One of the foundational practices of mindfulness meditation is the “Body Scan,” introduced by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the early days of his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction courses at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. If you haven’t tried it, this link will take you to me guiding a 20-minute version of the practice.
Wishing you and yours an excellent holiday weekend. If you need to create a bit of space for yourself over these next few days and keep up your practice, I recommend that you try the 3-Minute Breathing Space exercise. It is a very portable exercise perfect for Easter traveling. Best wishes!
One of the biggest obstacles that deters people from practicing mindfulness on a regular basis is the idea about how much time is needed. The formal practice of mindfulness conjures the image of people sitting quietly for many minutes. And while these bigger chunks of practice will help make mindfulness into a habit more quickly, informal practice is also useful. Mindful movement, or the intentional tuning in to the movements of everyday life, is one such way to practice informally.
I invite you to consider mindful stair-walking for your practice this week. Whether you’re at work, at home, or out and about, you can give this a try.
1) Stand at the base of the stairs. Feel the anticipation of movement building in your muscles.
2) Intentionally give the command to initiate the climbing movement. Perhaps repeating to yourself “lift, place, push” will help you to stay tuned in to each part of the step. Take it slow so that you can observe sensations as they arise.
3) Name physical sensations that you notice. Perhaps “burning” or “tingling” in the thigh muscles. What does it feel like when the heart beats faster? Can you notice your breath coming faster?
4) When you get to the top, take a moment to come to a standing position and notice how it feels for the body to be at rest.
5) Repeat on the way back down, feeling the momentum of the body working with gravity.
You could repeat these steps (no pun intended) more quickly or more slowly, or over a given number of minutes to experiment with noticing sensations of fatigue or impatience. This is a great practice to try on a day when your mind is quite busy or sleepy and you need a more vivid anchor to the present moment. It is also a fun way to practice in a public place and a good “mindfulness bell” for your daily routine.
Although it is potentially a very short practice, when repeated throughout the day, walking the stairs mindfully can provide a very effective and routine way to check back in to the moment at hand. So next time you’re standing in front of an elevator, try taking the stairs instead!
Last week, I was on vacation in Florida. We spent a day at the beach during which I found myself mindfully aware- really awake- to sensations that were previously mundane. I watched my young son playing in the sand and wondered what this was like for him, given that he was experiencing this beach day as a true beginner. I tapped into my “beginner’s mind” and opened my awareness to all sensations equally: the sand between my toes, the breeze on my face, the warmth from the sun, that distinctly oceany smell. When I noticed my mind clinging to any particular sensation, I took note and then expanded outward.
Yes, I think it is easier to be mindful of sensations that are inherently pleasurable and evoke positive emotions. But my overall pleasant experience of the beach was no less interesting. I watched as my mind worked harder than usual to cram all the goodness in, almost bingeing on the details of the experience. Simultaneously, I saw my mind never letting go of the idea and images of what we were not experiencing back in Switzerland (which my mind deemed “bad”): cold, cloudy, wet days of winter. I was aware that my mind was both enjoying the feast while preparing for the famine. There was a hurried and almost gluttonous pace to my practice that day.
Now that I am back in Switzerland (where it is indeed cold, cloudy and wet), my mind often boomerangs back to the memories from that beautiful day. I notice a range of emotions- longing predominant among them. Yet when my awareness widens beyond the images of the beach, I notice the less exotic but pleasurable sensations of contentment, warmth, ease, the breath. I recognize that this is a “famine” that I can manage.
I have heard happiness described as “the lack of sadness.” This definition suggests that the contrast between states is responsible for generating the emotion, or perhaps recognition of the emotion. However, being mindful showcases the possibility of many emotions existing together and that the recognition of difficulty sometimes makes ease feel sweeter. Practicing mindfulness illustrates that the mind is a wonderful, curious and incessantly complex lens through which we experience our circumstances.
As I go forward with my mindfulness practice in 2015, I intend to bring this lesson with me: that experiences can be wonderful and mundane and thrilling and uncomfortable all at the same time. And that the feast and the famine only exist as such because that is how my mind labels them in a given moment. Each experience is colored by the context of our thinking and that is absolutely ok.
Recently, we started new drop-in mindfulness sessions at le Centre de santé that are open to anyone wishing to come by and practice with a group. It has been very exciting since we have a number of participants who are new to the practice and have bravely decided to see what mindfulness is all about.
