I am currently in a small town in the mountains of Japan. I have been coming here for the last four years to teach mindful self-control at a summer program for the International School of Asia, Karuizawa (ISAK). Gathering together with teachers and students from more than twenty different countries, (including Tibet, Nepal, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, Malaysia, Slovakia, Bhutan, Malawi, India, Bangladesh...) is a truly wonderful opportunity for which I am deeply grateful.
While I am here, I have a favorite morning run that takes me past volcanic rock walls like this...
And fields of cabbage...
And eventually I arrive here, and pass through this gate...
And I run up this path...
Until I arrive at this shrine.
I stand here silently for about 5 minutes paying attention to the sensations of my breathing and heartbeat, as well as the sound of birdsong all around me. I find this silence and solitude deeply enjoyable, but this has not always been the case -- in fact, I used to hate it.
Blaise Pascal once wrote that "All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone." The 17th century French mathematician and physicist was well aware that human efforts to cope with restlessness and unease can be unproductive and even destructive. The list of behaviors that we use to avoid uncomfortable thoughts and sensations ranges from mindless entertainment to emotional eating to extreme violence. Why do we go to such great lengths to fill the potential silence in our lives? New research out of University of Virginia and Harvard found that most people prefer doing almost anything else over just being with their thoughts. Incredibly, a majority of people in the study indicated that they would rather give themselves electric shocks than be quiet and alone for 10 minutes.
And yet, just observing and accepting thoughts and sensations as they show up and pass is a practice that builds a very powerful skill. The skill of mindful self-control allows a person to respond to circumstances based on what is most important to her rather than simply seeking what is comfortable or familiar. The more we respond to what is most important, the healthier, happier, and more productive we will be. In fact, another recent study out of Carnegie Mellon University demonstrated that just three days of sitting quietly for 25 minutes at a time has a measurable impact on stress. The simple, powerful, and proven practice of mindful self-control reduces stress and anxiety, strengthens relationships, increases productivity, and creates positive purposeful cultures.
If mindful self-control were advertised on TV, the long scrolling list of side effects would include:
Increased creativity and flexibility
Reduced rumination and reactivity
Stronger working memory and focus
Improved immune and cardiovascular function
Deeper empathy and compassion
More effective financial decisions
Better grades and test scores
Increased pain tolerance
Improved sleep and eating habits
Do you take time out of the activity of your day to just observe and accept sensations and thoughts? Are you willing to sit quietly and allow your resistance and discomfort to arise and pass? You may be surprised at the results.
Have a practice that works for you? I invite you to share your experience in the comment section below so that others will benefit.
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Dave Mochel is the founder of Applied Attention; a company dedicated to teaching people how to close the gap between what is most important and how they spend their time and energy. He translates research in neuroscience, behavior, and performance into simple principles and practices that can be incorporated into any activity or organization. The result of his work is reduced stress and anxiety with improved performance, relationships, and quality of life. For more information, visit www.AppliedAttention.com
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