step away from the clutter and stress of our life. Mindfulness is hardly an easy skill, especially at first. Just as activities requiring endurance first require us to train our body to build endurance, mindfulness requires us to practice enhancing our ability to influence what our mind is actively interacting with. The mind and body very much operate on a use-it-or-lose it principle. With our body, muscles that we use get stronger, while muscles that we don’t use weaken. Likewise, cognitive processes (e.g., mindfulness or directing and sustaining attention) that we use strengthen neural networks that allow these processes to be used. When we don’t practice mindfulness, stress, anxiety, and depression will guide our thinking processes—making stressed, anxious, and/or depressed thinking second-nature for the mind. Through practicing mindfulness, we improve our ability to step away from the clutter.

Practicing mindfulness (or mindfulness-based meditation) gives the mind and body a much needed break from the clutter and stress of the day. If unpleasant thoughts bring unpleasant feelings, giving the mind a break from these thoughts (even momentarily) can be a way of “pushing reset” when our thoughts and feelings are not pleasant. Mindfulness is a way to give our mind and body the rest it needs to stay sharp and help us become more effective at thinking and doing. Furthermore, the more we practice mindfulness and our brain strengthens its ability to step away from stress and clutter, the more influence we gain over how our mind and body interact with thoughts and feelings.

There is a plethora of empirical data supporting the benefits of mindfulness practice in regards to mental and physical performance and holistic health. Sometimes it is stress itself that makes it difficult for us to balance all of the clutter we have to keep up with in our lives. Mindfulness can be one of the most basic skills we can practice to enhance our ability to manage our stress.

“Mindfulness isn’t difficult, we just need to remember to do it.”

– Sharon Salzberg

 

 

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