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Life's boundless classroom

This is an excerpt from Foundations of Wellness by Bill Reger-Nash,Meredith Smith & Gregory Juckett.

Life's Boundless Classroom

When you make your life experience a journey, rather than a destination, your life becomes a boundless classroom in which you continuously learn lessons. In this classroom, you can mindfully learn through trial and error. In this classroom, you make no mistakes; you only learn lessons.Living in such a classroom means (1) you cannot fail, and (2) you cannot make final judgments on the actions of others or even your own actions (Diekmann, Tenbrunsel, and Galinsky 2003). You may make errors, but that is merely the method of learning. If you become irritated with your romantic partner, accept the shortcoming and own the experience. Apologize and move forward. Experiences that you once deemed failures are as much a part of the wonderful texture of wellness as the ones that seem to succeed.

Live right here, right now. Planning is fine, but after you make a life decision, relax and engage fully in the process. Yogi Berra (2001) wrote a book titled When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It! There is value along every path you consciously walk. What happens in life is not all that matters. What you do with what happens is more important. Physical illness, great sunsets, relationship challenges, a sumptuous meal, business failures, a sudden windfall, and job changes are events. Are you present for the experience?

Mindful Awareness

Mindfulness is the art of paying attention. It serves as a foundation for happiness and living well. What could be better than being attentive to where you are and what you are doing! Mindfulness is a practice enjoyed by people throughout the world no matter what their religion. Many think that mindfulness is limited to monks, nuns, clerics, and mystics who are cloistered away from the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mindfulness is zoning in, which then increases your capacity for life, living, love, and pleasure.

The 10-minute activity Mindful Observation provides an introductory mindfulness experience as a means of demystifying the practice for those who are uninitiated.

Mindful Awareness Activity

Mindful Observation

Find a window facing outside that you can sit in front of for five minutes without being disturbed. This exercise involves mindful observation, paying attention without making judgments. The viewscape might include plants and other living creatures, but the content is less important than the process (Kabat-Zinn 2013). This exercise may feel awkward. You do not need to call attention to yourself. Act normally, relax, and engage.

  1. With your eyes open, take two long, slow, deep breaths and relax. Then breathe normally and notice your chest wall rising and falling with each in-and-out breath.
  2. Now, make a mental note of one object within your viewscape. Keep your attention present. Be aware. Breathe mindfully as you continue your observation experience. If your mind wanders away from the body sensations or the viewscape, note where your thought has gone and return your attention to your breath.
  3. When you are ready, and without hurrying, move on to the next visible object. Refrain from making judgments about what you see, or noting what you see as good or bad. Stay present, focused, and relaxed. Breathe normally.
  4. Patiently, mindfully, and deliberately move your eyes from one object to the next. View each as if for the first time. In fact, this is the first time you are seeing this object at this time in this setting. Stay with the observation for a while. Pause, and then move on to the next object in view.
  5. You might be feeling insecure about this exercise; let go of those concerns and trust in yourself. You have nothing to do other than to be mindful of your experiences. You are bringing increased attention and nonjudgmental awareness to an aspect of your life.
  6. Move slowly and patiently from one object to another, repeating the process of experiencing, noticing, and letting go.
  7. You will undoubtedly become distracted. Your mind will move to thoughts other than this mindful observation exercise. This wandering of the mind represents an excellent opportunity for acceptance. Distractions are part of who you are and part of the mindfulness practice. If your mind wanders a hundred times, bring it back a hundred times. These distractions are an intrinsic part of being mindful. When you become aware of a thought, make a mental note of it and return to the observations.
  8. After several minutes of this process, pause with two more long, slow, deep in-and-out breaths. Take a moment for self-acceptance and lose yourself in the experience. Your life is richer for performing this exercise in increased attention and mindfulness.

For all the mindful practices, resist the temptation to jump up and do something new. Instead, sit with the experience for a full minute after completing the mindful activity.

