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?
Although I talk a lot about how to integrate movement and activity with your mindfulness practice (hence the name of this blog), today I feel it is important to highlight the equal utility of cultivating stillness and quiet in your practice. In the midst of the busyness of daily life, physically being still and not moving our bodies generally only happens when it has to: stuck in traffic, waiting at the DMV, or logging hours at our desks. And opportunities to cultivate stillness in our minds happens far, far less often.
Of course, mindfulness does not mean emptying the mind of thought. Instead, when I talk about mental stillness, I refer to the practice of intentionally noticing and being aware of the mind’s activity. Resting in awareness of what is present, rather than all of the myriad other mental gymnastics. It means noticing the pull to make that mental shopping list or write that mental email to your boss or to take a mental inventory of your own failings during the week. When being still, it is possible that we notice the movements in our minds and bodies (like that rumbling stomach, your respiration, that ache in your back) even more than we do in other less mindful moments. This awareness may be unpleasant and there may exist a rather strong pull to slide back into the busyness to avoid these sensations. The practice of being still is quite dynamic and changeable- which seems contradictory!
Making time to be still has many benefits, including that it strengthens your brain’s ability to understand and identify complex experiences. Furthermore, being intentionally still is just plain uncomfortable at times (it’s true!) which is a useful state to explore given that discomfort is something that occurs often throughout any given day. If our bodies become better acquainted with it, we can potentially increase our effectiveness in responding to a discomfort-inducing situation.
So, the next time you feel yourself hurtling along with the velocity of life, take a minute to consider being still. Here’s one exercise to try:
Adopt a posture that you can maintain for a few minutes and settle in to your body. Notice the feeling of contact that your body makes with the objects around it, the floor or the chair or your clothing. Open your awareness to the feeling of being still in your body. Notice that you may feel the desire to move, to scratch an itch, to adjust your weight, to fall asleep… Whatever is present, just take a moment to note the associated sensations. Investigate the sensations of the breath in the body and the movement in the body that occurs with each in-breath and each out-breath. Now, bring your attention to thinking and notice what may be present in your mind. Just as you did with noting sensations in the body, simply observe the habits of the mind that are occurring in this moment of stillness. Continue for a few minutes and notice the quality of ease or dis-ease that may ebb and flow over the duration of this practice. When you conclude the practice, intentionally return to movement with some of this expanded awareness and notice what that rejoining with busyness feels like in the body and the mind.
All practice is useful and as this lovely diagram points out, there is possibility for great variety in our “mindfulness diet.” I hope that you will consider a brief moment of intentional stillness even when life provides us with infinitely more opportunities to avoid sitting with ourselves. Or, perhaps you can take just yourself fishing.
During this weekend’s introduction to mindfulness class, a very useful question came up: Does being mindful mean being indifferent to our experience?
This question struck me as being particularly useful in that it helps to capture and put words to the challenge of being non-reactive to our experience. From our first days, our reactions to our physical and emotional experiences are reinforced: a baby cries when he feels hungry and is fed. As we mature, we learn that not every experience requires action, and not every experience means something about the past or future. For instance, as adults, we know that the sensation of hunger does not mean that we will die if we do not eat immediately. Awareness + maturity = wisdom.
Purposeful attention to what is present in a particular moment is mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes “non-judgment” as one of the attitudes that provides a foundation for practicing mindfulness. When we notice an experience, be it physical, behavioral, emotional or cognitive, it is very common to judge that experience as important or unimportant, worthy or unworthy, or even desirable or not. And judgment leads to action- whether it means simply putting a thought into a certain mental category or engaging in some behavior. Mindfulness teaches us how to simply notice our experience fully, without being dominated by the habit of judgment or action.
If we mistake the equanimity extended to our various experiences for indifference, we risk missing out on a lot of information. We pass up the opportunity to cultivate discernment in our judgments about experiences and make a balanced response to the full range of events unfolding in a particular moment. Indifference implies that the information we gain during an experience is not important and, therefore, not worthy of our attention. In addition, most of us are not naturally indifferent to our thoughts- quite the opposite. So, it is likely that obtaining indifference to our experience would require striving for a different mind state.