I really enjoy having the opportunity and privilege to hear the observations and experiences of those brand new to practice. The comments they offer about their foray into formal practice ranges widely to reveal boredom, discomfort, relaxation, sleepiness, questioning, judging, frustration, ease, struggle, and so on. I remember my first time practicing, as part of a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) group, and sneaking furtive glances at my watch as the minutes seemed to endlessly stretch on. And I still have days when practice goes like that!
Today’s group got me thinking: if asked, what would I say is one of the most transformative aspects of mindfulness practice for me? What could I share from my own practice that could speak to how I experience mindfulness? What tidbit of my own experience could potentially help a newbie to persist through those moments in practice that are often filled with frustration (“My mind is wandering SO much”), confusion (“Am I even doing this right?”), and underwhelm (“is this IT?”)?
And this is what I came up with (although I am sure it is not an original thought): Mindfulness is not about staying but about coming back, again and again.
There is much more I could share about what practice is like for me but I am curious to hear what you would say. If a stranger approached you on the street and asked what mindfulness is like for you, what would you say?
This weekend, I invite you to play with mindfulness to sensation. In a nutshell, this process involves investigation of a sensation (pleasant or unpleasant) as if you’ve never encountered it before. It is a great opportunity to use beginner’s mind to approach an experience as if it is novel. Once you bring your attention fully to the sensation, try using the sensory qualities as your present-moment anchor. You may even find that mentally labeling aspects of the sensation is useful; breaking it down into basic sensory terms as you connect with the experience.
Here are some ideas for you to explore with your five senses.
Stroking your cat or dog’s fur
Washing your hands
Holding a cup of coffee or tea
The breeze on your skin
Household cleaning products
Something spicy or sour
Soft or loud music
A candle’s flame
Different colors of pens or paper
Not only is this practice an interesting way to explore more fully the sensations that surround us, it is also useful for self-soothing when overwhelmed by distress. Psychologist Marsha Linehan, developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, suggests that seeking out sensations (especially pleasurable sensations) and experiencing them more fully in this way can be useful in managing emotional crisis.
If you’d like, let me know what you try or what other ideas I should add to this list. Wishing you a wonderful and mindful weekend.
Food, glorious food! Upon searching my iphoto archive for the photo above, I realized just how many pictures I have taken of food in the past few years. Indeed, eating food is one of my favorite activities and since this blog is dedicated to bringing mindfulness to all the activities of living, a post about mindful eating is well past due.
Thanks to the promulgation of information about mindfulness in the media lately, mindful eating is likely not a new concept for you. And that’s wonderful because it is a very accessible way to practice being mindful- in fact, it is something that you can do each meal, if even for a few moments. Here’s a few suggestions to try during your next encounter with food:
-Before eating, make sure that you’re sitting down and that you’re able to attend fully to the food you’re eating (turn off the tv and put down your smart phone). If your kids are old enough, they can participate, too.
-Before taking your first bite, take some time to investigate the meal with your other senses. What does it smell like? What does it sound like? Try approaching this food as if you’ve never encountered it before. Try it with your eyes closed if you don’t mind feeling a little silly.
-Notice what is happening in your mouth. Do you feel the moment when you start to salivate in preparation for eating? (My mouth starting salivating simply by looking at the picture above)
-Check in with your appetite. How hungry are you? If 10 is ravenous and 1 is uncomfortably stuffed, where are you currently on the scale?
-Take your first bite. How does it feel in your mouth? What parts of your tongue are most activated by the flavor? Notice the impulse to swallow the food- see if you can catch the moment when your mind sends your body the signal.
-As you eat, continually check in with your body and your sense of satiety. The more often you do this, the more familiar you will become with how much food your body wants and when/where it sends signals of fullness. Ideally, you want to try to stop eating around a 3 or 4 on the scale.
Eating mindfully can be a revolutionary experience, awakening you to sensations in your body that are otherwise too subtle to be experienced. You can learn to differentiate between hunger and emotional cravings which allows you to more effectively respond to what it is your body needs in a particular moment, rather than just engulfing half a jar of Nutella (hey, we’ve all been there) without thinking. But most importantly, eating mindfully can improve the experience of eating and since eating is something we do at least three times a day, every day, it has the potential to make each day a bit more intentional and enjoyable.