SANTA MONICA, Calif.
Hello, Bostonians. It’s that time of year, and I should imagine it’s very cold there, perhaps there’s snow on the ground, gray skies. My hope today is I can introduce you to just a little bit of blue sky, a little space in your mind. No matter what you are doing, where you are going, or whether you have just come off a commute on the T.
“Be present, be patient, be gentle, be kind . . . and everything else will take care of itself” were the words of my teacher as I left behind my life as a Buddhist monk, some 15 years ago, to set out on a very different kind of adventure, one that would eventually lead to me getting married, having children, starting the Headspace meditation app, and moving to America.
People often ask which I prefer: the simplicity of a monastic life, or the chaos of a working, family life? But life is not like that. Outside of extraordinary or unfortunate circumstances, our happiness is not typically defined by where we live, what we do, or what we possess.
But instead of looking inward — recognizing that our experience of life is defined by our perception — we chase or hold on to things that we think make us happy, while running away from anything we believe makes us unhappy. This creates a never-ending cycle of hope and fear, leaving us exhausted, stressed, and no closer to the peace of mind we seek. So it’s worth considering how to step out of that cycle.
One way is through mindfulness, which some see as just another “fad,” though, for a practice that’s been around for close to 3,000 years, it must be the longest-running fad of all time. Mindfulness is, unfortunately, often presented as some kind of self-help, quick-fix treatment for our increasingly stressful lifestyles. While there is overwhelming clinical evidence that it can be an effective way to manage stress, this still vastly undervalues its real potential.
Strip it back and mindfulness, at its core, simply means to be present, aware, undistracted, and not lost in thought. Rather than fumbling through life’s daily highs and lows in the dark, it’s the equivalent of turning on the light and seeing everything more clearly. Given that researchers at Harvard found that, on average, we are lost in thought almost 47 percent of the time, this is by no means insignificant.
To be clear, mindfulness is not something we have to obtain from somewhere. It is an innate quality — part of being human. We simply need to learn how to realize when we are lost in thought. The moment we do, we are in the present moment again. As with any skill, it takes practice, it takes some time, but the impact can be life-changing.
Mindfulness cannot change what happens to us, but it does fundamentally transform our experience of our situations, events, and circumstances. It is not about fixing anything; it is about understanding everything. And as we better understand our own mind, we can begin to understand others, too.
Here is where we get to the heart of mindfulness: We can rightfully embrace its many meaningful changes and health benefits, but it is the impact on those around us – in our relationships, in our communities, and in the wider world – where we see the true value. It is in transcending our differences, healing division, and coming together that we discover more happiness in our lives.
Maybe consider how mindfulness might help you and those around you. Remember, it is a skill that can be applied to many areas of life. Some use it to feel less stressed, less anxious, angry or depressed; others use it to sleep better, to improve focus, or to cultivate a healthier sense of self-esteem; some use it for performance, in sport or in their careers; and others use it for their relationships with their parents, children, partners, and colleagues.
The reason for taking care of the mind — for training the mind — is not so important. What’s important is that we begin the practice, knowing we’re embarking on a journey. At first, we might become easily distracted, but, each time we sit, we get distracted a little less; in time, we find ourselves more present in the world.
Suddenly, that advice from my teacher — “Be present, be patient, be gentle, be kind . . . and everything else will take care of itself” — feels relevant to each of us, each and every day, for each and every moment. If we can approach our life from this place of calm and clarity, we will experience life in a very different way. This is what it means to be at ease with the mind, to experience peace of mind. In this way, we can fulfill our own limitless potential and also make a positive, meaningful impact in the world.
Andy Puddicombe is cofounder and the voice of Headspace.