How Mindfulness Makes Us Happier & Better Able to Meet Life’s Challenges: Two Animated Primers Explain

The West has very rich con­tem­pla­tive tra­di­tion. Monas­tics of the ear­ly Chris­t­ian church prac­ticed forms of med­i­ta­tion that have been adopt­ed by many peo­ple seek­ing a deep­er, more serene expe­ri­ence of life. Giv­en the wealth of con­tem­pla­tive lit­er­a­ture and prac­tice in Euro­pean his­to­ry, why have so many West­ern peo­ple turned to the East, and toward Bud­dhist con­tem­pla­tive forms in par­tic­u­lar?

The answer is com­pli­cat­ed and involves many strains of philo­soph­i­cal and coun­ter­cul­tur­al his­to­ry. Some of the great­est influ­ence in the U.S. has come from Tibetan monks like the Dalai Lama and Chö­gyam Trung­pa Rin­poche, one­time teacher of Allen Gins­berg, and founder of Naropa Uni­ver­si­ty and the ecu­meni­cal Shamb­ha­la school of Bud­dhism. Trung­pa Rin­poche con­trast­ed the­is­tic forms of med­i­ta­tion, both Hin­du and Chris­t­ian, with the mind­ful­ness and con­cen­tra­tion prac­tices of Bud­dhism, writ­ing that the first one, focused on a “high­er being” or beings, is “inward or intro­vert­ed” and dual­is­tic.

Bud­dhist mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion, on the oth­er hand, is “what one might call ‘work­ing med­i­ta­tion’ or extro­vert­ed med­i­ta­tion. This is not a ques­tion of try­ing to retreat from the world.” Mind­ful­ness  “is con­cerned with try­ing to see what is,” he writes, and to do so with­out prej­u­dice: “there is no belief in high­er and low­er; the idea of dif­fer­ent lev­els, or of being in an under­de­vel­oped state, does not arise.” In oth­er words, all of the import­ed con­cepts that push us one way or anoth­er, dri­ve our rigid opin­ions about our­selves and oth­ers, and make us feel supe­ri­or or infe­ri­or, become irrel­e­vant. We take own­er­ship of the con­tents of our own minds.

How is this rel­e­vant for the mod­ern per­son? Con­sid­er the videos here. These explain­ers,  like many oth­er con­tem­po­rary uses of the word “mind­ful­ness,” peel the con­cept away from its Bud­dhist ori­gins. But sec­u­lar and Bud­dhist ideas of mind­ful­ness are not as dif­fer­ent as some might think. “Mind­ful­ness,” says Dan Har­ris in the video at the top, “is the abil­i­ty to know what’s hap­pen­ing in your head at any giv­en moment with­out get­ting car­ried away by it.” (Some might pre­fer the more suc­cinct Vipas­sana def­i­n­i­tion “non­judg­men­tal aware­ness.”) With­out mind­ful­ness, “there’s no buffer between the stim­u­lus and your reac­tion.” With it, how­ev­er, we “learn to respond wise­ly” to what hap­pens to us instead of being pushed and pulled around by habit­u­al reac­tiv­i­ty.

As the video above has it—using the Chero­kee para­ble of the two wolves—mind­ful­ness pro­vides us with the space we need to observe our sen­sa­tions, emo­tions, and ideas. From a crit­i­cal dis­tance, we can see caus­es and effects, and cre­ate dif­fer­ent con­di­tions. We can learn, in short, to be hap­py, even in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances, with­out deny­ing or fight­ing with real­i­ty. The Dalai Lama refers to this as observ­ing “the prin­ci­ple of causal­i­ty… a nat­ur­al law.” “In deal­ing with real­i­ty,” he says, “you have to take that law into account…. If you desire hap­pi­ness, you should seek the caus­es that give rise to it.” Like­wise, we must under­stand the men­tal caus­es of our suf­fer­ing if we want to pre­vent it.

How do we do that? Is there an app for it? Well, yes, and no. One app is Hap­pi­fy—who pro­duced these videos with ani­ma­tor Katy Davis, med­i­ta­tion instruc­tor Sharon Salzberg, and Har­ris, cre­ator of the mind­ful­ness course (and app) 10% Hap­pi­er. Hap­pi­fy offers “Sci­ence-based Activ­i­ties and Games, and “a high­ly sec­u­lar­ized, some might say decon­tex­tu­al­ized, form of mind­ful­ness training—including the “Med­i­ta­tion 101” primer video above. For those who reject every­thing that smacks of reli­gion, sec­u­lar mind­ful­ness prac­tices have been rig­or­ous­ly put to many a peer-reviewed test. They are wide­ly accept­ed as evi­dence-based ways to reduce anx­i­ety and depres­sion, improve focus and con­cen­tra­tion, and man­age pain. These prac­tices have been used in hos­pi­tals, med­ical schools, and even pub­lic ele­men­tary schools for many years.

