Studies show that mindfulness is good for us. So why don’t we practice it? Well, the answer is simple. Mindfulness asks us to pay attention to ourselves. It’s hard, we often see the things we don’t like. If we pay attention to it, we feel like we have to do something about it. Facing the things we don’t like about ourselves is hard work. It can be unpleasant, it can be eye opening, and it can be transformational. This is where most people stop their mindfulness explorations because it is easier to sweep the stuff we don’t like under the rug and apply band-aids and balms to make us feel better.
Our lifestyle is a series of habits, values and beliefs that guide the choices and decisions we make. That is our day to day. Most of it is automatic and requires very little thought. Inviting mindfulness into your day to day as a habit or value, can bring more ease and effortlessness into your life. And like any new habit you want to establish, it takes practice and conscious effort for it to become second nature.
You don’t need a meditation class or a yoga class to practice mindfulness but it could be a good starting place. I think a definition of mindfulness is helpful. The mindfulness that I am referring to is to be in a state where you are consciously aware of something. In part one, I talked about using your breath as the object/focus of meditation. Being aware of your breath can tell us things about our state of being. My teacher refers to breath as a barometer. When breath is fast/shallow or being held it is a sign of stress or tension happening. Awareness that you are holding your breath, is a reminder to begin breathing gently. If you extend your mindfulness practice you might being to wonder why you are holding your breath. Perhaps you begin to assess the situation you are in. You might contemplate this question and realize that you are feeling anxious or stressed out about a certain situation or that you are ultra focused on something important. Over time, you might notice that every time a certain event happens, like checking your email – you find yourself holding your breath. To further extend your mindfulness practice, you might take this realization that checking your email is a very stressful task and you may make some changes around how you tackle email so that it feels more manageable and less stressful. Mindfulness is a practice of curiosity and feeling.
The practice of mindfulness asks us to pay careful attention to our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. For me, I have noticed significant patterns around feeling hungry or tired resulting in being less present, less focused and more irritated. When I make sure I am getting enough rest, and not getting to the point of hunger, I have more ease in my activities and tasks. Knowing this now, I always keep snacks with me, and avoid staying up too late. Part of my lifestyle is going to bed early so I feel rested and have energy for the next day.
Paying attention to your thoughts:
Thoughts and beliefs can impact our expectations and how we react to other people. This week, take some time to pay attention to your thoughts. In what situations do you have positive, uplifting thoughts? In what situations do you experience negative thoughts or get stuck in a loop of thoughts or stories you tell yourself. Notice, what bodily sensations you experience when you have those thoughts. Notice where there is tension, gripping or bracing feeling in your body. Are you holding your breath or breathing quick and shallow? Notice what happens if you observe a belief you have around a situation. Is that belief necessarily true?
Paying attention to your feelings:
Is there a feeling that gets a lot of air time? Are you often feeling irritated, angry, frustrated, flustered, rushed, tired, etc? This week, pay attention to the types of thoughts that you have that are associated with this feeling. Notice what bodily sensations are happening at the same time. Do you notice a pattern over the course of the week or several weeks?
Paying attention to your body sensations:
Paying attention to our bodies can be a gold mine. Our body never lies and we can glean so much information. Because what we experience can be so subtle, it is possible that we miss the signals our body is sending us. Culturally, we have not been accustomed to pay attention to our bodies sensations that we don’t even feel anything. If this is where you are at, try the previous two practices. If you notice sensations like fatigue, pain, tension, soreness, a twinge, an ache, etc, these are signals from your body and it wants you to pay attention. These pain sensations that I have listed are warning signals that your body wants you to do something different. I have written more about this particular topic before, but for now, begin to notice what sensations you feel. Is there a particular thought or event or activity that is related to this particular sensation? Does a pattern emerge?
To notice patterns you have to pay attention over time. It’s a game of revealing and connecting the dots. This is mindfulness in practice. A practice of noticing and observing your thoughts, feelings and sensations. As you connect the dots, you start to see a bigger picture. This bigger picture can be very informative and provide deeper insight for your life.
This practice of paying attention and becoming aware of your moment to moment thoughts, feelings and sensations, requires us to be in the present moment. The more present you become, the more you notice, and the calmer and more easeful you feel. Instead of constant irritation, wouldn’t it be nice to be more present with your kids, your partner or your colleagues? Wouldn’t it be nice to understand the root of that irritation and be able to resolve it so you feel calmer? You can do this. It just takes some practice.
I don’t recommend trying to practice mindfulness all day long. Pick a time, something that’s salient for you. Also don’t pick the most stressful task or event in your life. Choose something that feels easy to pay attention to. Our minds naturally don’t like stressful things and finds way to easily distract, disengage and dissociate us. Start small and manageable, then tackle the heavy loads later.
In part 3, I will explore the roles of impermanence, gratitude and compassion as helpers to mindfulness.