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!
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.
As a teenager, I was a competitive cross country and track runner and later, competed on my University’s triathlon team. The discipline required by the rigorous training and the thrill of racing became a driving force in my life at the time. Unfortunately, back then, I was not yet familiar with mindfulness. And these days, with my athletic glory days in the rearview mirror, I think a great deal about how mindfulness practice could be useful for competitive athletes.
At first glance, it may seem like mindfulness meditation could not be further removed from the physical intensity of sport. But real overlap exists when one considers the single-mindedness and focus required of athletes during competition. When we train our awareness during mindfulness practice, we are intentionally selecting an aspect of our present-moment experience upon which to rest our attention. It is not unlike the awareness that athletes hone during training and competing so that they can respond effectively to what their bodies need or what the situation calls for.
However, there are times when anticipation, anxiety, comparing and remembering muddy the mental landscape of the athlete’s mind. So much energy can be expended while lying in bed before a competition, worrying about what will happen or replaying past mistakes. And that busy mind does not necessarily prepare an athlete for the next day, or does so at a high cost. I propose that it is more effective to use that time to simply come into contact with the experience of that exact moment, and simply observe what is present, without reacting in a manner that detracts from an opportunity to truly rest the mind and body. In effect, to use mindfulness to break free from chronic preparation, superstition, and worry in order to enhance both the experience of competition and life outside of the competition.
There is a time and a place for planning, strategy and learning from mistakes. That time is usually during training and it is incredibly useful for athletic growth. However, if the mental activity inherent to this necessary aspect of competition bleeds over into the myriad other parts of life, it has the potential to impair functioning. As much as training requires a large amount of time, most athletes work hard to maintain balance in life. Intentional and concerted investment in sport as well as in the other domains of life contributes to a full and grounded self-identity that is less vulnerable to the inevitable perils of loss or dissatisfaction with performance. Practicing mindfulness formally and informally can help athletes to connect to those things in their lives that are valuable and that create a sense of meaning both on and off the track, the field, the court, etc.
I believe that practicing mindfulness can contribute to making an athlete more effective, more balanced and a happier competitor. Rather than having energy sapped by unhelpful mental processes accompanied by emotional and physical correlates, athletes can use mindfulness to turn to the richness of the present moment to replenish depleted energy stores. And who better to adopt this practice than athletes, who are already familiar with the rewards that come from diligent and repeated practice of a skill. And the best thing about mindfulness is that, unlike in athletics, there is nothing required- no equipment or gym or sponsor- simply your own mind and an openness to being more aware of what is unfolding in a given moment.
(Image courtesy of nirots at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
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.
There has been some interesting chatter in the media discussing the impact of mindfulness on people’s willingness to engage effectively in society. Recently, Suzanne Moore of TheGuardian suggested that mindfulness is all about the self and neuters impulses that may be useful for creating positive change in the world. She implied that practicing mindfulness may minimize the distress of the practitioner but does nothing to to directly address the distressing event.
In response, mindfulness practitioner and writer Ed Halliwell suggests in his blog that this criticism of mindfulness is normal given recent increasing attention to this practice in the media, and is actually helpful in furthering a constructive conversation. He notes that practicing mindfulness does not cure society’s many and serious imperfections and that, for those looking at the practice from the outside, it can appear to be something of an “opium for the people.”
For those of us who do practice mindfulness and who bring awareness to our very personal experience of living, we know that this is quite far from the truth. In fact, opening ourselves to the emotions and thoughts and body sensations that may be present in a given moment serves to better acquaint us with distress, sadness and other emotions that usually accompany our appraisal of the difficulties of life. When we open to these emotions, we acknowledge and honor them. Even though these emotions may be painful, we invite them in. Otherwise, the temptation may be to ignore, suppress or deny these emotions because of the automatic or habitual belief that we are helpless to change them or that we will be overwhelmed by their intensity. Yet, with practice and courage, we learn to approach rather than avoid our emotional experience and to just observe what is present in our bodies as we do so.
I would argue that this process of emotional awareness, of connecting to emotion in a given moment, actually prompts more action than the alternative. As a result of recognizing what is present for us in our minds and bodies, we may choose to respond in a way that thoughtfully supports our values and the things that we believe in. The motivation to take action is not out of a desire to rid ourselves of emotion but rather to validate our experience, and to connect to meaningful action.
Here is an example. A client described being deeply affected by the death of Robin Williams. She explained that his suicide prompted her to reflect on the suicide of a close friend and that she was experiencing feelings of sadness, grief, hopelessness and anger. She told me that with mindfulness, she could open to these emotions and ride their rise and fall in response to the thoughts she was having. As a result this process, she decided to reach out to her friend’s mother. She told me that they enjoyed a coffee together and reminisced about her friend, sharing a moment of connection to both one another and to the very natural feelings they have about losing her.
My client found that this action did not minimize her own grief but it did help her to feel like she was “in the driver’s seat” of her experience and that she could do something to recognize the loss. Rather than drown in her own suffering, she created a relationship with the pain that allowed her to respond to it in a thoughtful (rather than a reactive) way. And because she was open to her emotions, she was better able to be empathic when talking with her friend’s mother. Ultimately all of these responses supported her values.
Rather than numb our sense of social responsibility and our motivation to change the injustice of the world, mindfulness highlights the feeling and thinking that make it easier to engage in value-driven action if we want to. And as Ed Halliwell points out, even if our practice does not lead us to reach out and contribute to making the world a better place, simply being able to skillfully manage the distress that naturally accompanies membership in this imperfect world is a radically transformative way of breaking the cycle of unproductive suffering.
(Image courtesy of xedos4 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)