Rather, mindfulness helps us to open ourselves equally to all experiences (whatever our judgment about them) exactly as they are. Being mindful helps us to recognize and validate what is present for us in a given moment (even if it does not make any sense or fit with our values), and to respond to that moment with compassion and acceptance. In practical terms, it has the capacity to create some space around our deeply ingrained mental habits, thereby opening up opportunities to do things differently in life.
It is difficult to describe what is like to relate to yourself in this way, which is why the practice part is so important. Although the concept of mindfulness is not technical or metaphysical, we English speakers do not possess the language to easily describe the experience. It is best left to experience to show us how opening to the abundant richness of any particular moment- and letting it unfold exactly as it is- can help in forging a different relationship to thoughts, feelings, behaviors and body sensations.
(Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
Mindfulness practitioners and teachers talk a lot about the present moment. And with good reason: it is the only moment in time during which we have any ability to truly engage. When we connect with this moment in time, we are honing an ability to focus more effectively on the data that is available and respond in a measured way.
That being said, I had an interesting discussion with a client the other day that caused me to think about whether it is possible to bring mindfulness to past or future moments. And then, I read this article via the always aspirational Real Simple magazine, regarding research that indicates nostalgia can boost good feelings in the present. And what about joyful anticipation of future events? My sister is getting married next weekend and looking forward to this occasion fills my present moment with joy.
Nostalgia and anticipation are types of thinking- mental events regarding things that have happened or may happen that sift through our mind continually. Sometimes these thoughts take the form of images or judgments, or manifest in emotions or intense body sensations. In each case, however, these thoughts are a direct part of our present moment. Some practices, like metta or lovingkindness meditation, actually involve calling into mind the image or memory of a benefactor and other people that exist in our lives outside of the present moment. And when we work with difficulty in practice, we reminisce about a situation or interaction that caused us some distress, so we can work with the difficulty in the body.
All types of thinking float though our present moment and if nostalgia and anticipation are part of this stream, recognizing that is a moment of pure mindfulness. In addition, it can be interesting to explore what other aspects of our present moment experience are impacted by remembering or anticipating: maybe there is a hint of grief? Or excitement? Or a sensation of unrest in the stomach? Or maybe you experience an impulse to phone that old friend you are remembering?
So, in a nutshell, the answer is Yes! Whatever you are experiencing in this moment, including thinking of all kinds, can be observed more clearly and fully with mindfulness. So, go pull out an old family album, or even better, your high school yearbook. And then bring the focus of your attention to the experience of remembering.
(Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
This week, I want to hear from you. How and when do you feel best able to engage fully with the present moment? Doing yoga? Out for a walk in nature? During seated formal practice? While being intimate with your partner? While eating something delicious? While checking in with difficult body sensations, emotions or thoughts?
I never fail to be amazed at the ways people practice bringing mindfulness into their everyday lives. A friend sent me a link to a service here in Lausanne that promotes birth “en plein conscience”. Which makes me realize how childbirth can be an incredibly mindful experience, wherein mothers are brought into direct and moment-by-moment contact with their body sensations. They are taught to monitor, report and respond non-judgmentally to minute sensations and changes in the body that are often difficult to describe or anticipate.
Please share with me in the comments below how you bring your mind fully to the moment. When and how do you part from “doing” mode and enter “being” mode? What helps you connect most directly to the fullness of your mind in a given moment?
Have a great weekend.
(Image courtesy of MR LIGHTMAN / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
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.
Your weekly mindful weekend challenge is as follows:
Try to catch a pleasant experience as it is happening. Focus your attention on the details of the experience by answering the following questions (maybe write them down as you go to maximize the impact of this exercise):
What is the experience?
How does your body feel, in detail, during this experience?