Establishing Priorities

Because many of your life decisions are reactive, having a framework for prioritizing can be helpful. Stephen R. Covey (1995) depicts choices as residing in one of four quadrants which include urgent and important categories. We depict an alternate form of these priorities in figure 1.4. Level 1 represents the critical (urgent) and valuable (important). For example, you may critically need to see a health professional after cutting your arm with a kitchen knife. If you do not take action quickly, the consequences can be dire. Level 2 includes the valuable but not critical. For example, regular physical activity is valuable for quality of life, but nothing catastrophic will happen if you skip it today. We recommend spending as much time as possible in level 2, because it is here that your life is in balance. Level 3 refers to those critical but not valuable behaviors that consume a disproportionate amount of your time, resources, and energy. Meetings, phone messages, e-mails, and popular activities fall into this category. Something may be critical for others, such as co-workers and friends, but not necessarily for you. Level 4 includes activities that are not valuable and not critical. You may choose to watch a television show, engage in social media, or call someone, but such activities are frequently neither valuable nor critical. When we prioritize, everything can become an optimal wellness experience and helpful to living in a more aware, focused, and peaceful manner.
Covey's framework provides help in establishing priorities when making decisions. The grid shows examples of common behaviors and the degree to which the behaviors are critical and valuable.

Based on Covey 1995.

Much of Western medicine is considered critical and valuable. The preceding example about the laceration needing immediate attention illustrates this point. However, when you live in balance at the individual or population level, there are fewer critical and valuable issues. For example, scientists are convinced that global warming would not be so dire had we better managed our natural resources (Assadourian and Prugh 2013). Understanding these levels can help you be more deliberate about the use of your resources as you mindfully make decisions.

Life Challenges

Your thoughts, emotions, and motivations are crucial. If you do not keep yourself in balance, disappointments can increase to the point where you substitute symbols for happiness. The loss of 30 pounds (14 kg), for example, may draw enough compliments to distract you from negative thinking. Given powerful distractions, you may momentarily think all is well. Similarly, drinking a lot of alcohol, altering your mood with drugs, and flitting from one relationship to another can be associated with immediate pleasure. Gratification is commonly achieved by smoking, driving too fast, idle texting during class and work, shopping for things you do not need, spending money you do not have, and taking unwise risks. Such imbalances may involve excitement, but they also contribute to stress, can exacerbate sexual dysfunction, and increase the likelihood of unhappiness (Travis and Ryan 2004). At many levels, you keep yourself out of balance with your reactions. But you cannot hide from your own mind.

Part of being aware is realizing that dominant societal norms keep you focused outside yourself. The practices of wellness enable you to be present with yourself so that you can appreciate your being. When you are in balance, you have focus, quiet, and calm. In contrast, when you lose balance, you are extending an invitation to illness and disease. The choice is yours.

Choosing Balance

To live your life in mindful balance is to make a conscious choice to be your own best friend. You need to take even better care of yourself than your mother would! Such choices are valuable but never easy. Many of the decisions made along this path are common sense. Being nice to others feels good and is the right thing to do. Do you sweep the leaves off your porch with a broom or buy an electric-powered blower to do the job? Physical movement in this case is healthful, reduces pollution on planet Earth, and feels good. Humans often do better when they are physically inefficient as excess calories are burned and fitness improves.

When you are mindful, you have far less inclination to abuse your body, mind, and emotions. Many unhealthy lifestyle habits are ineffective coping mechanisms. You may be overeating out of unhappiness or because your diet is loaded with fat, sugar, and salt (Moss 2013). These latter foods stimulate the appetite and sabotage your body's appestat, the food intake regulatory mechanism (Sclafani and Ackroff 2012). You may smoke cigarettes as a distraction from life stressors (Mackey, McKinney, and Tavakoli 2008). Knowledge alone may not be enough to solve a lifestyle problem. Being tranquil, knowing how to prioritize, learning to identify barriers, staying away from risky environments, and developing self-enhancing strategies can help you take charge.

Life challenges occur minute by minute. The Foundations of Wellness model helps you reclaim your natural state of joy, happiness, meaning, and fulfillment (your life homeostasis). Those things that promote good health also promote pleasure and positive emotions (Ornstein and Sobel 1989). Positive emotions comprise trust, compassion, gratitude, awe, forgiveness, joy, hope, and love (Vaillant 2013). With positive emotions come increases in vitality, improved immunity, and perceptions that are more nurturing (Seligman 2011). Like a child who cannot walk well until he or she first develops the proper muscles by crawling, you cannot move to the next higher level of consciousness without having mastered previous ones. These changes evolve naturally from awareness.

Similarly, when you accept who you are and where you are in life, you are more likely to feel good about yourself and not be threatened by change. When you are serene and have the physical, mental, emotional, environmental, and spiritual supports that you need, change will occur naturally (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi 2000). This positive approach represents a sea of change for psychology.

Learn more about Foundations of Wellness.

More Excerpts From Foundations of Wellness