If your eyes rolled at the title and you nearly didn’t get even this far into the article, I wouldn’t blame you. While mindfulness is as old as the human race, the very word mindfulness has spread in recent times, and quickly so, into modern day lexicon and become an industry spanning a whole genre of books, apps, wellness programmes, coaching, food and even ‘fashion’ (not to mention classes and an endless new stream of ‘experts’). This does a disservice to its profound effect on the individual and its immense potential to change not just some lives, but the whole way we live and the planet itself.
As you’d expect from something so potentially impactful and life changing, mindfulness is not something that can be bought, or bought into, in order to benefit from it.
True, you can enrol on courses and purchase books.
And yes, we know from tonnes of science-backed research that mindfulness reduces stress and anxiety and can alleviate depression or prevent depressive relapses, all things that are hugely positive motivators for buying into the idea.
But without practice – which only you, yourself and you can do daily – mindfulness remains an idea, and not a happening.
It’s not enough to want to be mindful, or to understand everything about it, or to apply mindfulness here and there when it seems convenient to, or when we have the time, or there’s an obvious advantage to do so.
Mindfulness is a way of living and it gradually effects – positively and in radical ways – the way you interact with life, both your inward life (thoughts, emotions, values, memories) and your outward life (everything and everyone you come into contact with).
Here is how I would define Mindfulness to give its fullest meaning:
Mindfulness is the act of paying attention, in a way that is free of striving and judgement (i.e. trying to get anywhere or having a narrative), and is imbibed with compassion towards ourselves and to whatever we notice is arising in the moment and towards how we react to what is arising in the moment.
How many times in a day, or in one minute, are our minds not really focused on what is happening right now?
How often, if at all, do we notice something – a thought or emotion, or an act or a thing – without judging it?
Do we perceive things with empathy or kindness, even those things in us and in others that are difficult and challenging?
How much of our life is spent in the past and future?
When was the last time we engaged with something without an agenda and needing to get something in return?
How much of our energy is used up in regret or wanting something to be different?
You get the picture…. something as easy to say as ‘be mindful’, is one of the hardest things for us human beings to really be, and be with.
And especially so nowadays. With technology and modern life speeding up and complicating the way everything is done by offering so much choice and enticement. I wonder that our brains aren’t fried and our hearts haven’t melted yet.
So mindfulness has a definition but really it is a practice.
I’ll say that again. It’s a practice.
It’s a lifelong practice. As you stick with it, life itself becomes a reason to practice mindfulness – and vice versa.
You don’t need to spend a huge amount of time each day meditating, and you don’t need to be part of a school or lineage or group. 5 – 10 minutes a day of formal practice, by that I mean focused mindfulness meditation, and applying mindfulness practice to daily life and situations, will serve you well and effectively. Most find that when they get used to that, their formal practice naturally extends, but there’s no pressure to do that.
I would say you need a trained mindfulness meditation teacher to begin with, to guide you into how to practice mindfulness meditation, to help you understand what it is and what it isn’t, and to be there to check in with along your journey as questions and hurdles will arise. Practising with others, when you can, is also proven to help you stay with the practice and find greater healing from it.
For me, mindfulness practice has opened my understanding of awareness, trust, patience, true listening, non-striving, acceptance, letting go and compassion. I thought I understood these things, having done Yoga for 20 years and thinking myself spiritually minded… I was wrong. (Big admission there). It was only through a particular way of practising meditation, learning from brilliant teachers about mindfulness, and applying this to each and every day of my life, that I began to not just understand but start to embody what it might be about.
The incentive is not to be mindful, but realising as I practice – which includes reflecting on when I haven’t been mindful – what being really awake and alive means.
It still takes a daily practice. After all, each moment is a new one for us to discover and learn to be with.
Here’s a Beginners’ Guide to Mindfulness Practice
Mindfulness helps us put some space between ourselves and our reactions, breaking down our conditioned responses.
Here’s how to tune into mindfulness throughout the day:
- Set aside some time. You don’t need a meditation cushion or bench, or any sort of special equipment to access your mindfulness skills—but you do need to set aside some time and space.
- Observe the present moment as it is. The aim of mindfulness is not quieting the mind, or attempting to achieve a state of eternal calm. The goal is simple: we’re aiming to pay attention to the present moment, without judgment. Easier said than done!
- Let your judgments roll by.When we notice judgments arise during our practice, we can make a mental note of them, and let them pass.
- Return to observing the present moment as it is. Our minds often get carried away in thought. That’s why mindfulness is the practice of returning, again and again, to the present moment.
- Be kind to your wandering mind. Don’t judge yourself for whatever thoughts crop up, just practice recognizing when your mind has wandered off, and gently bring it back.
The work is to just keep doing it. The impact in you, will accrue.
How to practice Mindfulness-based Meditation
Meditation is exploring. It’s not a fixed destination. Your head doesn’t become vacuumed free of thought, utterly undistracted. Instead, you notice what arises, as it comes, including the thoughts, and we practice letting it go or not clinging to it.
When we meditate using the technique of mindfulness – noticing our judgments, feelings, thoughts, associations and inviting ourselves to allow for them while discovering something beyond thought, past, future and association – we venture into the workings of our minds and begin to understand how and why we function as we do.
Most meditation practices use a focus on the breath because the physical sensation of breathing is always there and you can use it as an anchor to the present moment.
You can also use as a focus: sensations in the body, sounds, emotions. There is also the practice of Open Awareness where your focus is invited to drop on whatever comes up in your attention, then gently moving from one thing to the next.
Throughout the practice you will probably find yourself ‘caught up’ or ‘lost in’ thoughts, emotions, sounds—wherever your mind goes. The practice is to come back again to the next breath or the next arising when you can. Even if you only come back once in a whole practice, that’s ok.
A Simple Meditation Practice
- Sit comfortably. Find a spot that gives you a stable, solid, comfortable seat.
- Notice what your legs are doing. If on a cushion, cross your legs comfortably in front of you. If on a chair, rest the bottoms of your feet on the floor.
- Straighten your upper body—but don’t stiffen. Your spine has natural curvature. Let it be there.
- Notice what your arms are doing. Situate your upper arms parallel to your upper body. Rest the palms of your hands on your legs wherever it feels most natural.
- Soften your gaze. Drop your chin a little and let your gaze fall gently downward. It’s not necessary to close your eyes. You can simply let what appears before your eyes be there without focusing on it.
- Feel your breath. Bring your attention to the physical sensation of breathing: the air moving through your nose or mouth, the rising and falling of your belly, or your chest.
- Notice when your mind wanders from your breath. Inevitably, your attention will leave the breath and wander to other places. Don’t worry. There’s no need to block or eliminate thinking. When you notice your mind wandering gently return your attention to the breath.
- Be kind about your wandering mind. You may find your mind wandering constantly—that’s normal, too. Instead of wrestling with your thoughts, practice observing them without reacting. Just sit and pay attention. As hard as it is to maintain, that’s all there is. Come back to your breath over and over again, without judgment or expectation.
- When you’re ready, gently lift your gaze (if your eyes are closed, open them). Take a moment and notice any sounds in the environment. Notice how your body feels right now. Notice your thoughts and emotions.
- Acknowledge any feelings of spaciousness or expansion, and as best you can, taking that into the next few moments, or rest of your day.
Want guidance on starting your Mindfulness-Meditation practice? I offer one-to-one meditation tuition, to get you started or to help you along the way. Or find out about the Mindfulness Meditation classes I offer, visit: www.returntocalm.org