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Mind Over Matter

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“Pay attention!”

Few children in the English-speaking world are unfamiliar with this command. Teachers and parents keep it on biological speed dial. It is both the product and producer of stress and anxiety. It is virtually always destined to fail in its perceived goal of attracting someone’s attention, beyond an initial moment of fear.

Those who continue their education in college often find that as others begin to bark for attention less often, the order becomes internalized. Staring out of the window during class, yet again checking for new e-mail instead of working – the stress builds.

A concept that has been used over several millennia to reduce stress is known as mindfulness. The opposite of mindlessness, it is defined as the practice of paying attention to the present moment with a nonjudgmental accepting attitude. In other words, it is about paying attention to the small details right now, making use of all senses.

Practitioners of mindfulness look for specifics that tend to be overlooked. The rest of the world disappears as the shape, smell, texture and color of a piece of chocolate is studied and absorbed. The experience of eating the chocolate can also, astonishingly, be enhanced. Practices such as mindfulness that are originally based in Buddhism are often associated with ‘zoning out,’ but in this case it is about doing just the opposite. By focusing minds, the theory goes, physical and emotional pain can be diminished.

Because much of Western society values work and productivity, life can seem incredibly rushed. Surroundings quickly become boring when they zoom by carelessly. Rather than constantly seeking out new ones, though, mindfulness is about looking deeper into those surroundings. Learning to pay attention in this way is more effective than self-whipping guilt – it can therefore be very useful in getting through college work and diminishing the anxiety it creates.

A relatively new take on mindfulness may also help to save individuals money (which in turn would further reduce stress). Rick Heller is a writer based in New York. Coming from a science background, he became interested in mindfulness five years ago when returning to college to study journalism.

Heller recently published an e-book entitled Occupy the Moment: A Mindful Path to a New Economy. As the title implies, he believes this practice can be utilized by people of all or no faiths to reevaluate resource-heavy economic systems (more on this later). This also means reevaluating our personal spending habits. (You can learn more at his website, http://www.seeingtheroses.org/ .)

“By becoming aware of the richness around us, we feel less need to acquire more and more possessions,” states Heller.

As the college experience tends to involve an involuntary lack of money, being satisfied with what one owns has obvious benefits. In addition, much of the desire to work hard at college comes from the promise that a better paying occupation – and thus higher levels of consumption – will result. If less emphasis were placed on this goal, some of the pressure of college could be lifted, resulting in a more joyous learning experience.

With its emphasis on looking deeper into nearby surroundings, without immediately judging them as ‘bad’ or ‘good,’ mindfulness also has the potential to save people vast sums of money on transportation. It is important to reiterate that the goal is not to be deprived of nice things, but to sense the wonder of things that are more readily available.

Although students are not the only people who visit far flung places, traveling is often undertaken at a time when healthy and debt-free enough to handle it. St. Petersburg College offers semesters abroad in countries such as Ireland and Belize. The excitement and mind broadening that may result from these journeys, however, must be weighed against their impact on body, mind, and wallet: flying is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases globally, normally stress-inducing, and far from cheap.

Oftentimes, driving long distances is the only way to experience those designated enclaves of protected natural beauty, especially in metropolitan areas like Tampa Bay. If we were able to see beauty all around us and closer to home, freedom from such commutes might be possible. This is not to say that nobody should ever visit the Everglades – or for that matter, Belize – but it would sure help relieve the feeling that life is always happening somewhere else.

Collectively, students and youngsters also face an unprecedented future of economic and environmental challenges. Carbon dioxide levels are rising, as is the percentage of (mostly older) Americans who believe them not to be a problem. Global crude oil production reached an all-time peak in 2006. Topsoil is diminishing, plastic monsters grow in the world’s oceans – meanwhile, recession and war seem to stretch forever into the future.

Everything that once seemed permanent and non-negotiable in the comfortable West has been thrown into question. Who would not feel stressed out by all of this?

Searching for possible answers, social movements such as Occupy Wall Street have sought to apply mindfulness in their politics. Rick Heller has led mindfulness meditations at the Occupy Boston spirituality tent. He says the spiritual approach to politics was not to the taste of everyone at the encampment, but seems to have been generally respected. He also says the majority of the people who took part were young rather than those of the flower-power generation.

“[Mindfulness] should not just be used for stress reduction. What I call engaged mindfulness critiques socio-economic norms.” Heller said.

It could be argued, however, that there is a conflict between the personal satisfaction goal of mindfulness, and its potential environmental aspirations. To learn to appreciate the noise of the nearby road might help the individual, for example, but it will not stem the flow of traffic and airborne pollution. To some extent any role mindfulness might play should be a supplement to other activism, rather than a replacement.

Chris Ernesto, a supporter of Occupy Wall Street and a member of the local group St. Pete for Peace, feels this is the main problem with mindfulness and similar concepts.

“I think things like this can be helpful to activists,” he says. It can drag them off course though. “I’ve seen numerous people use their own pursuit for spiritual balance lead them away from doing things that actually help other people. We have that luxury, but I think it’s pretty self-serving and is used as an excuse not to be active.”

Heller realizes there is a danger of the personal overpowering the political when it comes to mindfulness. Changing energy infrastructure has proven to be difficult and expensive so far, however, so it might be easier to change people’s perspective.

He thinks there is another good reason for those on the younger side to investigate mindfulness.

“They’re about to make choices about their future, and don’t yet have ingrained habits that make them automatically do things. As we get older, these habits develop. Right now, it’s mainly older people who use mindfulness for pain or stress relief, but it’s surely better to use it to avoid getting those problems in the first place.”

 

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