Posted on May 14, 2021 in Posts

Text of a talk given at the Beaconsfield Public Library on Tuesday May 18, 2021 at 2 pm

Today’s topic is Mindfulness in Everyday Life, but what is mindfulness exactly? It’s good to be clear on what we are talking about.

Let’s compare mindfulness to a mango! You can look up Mango on Google, read about it in the dictionary, etc. but does this really give you an idea of the taste of a mango? But that’s what you really want to know when you ask the question ‘What is a mango.’

If I define mindfulness using other words, you don’t get a taste of it. So I want to define it within a context rather than in an abstract way. I want to show it to you, and to give you a taste of it.

I choose to do this in the context of better sleep, as this is the subject of my first book with Penguin/Random House.

One of the lessons of mindfulness is to think holistically.

In terms of sleep, this means that sleep is not an isolated issue; every aspect of our life affects the quality of our sleep. In turn, the quality of our sleep affects other aspects of our life. This turns out to be true about most other things as well—about relationships, weight control, or our happiness level. We tend to think that the different aspects of our life are separate concerns. Mindfulness urges us to think holistically and see that the different aspects of our life are related.

Exercise is at the top of my list for better sleep. These days I bike for an hour every day, sometimes longer. We are built for moving. Humans can outrun deer. That is how our hunter ancestors survived. For them, no hunting meant no eating. There were no refrigerators, no grocery stores. I look at squirrels foraging for food, going up and down tall trees repeatedly. The ducks in the lake are constantly in motion diving for food all day long.

Exercise needs to be the cardio-type that gets your heart pumping vigorously. Then the whole body will need a rest, and the quality of sleep will improve.

I can imagine some of you thinking, ‘But it is not my body but my mind that keeps me awake at night!’ I hear you. But calming the busy mind is not as simple as getting some exercise, so I choose to start with simple things, and work toward the more complex ones. However, I stick with my holistic view that everything has a bearing on how we sleep, and exercise is no exception.

What I eat and drink also affects sleep.

‘Alcohol is a stimulant’ says Healthline, my go-to source for health info on the web.

It says, ‘Initial doses of alcohol signal your brain to release dopamine, the so-called “happy hormone,” which can cause you to feel stimulated and energized.

In addition, alcohol can increase your heart rate and may lead to increased aggression in some individuals, both of which are typical of stimulants.’ I suggest you stay away from alcohol at or after supper if you want to sleep well. Which is a problem: If you cannot drink at night, when are you going to drink: at breakfast?

It is a trade-off: the pleasure of a glass at night against the pleasure of better sleep. We are all different, though. In all questions like this, experiment. Try staying away from alcohol in the evening for a week to see how it affects your sleep.

Caffeine is another stimulant. Varieties of it are in coffee, tea, and chocolate. Dr. Oz recommends no caffeine after 2 pm. But we all metabolize caffeine at different rates. I’m a slow caffeine metabolizer: it stays in my body longer. Try cutting it out for a week to see how it affects your sleep.

Web MD says, ‘smoking within a few hours of bedtime should be avoided; better yet, don’t smoke at all.’

Here it is, a number of apparently unrelated things that when you look into them carefully, turn out to be related to one another, and to an issue you are interested in.

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You might wonder what all this has to do with mindfulness. Isn’t all this just information? I promised to give a talk about mindfulness, but now, it looks like I’m just giving information about better sleep. However, I’m doing that to illustrate an important aspect of mindfulness by example.

Mindfulness is a combination of knowing and remembering. If you do not know anything, you have nothing to be mindful about. So, information is essential, but it is not sufficient. On the other hand, if you know a lot, but don’t apply it to your own life, then the element of remembering is missing. We do a lot of unproductive things against our better judgment or out of forgetfulness. We drive too fast, we say unkind things, we eat too much. Mindfulness is remembering your own wisdom when the crunch comes, or when the temptation is in your face.

Waking up in the middle of the night is a problem that affects many people.
In any case, whether at 3 am or at 10 pm, don’t just lie in bed turning round and round and ruminating. Sit up and read. Listen to an audio book. Meditate. Get up and take your shower or clean the fridge. The trick is not to stay in the lying-down position if it isn’t working after a short time. It is counterproductive and frustrating.

Here is how applied mindfulness works: you may have experimented with alcohol or chocolate and know that they keep you awake. Can you remember this when you are having supper with friends who keep filling your glass or offering you seconds on the chocolate cake, or do you indulge and only think of it when you’re in bed later and sleep evades you? The first is mindfulness. The second is regret. Mindfulness happens in real time, not after the fact. 

Jon Kabat-Zinn has popularized the notion that mindfulness is observing without judgment. Here is how this works for sleep: You are in bed, it is 10 pm or at 3 am, and sleep is not coming. Can you observe that nonjudgmentally, preferably with a smile? What a wonderful opportunity to catch up on your reading or to clean the fridge!!!

Observing a sleep disturbance without judgment is mindfulness in action. Why is this important? Because cursing the situation or getting angry is counterproductive, as those contribute to keeping you awake. This makes a big difference, as doctors define insomnia as anxiety about not being able to sleep. Would you be anxious if you did not think that not being able to sleep is BAD? ‘Bad’ is as judgmental as it gets. With anger, anxiety, and judgmental thinking, you are piling one problem on top of another. Again, being judgmental also has negative effects on relationships, parenting, work, etc.

