“Simply put, mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness. It is cultivated by purposefully paying attention to things we ordinarily never give a moment’s thought to. It is a systematic approach to developing new kinds of control and wisdom in our lives.” Jon Kabat-Zinn
Our minds are hardly ever in the present moment. We spend our time either rehashing or lamenting the past or rehearsing or projecting the future. Our inner critic criticizes us all day long.
Sometimes we thing we are being mindful, but we are really hyper-aware of everything going on around us, just waiting for the other shoe to drop. That is not the spirit of mindfulness. It is scanning the environment for early warnings signs that things are about to turn in a negative direction. We are poised to react with some combination of fight, flight, freeze, or appease behavior. Being hyper-aware of the present moment can increase anxiety. Often people scan their environment for cues that relate to or reinforce their anxiety-producing fears.
When we are lost in the past, the future or the external environemnt, we miss the present moment, the only moment we have to be alive, to make decisions, to grow, to heal, to be there for the people we love. Mindfulness starts with being aware of the present moment. Where are your thoughts? What are you feeling? You can notice a wandering mind. And you can remember that no matter how spacey, forgetful, impulsive, or reactive you’ve been, you can always begin again.
The posture in meditation is important as good posture allows you body to support you without feeling the need to move. Sit upright, but not uptight, with your shoulders over your hips and your head over your shoulderes. Check to see that your head is not leaning forward, that is a good way to give yourself a neck ache. Putting your feel flat on the floor provides a groudning feeling. Closing your eyes or lowering your gaze helps minimize visual distractions. Listen to a meditation to experience the feeling of mindfulness.
Mindfulness enables us to make wise choices.
- It is hard to see through the mental clutter of stressful thought patterns
- When we are on autopilot, we don’t what habits serve usand which no longer serve us
- We get confused and react instead of responding
- More likely to be unskillful, perhaps saying something we later regret
- Practice mindfulness – more likely to be aware of our reactive tendencies and can catch ourselves, take a conscious breath, and choose a more skillful way to respond
Habits, the opposite of mindfulness, are behaviors that become automatic because they are repeated frequently. Some habits are good, lke brushing your teeth, we don’t want to expend mental energy on that activity. Other habits may have been useful at some point in time, but no longer work. My habit of closing down whenever there is conflict is an example.
With mindfulness we can pause before reacting out of habit so we can choose the appropriate response to the situation. Victor Frankl’s powerful insight is: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”
Mindfulness can help us to be aware of all the moments of joy in our lives. But the flip side is that we are also aware of all the moments of sadness. We learn to choose where to place our attention. It is like we have a flashlight that we can move to illuminate what we want to see. Everything else fades into the darkness. We also have a floodlight we can turn on to see everything around and in us. Sometimes we need the floodlight to get our bearings. Different meditation techniques help us to train our brains to use our flashlight and to move it away from what is not helpful and towards what is helpful. Other techniques help us to turn on our floodlight so we can see the bigger picture.
By doing eating meditation with our flashlight on, we truly taste the pear, the cheese, the orange, and the warm bread. Walking meditation with our floodlight on teaches us to walk unhurriedly again and notice the touch of breeze on our skin, the sound of birds, the beautiful sky, and the ground beneath our feet.
To be mindful, we need to be aware. One way to train your brain to be more aware is a body scan.
Many of us, like Mr. Duffy in James Joyce’s novel Dubliners, live a short distance from our bodies. The body scan, helps bring us in touch with our bodies in the present moment. When we put energy into actually experiencing our body and refuse to get caught up in the overlay of judgmental thinking about it, our whole view of it and our self can change dramatically.
The body scan is an effective method for developing both concentration and flexibility of attention simultaneously. We will begin with the feet and move through the body. You will be concentrating on one area of the body, and then changing your focus to the next area.
Many people ae disconnected from their body. I most certainly was. When I took the MBSR class I really hated the body scan. Me who never got headaches, got a headache each time I practiced the body scan. As one of my teachers, Jonathon Faust says, “The issues are in your tissues.” When we don’t feel our bodies, we can’t detect the emotions or other subtle body sensations.
Another benefit of the body scan is to learn to let go. Because we move through the body, we practice letting go, tolerating and accepting. We might want to linger in pleasant areas, but we let go and move on. We may not want to feel areas of tension or pain, but we stay with it until it’s time to move on.
As we practice the body scan, you will bring your attention to the sensations or absence of sensations in the different areas of the body. Try to pay attention to what is there, not what you think you should feel. The purpose of the body scan is to become aware of the different feelings and sensations of your body. Most of the time you will find it very relaxing, but there will be times your find it unpleasant. Try this body scan.
So far we have tried out two mindfulness tools, a grounding meditation and a body scan. Mindfulness, like exercise only works if you work at it. Just learning about mindfulness will not make you more mindful any more than learning about exercise will make you more fit. I invite you to choose between meditations to practice 12 minutes per day five days a week. This is about the minimum that research says is needed to see a difference.