What moods and feelings accompany this event?
What thoughts are going through your mind?
The rationale for engaging your awareness in this manner is to help you to be better able to simply experience and appreciate the pleasant moment as it is, without adding additional thinking to the mix. Good luck!
This exercise is adapted with permission from Williams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn (2007).
The first thing I saw when I read the paper this morning was an article detailing the killing and butchering of a young giraffe at a zoo in Denmark. There were gory pictures of the animal being chopped to pieces in front of on-looking children and then the carcass being fed to a lion. Throughout this morning, I saw the pictures again in my friends’ Facebook feeds and on various online news sites.
As consumers of media and livers of life, we are regularly bombarded with disturbing images, experiences and details from the world around us. At times, it can seem that there is so much pain and suffering in the world that we are powerless to stop it or to suggest that life can be beautiful and filled with wonder. It is true that if you look for it, you can find just about any atrocity you imagine. Likely, there is even a Twitter account, Facebook profile and blog that will keep you updated on this atrocity as it unfolds.
And that is where mindfulness comes in. Being mindful reminds us that we can choose where and how to focus our attention. We can intentionally bring our awareness to the goodness that happens with just as much consistency and intensity in this world as war, injustices, and brutality. We can focus on the small acts of kindness and subtle heroism that restore our sense of humanity. This does not mean that being mindful fosters denial or inaction. Mindfulness enables recognition that our compassion is best activated when we feel hopeful and empowered rather than raw and depleted.
Mindfulness helps us to recognize how we respond to any stimuli, including the entire array of emotional experiences our bodies and brains enable us to have. In a moment of world-weariness, we can check in with ourselves and notice that fear and sadness and anger are activated. And rather than pushing it aside with cynical numbing, we can open to and embrace our ability to feel empathy, to feel genuine connection to others who may be suffering. And then, we can decide how to respond effectively to these feelings.
When you catch this world-weariness in yourself, it can serve as a cue to reach out and connect with someone you care about, or make a thoughtful donation to a charity of your choice, or engage with your community. Or perhaps, it will cue you to simply replenish depleted stores of resiliency by taking some time away from the internet, making a cup of warm tea or going for a jog. There is goodness and gentleness in the world- maybe more of it than we recognize as it is not often celebrated or remarked upon. If we cultivate an ability to seek out goodness and contribute to it, this will help to counteract vulnerability to being overwhelmed by the real difficulties in our society.
We humans are a tricky species. Thanks to our ancestors from way, way, waaaay back, our brains have developed an ability to focus on threatening situations in order to help protect us from harm. For instance, I might think “Hmm, I could get mugged on the metro so I’d better pay attention to my purse.” As much as this way of thinking is often helpful, it can just as often be overblown, for instance, when I overestimate the likelihood of a mugging or avoid public transportation altogether. Luckily, thanks to good old neuroplasticity, we have the ability to gradually change how we perceive and organize information, and effectively problem-solve.
This exercise from positive psychology trail-blazer Martin Seligman is a way to cultivate a greater attention to what is going well and to effectively analyze a situation to increase the likelihood that things continue to go well. In his new book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Dr. Seligman suggests we try to regularly engage in the following exercise to practice strengthening these useful mental muscles that help us notice information that contributes to our contentment and sense of well-being.
At the end of the day, think back on three things that went well from the day. Write down each of these events – they do not have to be major, life-shaking occurrences- just three positive events. Next to the event, write down one reason that this event might have gone so well. Try this out for a week and see if it has any affect on your mood.
As an example, here’s my list from yesterday:
1) Event: I got to a meeting on time. Reason: I planned ahead and was organized and ready when the time came to leave the house.
2) Event: I made a good dinner for my family. Reason: I was more creative in the kitchen than usual.
3) Event: My son had a great time playing with his friend. Reason: My son really enjoys the company of his friends.
It may feel strange at first but keep at it and see what happens. Good luck and let me know how it goes for you!