I have a teacup given to me by a friend that says ‘Drink your tea’. That is a Zen saying that means, Drink your tea, enjoy your meal, mind your own business. Stay out of other people’s business. Forget what just happened, forget resentments, forget regrets. Live your life fully in the present moment. Do not mentally comment on what other people are doing. Be HERE rather then elsewhere in your mind. The Zen approach simplifies things. Jon Kabat-Zinn practiced Zen in his student days in Cambridge, and if you look closely, you will find whiffs of Zen in his teachings.

Another thing to be mindful about is that there are lessons hidden in every situation. Try to find today’s lesson. If you have difficulty sleeping, perhaps you are not exercising enough. Try jacking that up. Perhaps the last thing you did before going to bed was not appropriate for sleep. I find watching the news quite disturbing these days, with buildings collapsing, and mothers looking desperate. At bedtime a short period of meditation may be better than watching the news. What are you feeding your mind? Is it helping? Looking for lessons is a good idea in every area; it leads to a creative life.

Another lesson from mindfulness teachings is the wisdom of Letting Go. This sounds simple, but in practice it’s tricky, because the mind is addicted to thoughts and clings to them. Our natural state is not having a quiet mind, but having a busy mind. You may be lying in bed, outwardly quiet, but mentally going over an argument you had with someone, or a birthday present you just received that you find really exciting. During this time, your heartbeat, your blood pressure, and your whole body is aroused because they are following your thoughts.

A good way to let go is to be here, now. Engage with the present moment and your surroundings. Letting go is difficult when you try it head on. Instead, get a hold of the present moment. Then the past and its issues will let go of you. The idea is not to fight with the mind, but to coax it along in a friendly way, like you might do with a child. Don’t try to take away the child’s toy by force. Instead, get him interested in a new toy. Then, he will let go of the old one himself. Let the present moment be your new toy.

The mindfulness mantra, ‘Be here, now’, necessarily means letting go of the past. In relationships, do not bring up past issues, even past issues from 10 minutes ago. “Happiness is good health and a bad memory,” said Ingrid Bergman, a Swedish movie star from the last century.

There is an apparent contradiction there. Dalai Lama defines mindfulness as remembering your own wisdom and applying it to every situation. Ingrid Bergman says, “Happiness is good health and a bad memory.” Can both of these be true?

Here is a Zen Koan for you! I’ll give you a hint: ‘Wisdom’ is a key word here. It is sometimes wise to remember, and sometimes wise to forget. And it is wise to know the difference…

When sleep is not coming, you might also sit up and do a short meditation exercise.

Here are the introductory steps. Do each step for three breaths.

  1. Get in touch with your breath and slow it down.
  2. Focus on all the sensations of breath: sensations from the abdomen, from your nostrils, from clothes adjusting to your shape-shifting belly.
  3. Then focus on other sensations starting with the feet, with your attention slowly going up your body.
  4. Be aware of how warm or cold the different parts of your body are.
  5. Check for tension on your face muscles and the rest of your body with a body scan.
    You might like to follow a body scan on YouTube if that works for you. There are many available, long or short, with or without music. The idea is twofold: to give your mind something else to do rather than think, and to ground yourself in the body.
  6. When you feel that your mind has quieted down, just sit with breath and body awareness for a few more minutes. That is when I often get new insights into old issues.
  7. And last, end your meditation on a positive note. One way is through connecting with nature: The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat all come from nature. We are part of nature, but we are not always aware of our connection to it. We are nature, embodied. Concentrating on bodily sensations is a way of grounding oneself in the body. In contrast, thoughts are often not grounded; they are like dreams. Feel the green plants as you breathe. They are the source of life.

Positivity is the way of nature. Plants push toward the light, they do not lean toward darkness. Their roots inch toward moisture, not toward dry ground.

Once again, this meditation is useful not only when you have trouble sleeping. It will help to calm and steady the mind whenever you do it. A calm mind is helpful in many areas including relationships and work.

Another door to positivity is connecting with the beauty we see in nature. Religions have identified God with power rather than beauty. It has been remarked that the Almighty God of the Judeo-Christian tradition has epithets befitting an emperor. In contrast, the Persian poet Rumi often praises the beauty of Nature. He refers to God as the friend, the beloved, or even the rosebush. My favourite Rumi quote is, ‘Let the beauty you love be what you do.’ With Rumi, creative God and beautiful nature fuse together and become one. For him, a true lover is someone who sees the beauty and the grace of nature shining through their love.

There, we have come full circle now. I began this talk with an invitation to think holistically, meaning that everything is ultimately related. That is one aspect of holism. Covid-19 not only makes people sick, it also affects your investment portfolio. The way you drive your car here has an effect on forest fires in Australia. This is not obvious, so it takes some investigation to realize it. It then takes some mindfulness to act in ways that foster the common good.

RUMI emphasizes another aspect of holism. That is the willingness to see all of nature in a grain of sand, in a flower, in a person. This has an effect on how we love. All love, whether romantic love, love of children, or love of flowers, has a similar feel; the beauty we see in a loved one is ultimately the beauty of nature. Conversely, we love nature in the same way that we love the person that is dear to us.

Bob Marley expressed this feeling most exuberantly in his song, ONE LOVE.

He uses some religious language that means a lot to him personally, but the message and the feeling behind the message are ‘all right’ with or without that. Look for it on YouTube:

One Love! One Heart!

Let’s get together and feel all right

Hear the children cryin’ (One Love!)

Hear the children cryin’ (One Heart!)

Sayin’: give thanks and praise to the Lord and feel all right

Sayin’: let’s get together and feel all right. Wo wo-wo wo-wo!