by guest blogger Danny Penman, PhD, award-winning writer
Earlier this summer, I attended a conference on “life extension” at Cambridge University in the UK. Scientists from around the world had descended on this small English city to discuss ways of making immortality a reality.
Some claimed that we could be genetically engineered to make us live forever, while others insisted that progressively replacing worn-out body parts with new ones grown in a lab was the way forward. Biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, PhD, the organizer of the conference, even claimed that science was advancing at such a pace that some children born today might live for several centuries.
Although the field of human life extension is making rapid progress, it struck me that the scientists at the conference had missed one of the most obvious ways of extending human life: mindfulness meditation.
Although mindfulness extends human life by reducing anxiety, stress, and depression, it also lengthens subjective life span. That is, because mindfulness helps us live “in the moment” rather than trapped inside a foggy daydream, we fully experience more of life, and therefore our life span is effectively increased.
Let me explain. Without realizing it, most of us spend much of our time trapped inside the “busy-ness” of daily life. We are effectively unconscious to the world and sleepwalk through our days. Being locked inside such busyness can erode a vast chunk of our life by stealing our time. Take a moment to look at your own life:
• Do you find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present?
• Does it seem as if you are “running on automatic,” that is, without much awareness of what you’re doing?
• Do you rush through activities without being really attentive to them?
• Do you get so focused on the goal you want to achieve that you lose touch with what you are doing right now to get there?
• Do you find yourself preoccupied with the future or the past?
In other words, are you driven by the daily routines that force you to live in your head rather than in your life?
Now extrapolate this to the life you have left to you. If you are 30 years old, then, with a life expectancy of around 80, you have 50 years left. But if you are only truly conscious and aware of every moment for perhaps two out of 16 hours a day (which is not unreasonable), your life expectancy is only another six years and three months. You’ll probably spend more time in meetings with your boss!
If a friend told you that she had just been diagnosed with a terminal disease that will kill her in six years, you would be filled with grief and try to comfort her. Yet, without realizing it, you may be daydreaming along such a path yourself.
If you could double the number of hours that you were truly alive each day, then, in effect, you would be doubling your life expectancy. It would be like living to 130. Now imagine tripling or quadrupling the time you are truly alive. People spend hundreds of thousands of dollars—literally—on expensive drugs and unproven vitamin cocktails to gain an extra few years of life; others are funding research in universities to try to extend the human life span. But you can achieve the same effect by learning to live mindfully—waking up to your life.
Quantity isn’t everything, of course. But those who practice mindfulness are also less anxious and stressed, as well as more relaxed, fulfilled, and energized, so not only does life seem longer as it slows down and you begin to “show up for it,” but it seems happier, too.
In our book Mindfulness, Mark Williams and I map out a path to living a happier and more harmonious life using mindfulness meditation. The technique is based on Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, which Professor Williams developed at the UK’s Oxford University and with his colleagues at the Universities of Cambridge and Toronto. It’s built on the foundations of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s research at the UMass Medical Center. And the technique is now endorsed by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and by numerous U.S. doctors and health bodies. In other words, it works.
Although the full program lasts eight weeks, here are seven steps that will help get you started:
1) Go for a walk. Walking is one of the finest exercises and a brilliant stress reliever and mood booster. A good walk can put the world in perspective and soothe your frayed nerves. If you really want to feel alive, go for a walk in the wind or rain!
2) Take time to breathe. Whenever you feel tired, angry, stressed, anxious, or unhappy, take a three-minute breathing space. It acts as a bridge between the longer formal meditations in our book and the demands of daily life. See it as a breath of fresh air. You can download the short meditation from franticworld.com.
3) Change chairs. Stress tends to drive us in ever-decreasing circles. It’s easy to end up like a hamster trapped in its wheel, forever running but never getting anywhere. You can step outside such stressful cycles by consciously breaking some of your most ingrained habits. So why not see if you can notice which chairs you normally sit on at home, in a café or bar, or at work (during meetings, for example). Make a deliberate choice to try another chair, or to alter the position of the chair you use. You’ll be surprised by how different the world looks and feels.
4) Appreciate the here and now. Happiness is looking at the same things with different eyes. Life only happens here, at this very moment. Tomorrow and yesterday are no more than thoughts. So make the best of it.
Which activities, things, or people in your life make you feel good? Can you give additional appreciative attention and time to these activities? Consciously write them down and gently resolve to pay them more attention. Can you pause for a moment when pleasant moments occur? Help yourself pause by noticing:
• what body sensations you feel at these moments?
• what thoughts are around?
• what feelings are here?
5) Set up a mindfulness bell. Pick a few ordinary activities from your daily life that you can turn into “mindfulness bells,” that is, reminders to stop and pay attention to things in great detail. Consider turning these moments in your day into bells:
• When preparing food. Any food preparation is a great opportunity for mindfulness—vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch. Focus on the feel of the knife as it slices through the different textures of different vegetables, or the smell released as each vegetable is chopped.
• When crossing the street. Become a model citizen and use the pedestrian signals as an opportunity to stand quietly and focus on your breath, rather than an opportunity to try to beat the lights.
• When listening. Notice when you are not listening, when you start to think of something else, such as what you are going to say in response. Come back to actually listening.
6) Do the Sounds and Thoughts Meditation. Sounds are as compelling as thoughts and just as immaterial and open to interpretation. For this reason, the Sounds and Thoughts Meditation is my personal favorite; it elegantly reveals how the mind conjures up thoughts that can so easily lead us astray. Once you realize this—deep in your heart—then a great many of your stresses and troubles will simply evaporate before your eyes. You can download the meditation from franticworld.com.
7) Visit the movies. Ask a friend or family member to go with you to the movies, but this time, with a difference. Go at a set time (say, 7 p.m.) and choose whatever film takes your fancy only once you get there. Often, what makes us happiest in life is the unexpected, the chance encounter or the unpredicted event. Movies are great for all these.
Most of us only go to see a film when there’s something specific we want to watch. If you turn up at a set time and then choose what to see, you may discover that the experience will be totally different. You might end up watching (and loving) a film you’d never normally have considered. This act alone opens your eyes and enhances awareness and choice.
And when you watch the film, forget about all this and simply enjoy yourself!
Danny Penman, PhD, is an award winning writer for the UK’s Daily Mail. After earning a PhD in biochemistry, he worked for The Independent and the BBC. He is the co-author, with Mark Williams, of Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, published by Rodale, 2011.