The Mind at the Heart

Stop! What’s going through your mind right now? Hold that thought. Wait, what was that again? Not surprisingly, our minds wander 47% of our waking hours.

mind wanderingI don’t know about you, but mine is always racing – occupied with a never-ending to-do list, searching for ways to optimize, to do MORE, scanning news headlines, making sure no e-mail is left unread, no social media like or comment is left unnoticed, always on hyper-drive, on high alert to respond to my family, my friends, my work, or the littlest of environmental stimulus to come my way.

It’s impossible to be ON all the time, yet we take pride in responsiveness, cradling our devices before bed and grabbing them at first light to start again.

We know this level of activity and attachment is unhealthy. Study after study shows that time spent in front of a screen leads to increased rates of depression, especially in teens with links to higher suicide rates. It turns out Facebook may make us feel less connected, not more. Multi-tasking actually decreases productivity. Busyness isn’t good for business. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. And mental distraction leads to rudeness, accidents, and worse. Bottom line: it’s impossible to be kind to ourselves, let alone others with a buzz of constant commotion draining our energy and attention.

How to stop the madness?

Just last week I attended the first in an 8-week series aimed at cultivating compassion through Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (C-CARE). The Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) program, established in part by his Holiness the Dalai Lama, increases compassion through meditation practices found in Tibetan Buddhism. The approach consists of six steps:

  1. Settling the mind and training it to focus
  2. Establishing compassion for a loved one
  3. Establishing compassion for oneself
  4. Establishing the basis for compassion toward others through the concept of our common humanity and interconnectedness
  5. Expanding compassion towards others
  6. Developing an ‘active’ compassion practice which involves meditation

dalai lama quoteCompassion begins with an awareness of suffering – in self and other. We can’t possibly begin to relate and respond to alleviate pain and distress without first understanding it, and ourselves. In this way, the mind is at the heart of our ability to be compassionate. And it can be trained!

So far I’ve bombed the homework for week-1: meditate for 15 minutes per day. My first attempt, I succeeded in avoiding the nagging urge to do ‘things’ for a massive 5 minutes, what felt like an eternity. My second attempt, after counting breaths up to 120, ended with an erratic movement of the kind one makes just before falling asleep. My third, well…

Needless to say, I need more practice! I’m the worst at slowing down. I live to DO and so much of my self-worth and esteem is based on how much I’m able to accomplish. It’s not just me, America is obsessed with winning; and our achievement mindset teaches that success comes at the expense of others. I win; you lose.

Enough already, I’m over it! Real winning is achieved in earning respect by service to others. We win!

I’m excited to see what the next seven weeks have to offer. Will I succeed in my attempts to meditate? Can C-CARE’s CCT approach help me be kinder and gentler to myself, but also, more compassionate, generous, and able to serve as a source of support for others? I certainly hope so!

The benefits of mindfulness and meditation are many – from enhancing attention and increasing performance, to reducing stress and boosting immune function.  The contemplative path also holds enormous potential to bring us back to our heart’s center. A calming of the mind changes the way we understand and relate to the world, allowing compassion to emerge.

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