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Conditioning Ourselves for Mindfulness

The practice of meditation has been transforming the lives of Hindus and Buddhists for hundreds of centuries, but only within the past two decades have Westerners begun to fully embrace the idea of living mindfully. In 2015, nearly $1 Billion was generated by mindfulness-related businesses within the United States alone. It seems as if a mindfulness revolution of sorts has taken place, and because of the scientifically verified benefits that one can receive from meditation and mindfulness, it would be foolish to expect the Western world’s spiritual thirst to be quenched anytime soon.

Modest Buddhist monks, mystical Hindu sages, and innovative spiritual teachers have long preached the importance of mindful living. The great instructors have told us that by regularly practicing meditation we can increase our ability to live from a place of present-moment awareness, where we can joyfully experience each passing moment without attachment, judgment, or reservation. For this reason, they tell us, meditation should be considered our most important daily activity.

As many of you have come to realize, however, living mindfully and keeping a regular meditation schedule is often easier said than done. The obstacles that many of us face as we set out to live mindfully stem from the frantic pace of Western societies. Trying to juggle work, family, social, and personal responsibilities makes it extremely challenging for us to consistently live with present-moment awareness. We struggle to find the time to meditate and often act based on the intentions of our ego-driven minds.

Meditation practice is obviously very important for developing and cultivating mindfulness, but we can assist our mindfulness transformation by using Western-based psychological truths to our advantage. One thing that we can do is consciously condition ourselves to be mindful of our daily activities.

What is Conditioning?:

It was in the late 19th century when renowned Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov was studying the physiology of digestion in his pet dogs that he unintentionally discovered one of the most important truths about human behavior. The famed psychologist noticed that his dogs would secrete saliva every time they saw one of his assistants who they had associated with being fed.

Coming to this realization, Pavlov quickly changed the course of the experiment and decided to determine if initially, unrelated stimuli (unlike the smell of food) could eventually cause his dogs to respond with a conditioned reaction (i.e. salivating when they saw his co-worker).

In general, terms, what Pavlov discovered was that animals, humans included, will respond to particular environmental stimuli in predictable ways if they become conditioned to act a certain way by similar experiences in the past. Pavlov proved this theory by showing how his dogs became conditioned to salivate once they created a mental association that linked the sound of a bell to food.

Similarly to the dogs’ reaction to the bell, humans become conditioned to respond in particular ways depending on the stimuli found in their environment. We respond to comparable situations, circumstances, and stimuli with predictable mental processes, emotional responses, and habitual behavior.

While this process typically happens beyond our conscious awareness, we actually have the ability to condition ourselves to respond to sensory input in ways that we freely choice. B.F. Skinner, another legendary psychologist who built upon Pavlov’s conditioning idea, told us:

The strengthening of behavior which results from reinforcement is appropriately called conditioning.”

Our habits, both negative and positive, are very much a byproduct of the conditioning process. We often unknowingly link certain stimuli to negative mental, emotional, and behavioral responses and become a victim of the conditioning process. Many of us know how hard it is to break outdated habits that are causing us harm.

Fortunately, with the right understanding, motivation, and conscious abilities, we all have the opportunity to change even our most ingrained ways of thinking and acting. This claim has recently been strengthened with the discovery of neuroplasticity, which shows how we can rewire our brains and recondition ourselves to replace negative habits with more life-affirming alternatives.

Conditioning Ourselves for Mindfulness 2

What is Mindfulness?:

So what exactly is mindfulness? In simple terms, it is a state of living with present-moment awareness unperturbed by distracting thoughts and emotions. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, tells us:

The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.”

Spiritual sages believe that the state of present-moment mindfulness, which is accessible in the practice of meditation, is actually our deepest truest self. They tell us that this is the state where true happiness resides and show us how meditation can increase our abilities to live mindfully throughout our daily activities.

In the West, one of the primary goals of most meditators is to increase their levels of mindfulness because of the immense benefits that come from living in the present moment. Any advanced meditator will be quick to tell you about how these life-affirming benefits can range across every area of your life. However, reaching their level of being in the present can be difficult for an adult who just started to meditate. Our brains are used to so much chaos, that the lack of it can be quite unsettling and difficult to get used to.

Conditioning Ourselves for Mindfulness:

Since we naturally link external stimuli, through our five senses, with particular mental and emotional responses, we have the ability to consciously increase our levels of mindfulness through the same conditioning process. In 2014, scientists discovered a sort of on-off consciousness switch in the human brain that we can program to automatically turn on by linking particular stimuli to a mindful state.

By taking the time to rewire and train our brains to turn the consciousness switch on when we see, feel, smell, taste, and hear particular things, we can enjoy greater present-moment awareness of where true happiness resides.

The key to conditioning ourselves for mindfulness is to create associations between common sensory input and the state of present-moment awareness. You should understand that conditioning yourself for mindfulness, like any habit, is something that takes conscious effort and motivation. The conditioning process won’t work unless we are able to replace old neural pathways in our brains with new ones that remind us to live mindfully. We will look at how the process of conditioning ourselves plays out, but first let’s gain an understanding of the types of stimuli that can be beneficial to work with:

  • Sight: Particular signs that you pass on your way to work, a particular letter (M – Mindful, C – Consciousness, A – Awareness), the sight of yourself in the mirror, stickers that read ‘Be Mindful’ (more on this in a second).
  • Touch: The feel of the doorknob at home, your desk chair at work, kitchen utensils.
  • Smell: The smell of the subway station, the smell of your car, the smell of your office.
  • Taste: The taste of coffee, the taste of particular snacks you eat regularly.
  • Sound: The sound of birds chirping, the sound of your car starting, the sound of a car horn.

By taking these everyday occurrences that we rarely pay attention to and consciously associating them with a mindful state, we can certainly increase the levels of mindfulness and happiness that we live with on a daily basis.

The key to making these associations last is to strengthen and reinforce them over time through conscious and consistent effort. Regardless of the stimuli you choose, you will have to work diligently to link it with the state of mindfulness.

For example, if you want to remind yourself to live in the present moment when you enter your apartment or house, you can associate the touch of your doorknob with a mindful state. You can work on reinforcing this association by taking 10 minutes each night over a two-week period to consciously repeat the process of touching the doorknob and reminding yourself that you should stay mindful as you enter your house.

A computer is shown with a Be Mindful sticker.To increase the likelihood of conditioning ourselves for mindfulness through associations of everyday stimuli, we can also use stickers that remind us to ‘be mindful.’ You can find easily removable ‘be mindful’ stickers that won’t damage any surface and put them on things such as your computer, your desk at work, your kitchen table, your car dashboard, or your mirror. If you chose to use stickers, it is still important to consciously link the state of mindfulness with stimuli that will always be present (i.e. if you remove the stickers).

Conditioning yourself for mindfulness is not an easy task, but one that can pay immense dividends for your personal well-being. By taking the time to create associations between everyday external stimuli and a state of mindfulness, you assuredly can live each day with more present-moment happiness.

You will need to continually put forth a conscious effort to condition yourself before you get to the point where you internally say, “Oh yeah I should be mindful now.” Eventually, the stimuli will naturally put you into a mindful state. By putting in the conscious effort to create these associations, you and everyone around you will assuredly benefit immensely.

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