But whether we are Bud­dhists or oth­er reli­gious peo­ple prac­tic­ing mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion, or sec­u­lar human­ists and athe­ists using mod­i­fied, “science-based”—or app-based—techniques, the fact remains that we have to build the dis­ci­pline into our dai­ly life in order for it to work. No app will do that for us, any more than a fit­ness app will make us toned and healthy. Nor will read­ing books or arti­cles about med­i­ta­tion make us med­i­ta­tors. (To para­phrase Augus­tine, we might say that end­less read­ing or star­ing at screens amounts to an atti­tude of “give me mind­ful­ness, but not yet.”)

Har­ris, in char­ac­ter as a mouse in a V‑neck sweater, says in the video above that med­i­ta­tion is “exer­cise for your brain.” And like exer­cise, Trung­pa Rin­poche writes, med­i­ta­tion can be “painful in the begin­ning.” We may not always like what we find knock­ing around in our heads. And yet with­out acknowl­edg­ing, and even befriend­ing, the feel­ings and thoughts that make us feel ter­ri­ble, we can’t learn to nur­ture and “feed” those that make us feel good. If you’re inspired to get start­ed, you’ll find sev­er­al free online guid­ed med­i­ta­tions at the links below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Philoso­pher Sam Har­ris Leads You Through a 26-Minute Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tion

Free Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tions From UCLA: Boost Your Aware­ness & Ease Your Stress

Stream 18 Hours of Free Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tions

Dai­ly Med­i­ta­tion Boosts & Revi­tal­izes the Brain and Reduces Stress, Har­vard Study Finds

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • Nepalikukur says:

    Tedious and sim­plis­tic. If you think this is how you can make the world work, then you have a way to go.

  • Brendan Dunphy says:

    Is med­i­ta­tion real­ly essen­tial (or the only way) to achieve mind­ful­ness? It may be one way, even the best, but it has played no role in my way to mind­ful­ness. I’m inter­est­ed to know if this is true for oth­ers.

  • Lissa T Renaud says:

    Brush your teeth, eat well, and TAKE YOUR PRESCRIBED MEDS? What kind of non­sense is that? Nor­mal­iz­ing the use of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals is the ene­my of the goal of phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al health. What orga­ni­za­tion paid him to include such a thing??????? Yikes. Dis­turb­ing.

  • Lars L says:

    Med­i­cine is not the ene­my of health. It’s what is some­times need­ed to make peo­ple well. Demo­niz­ing the use of med­i­cine can be very harm­ful and encour­age peo­ple to avoid seek­ing help, espe­cial­ly in the con­text of men­tal health.

    Telling peo­ple to take the med­i­cine that their doc­tors have pre­scribed is not at all dis­turb­ing. Are you against all phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals? Antibi­otics? Pain reliev­ers? Can­cer med­ica­tions? Which parts of the body are ok to treat with med­i­cine?

    This is a deci­sion to be made between a patient and a doc­tor. Med­i­cine helps peo­ple. There is no shame in tak­ing med­i­cine, just as there is no vic­to­ry in avoid­ing it.

  • Fred says:

    To para­phrase a line from a book about auto rac­ing “every­thing is your fault, I don’t care if light­ning stroke your car, it’s your fault for not know­ing where the light­ning was going to strike.” You will nev­er learn from blam­ing oth­ers, which I think is the val­ue of mind­ful­ness.

  • Lisa says:

    Dear Josh and Open­Cul­ture,

    While the above video is sweet and inspir­ing, please note that this is not the orig­i­nal Chero­kee sto­ry of the two wolves. Indeed, I fear you do us a dis­ser­vice by post­ing these ads for Hap­pi­fy because it is not so sim­ple to sim­ply starve the ‘bad’ wolf. The ‘bad’ wolf is still nec­es­sary and repress­ing it does not make it less stronger, only more like­ly to resur­face vicious­ly lat­er.

    Hear the entire Chero­kee sto­ry here, which is pro­found­ly pow­er­ful:

    Ulti­mate­ly, mind­ful­ness teach­es us how to embrace every­thing — so that notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stop exist­ing. There is no judg­ment, just curios­i­ty and self-com­pas­sion in embrac­ing the entire ter­rain of emo­tion­al and phys­i­cal expe­ri­ence. Please empha­sise this on your page, so that you do not unin­ten­tion­al­ly mis­lead your many read­ers. :)

    My fam­i­ly loves your pages. Keep up this amaz­ing work.

  • Jura ashley says:

    Does mind­ful­ness con­flict with Chris­t­ian
    Prin­ci­ples? If it’s Bud­dhist does it con­flict with sep­a­ra­tion
    Of church and state regard­ing pub­lic schools?
    Can par­ents op their child out of the class­es.?

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