After discovering the great writing of Domyo Burk on her Zen Studies Podcast episodes, I was eager to buy the Idiot's Guide to Zen Living that she wrote. But that book is out of print, with only expensive used copies available, other than the Kindle version (I like my books on paper, not a screen).
However, I found another book by Burk, the Idiot's Guide to Mindfulness. It arrived yesterday, and I already can tell that I'm going to enjoy it a lot.
Below is the Introduction, which is a great short summary of what mindfulness is all about. In it there's a mention of stimulus-independent thought. Since this isn't a familiar term to most people -- it sure wasn't to me -- here's a description from a section that follows the Introduction.
Researchers have recently made a very interesting discovery: when you're not otherwise occupied, you're usually engaged in very active self-referential thinking. It's like your mind takes advantage of any down time by analyzing, planning, and evaluating all the stuff in your life so you can be better prepared for it.
This thinking is what researchers call "stimulus-independent thought," because it is all in your head -- it generally has little or nothing to do with what is going on around you at the moment. This stimulus-independent, self-referential processing is called the brain's default mode.
This is the Introduction itself.
Over the last 25 years, the practice of mindfulness has been shown to be very beneficial to all kinds of people, for all kinds of reasons. It's really quite amazing.
Mindfulness has been shown to improve cardiovascular health, increase rates of healing, decrease reported pain levels, and improve immune response. There is evidence it can decrease anxiety and stress, provide a way to cope with depression. increase levels of satisfaction with relationships and work situations, and help people change problematic behaviors.
It has been effective with populations that other methods have not reliably been able to benefit, including at-risk youth, prison inmates, and people suffering from certain kinds of intense and complicated mental illnesses.
Is mindfulness a fad? Is it a quick, easy answer to things we'll later discover has a serious downside? Ten or twenty years from now, are we going to look back and laugh, saying, "Remember when mindfulness was all the rage?"
I don't think so. Mindfulness isn't a special technique you add to your life. It's about learning to use your body and mind more effectively. It's a simple process of cultivating receptive awareness of your present experience, no matter what it is.
To do this, you have to learn to let go of your stimulus-independent thinking, such as ruminating on the past, planning, analyzing, evaluating, judging, fantasizing, and daydreaming.
What's remarkable is that such a simple practice makes such a big difference.
Science will undoubtedly be able to explain why this is the case someday, but in the meantime we have to rely on our subjective experience of mindfulness to understand it. Essentially, it means that human intelligence, while very advantageous in many ways, also causes you problems.
You come to rely too heavily on the abstract world that only exists in your own mind. You spend more time thinking about things that aren't actually going on around you than you do paying attention to your present experience.
You perceive things through the filter of your ideas and judgments, and fail to notice cause-and-effect relationships because you're so preoccupied with your thoughts. You believe your feelings, concepts, judgments, and emotions reflect reality, and therefore you're compelled to defend or act on them.
Simply and repeatedly turning your attention back to the present moment counteracts the effects of spending so much time stuck in your head.
It isn't easy to make mindfulness a stronger habit than dwelling on stimulus-independent thinking, but each time you become aware of your actual experience here and now, it helps you gain perspective on your life.
For a moment, you notice what's in our own mind versus what's actually going on. This moment opens up many possibilities for different ways of thinking and behaving.
The greatest thing about mindfulness is that it's very simple to do, and anyone can do it. The necessary tools are accessible to anyone, they cost nothing, and they have no negative side effects!
It may sound too good to be true, so I'll let you know what the catch is: mindfulness takes work. This book will tell you what that work entails so you can make mindfulness a part of your life, no matter what kind of life you lead.