Meditation slowly permeates your everyday life. We frequently think of meditation as a practice that lasts for a determined length of time, and is confined to the specific time of the meditative practice – mornings and evenings, for example. But meditation is not an isolated island in your life, it is the ocean itself. If you practice regularly and observe yourself closely, you will notice how the skill you have been mastering in your meditation sessions slowly makes its way into your other activities. You will be more present when you prepare a report, meet a client, study for an exam, have sex, or communicate with a friend. During each of your activities, you will gradually notice that you are increasingly able to focus your awareness on the actual experience and not let it be diverted by the constant mental noise your mind produces. Closely watch your relationship with the moment: it is an indicator of the impact of meditation on your life. These glimpses of your newly-acquired presence are very important; they are the meeting points between your daily practice of meditation and your experience of life as a continuous meditative state. No matter which specific meditation technique you practice, it is a gateway to presence.
Psychological research carried out in this area explores the experience of presence which is the equivalent of being mindful. When you are mindful you are aware of the experience, of the moment, and fully attend to it. These are the times when your mind does not wander; it is fully focused on the event unfolding in the moment. A fascinating study evaluating the wandering mind and presence was published under the title “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind”. The researchers developed a web application for mobile phones that allowed them to recruit over 15,000 participants and compiling a large database. With this application, the participants were contacted randomly during their waking hours, and were given a number of questions. The first question was a happiness question: “How are you feeling right now?” and the answer could range from 0 (very bad) to 100 (very good). The second question was an activity question: “What are you doing right now?” and the participant had to choose one or several of 22 daily activities such as working, conversing, preparing food, and commuting. The third and final question was “Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing?” and the participant had to choose between one of the following four options: 1. No (which means that there was no mind-wandering, they were present, mindful) 2. Yes, thinking about something pleasant 3. Yes, thinking about something neutral 4. Yes, thinking about something unpleasant. Options 2-4 stood for mind-wandering, specifically indicating whether the participant’s mind wandered to something pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. The data collected this way provided the researchers with the information required to find out whether there is any link between mindfulness and wellbeing. The results were unequivocal: People reported higher levels of happiness when they were present and mindful than in moments of mind-wandering. You may be thinking “sure, on average, but what if their minds wandered to something pleasant?” The researchers compared being mindful to each of the three mind-wandering options and found that being mindful produced higher levels of happiness than any of them. The greatest gap was found between being mindful and thinking about something unpleasant, a smaller gap was found between being mindful and thinking about something natural, and the smallest – between being mindful and thinking about something pleasant; and yet the gap was always in favour of being mindful. The author of the research compared mind wandering to playing slot machines where in one you always lose $10, in the other $5, and the final one $1; why would you choose to play if you know you cannot win?
This is another example of the support spiritual concepts and ideas get from contemporary psychological research. The idea of being “here and now” appears in countless spiritual texts, and is consistently accompanied by emphasis on the importance of meditation as the tool to achieve presence, and its benefits to our wellbeing. We now have an abundance of psychological studies, such as the one described above, validating an area that once appeared to be “out of bounds” for the scientific community, and making it increasingly accepted.