If there were a single word that I had to use to characterize modern life, it would be “stress”. Everyone is stressed. We’re all trying to cram so much into our lives. There’s nothing wrong with achievement, but sometimes the overt busy-ness becomes an aim in itself. We’re so busy doing things, that we don’t have time or energy to reflect on the purpose of our activity; don’t have time to rest and connect.
This can create all sorts of problems, from the existential – that of feeling a strong disconnect between who we are and what we do, to the physical – with attendant conditions of sickness, exhaustion, and general malaise. That’s why mindfulness, or a calm sense of consciousness in the present moment, is so important. For me, an almost compulsive juggler, mindfulness is a challenge. When I was younger, my mother would often tell me to “be here now,” a phrase taken from the title of a book by Ram Dass. Reading A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook reminds me of how important that notion is, and how many modern conditions are related to our obsession with achievement and advancement and our lack of stillness.
As the title suggests, this is a very practical and application oriented book. It comes with an MP3 CD with guided meditations that follow the written ones in the book. These meditations are softly and clearly spoken by the Stahl, and are designed to address a range of situations. They are deeply relaxing and can, in particular, help with high-stress situations where the mind won’t stop racing.
The book looks at the notion of mindfulness, how to practice mindfulness meditation, how to use it to reduce anxiety and stress, and how to be mindful in one’s practice, while eating, exercising, resting and connecting. Each chapter follows a similar pattern, beginning with an introduction, a formal practice, a journal which invites the reader to explore the concepts personally, an informal practice, a formal and informal practice log, and frequently asked questions. It’s an easy read, and by simply following the steps, the reader will learn a lot about his or herself, and provide a benchmark on which to build regular meditation/reflective time.
The exercises and meditations are peppered with interesting anecdotes, including one I hadn’t heard before about Abraham Lincoln:
“During the Civil War, Lincoln had occasion at an official reception to refer to Southerners as erring human beings, rather than foes to be exterminated. An elderly lady who was a fiery patriot rebuked him for speaking kindly of his enemies when he ought to be thinking of destroying them. Lincoln replied, ‘Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends’ (150).”
In addition to the stories, there is lovely, thought-provoking poetry, and suggestions for how to integrate the practices into your daily life. Although the authors suggest that longer meditations get faster results, the practices don’t have to take up a lot of time. Some of the practices are as short as 5 minutes, and involve nothing more complex than eating a raisin, or taking a few moments to stop and gently reflect on the moment.
For those, like me, who have resisted formal meditation, these brief practices offer a good way to ease in – gathering scattered thoughts, and pausing to be present and unengaged with the many stresses, voices, and needs that surround modern jugglers. It’s amazing how powerful the impact of simply pausing for a moment to let the past and future go. Everything suddenly gets into perspective and the bigger picture becomes more apparent. In my case, these brief moments are pauses in what can be a chaos of activity, to be grateful for the bounty of my life. Taking a moment to simply feel that gratitude is enough, I think, to convert a bad day to a good one; a stressful moment to a relaxed one.