Sharon is a certified health coach and Mindful Life Guide. Her mission is to help others develop harmony and meaning for themselves.
What Does It Mean to Be Mindful?
According to the dictionary, "mindfulness" is the state of being aware. It may sound simple, and on the surface, it is. We all slip in and out of mindfulness many times on a daily basis, without even thinking about it. When we are present, we have clarity and our mind is focused on what we are doing. When we slip out of this state, we can become confused and unfocused.
When our mind wanders back to the argument we had three days ago, or to a stressful event that may or may not happen in the future, we suffer. It is when we take an active role in being aware that we can truly cultivate a state of mindful living.
Mindfulness practices can be found in many Eastern philosophies and religions. This approach has since entered the mainstream and is practiced by people from all walks of life and all religious paths. When we use mindfulness training in our daily life, we are better equipped to handle stress, anxiety, anger, fear, depression, illness, and pain.
Mindfulness practice (especially meditation), actually reworks our brain patterns so that over time, we can change these patterns. Our minds have a database of associations to connect with each thought or emotion. The stronger the emotion, the easier it is for our brain to connect with what is stored in our database. These stored memories and associated reactions come up unbidden when we experience something similar—it is evolutionary. These reactions are stored so that they can be of use under similar circumstances in the future.
Past associations are not always desirable for current situations (think PTSD). Pushing the emotion away can make the association stronger, causing us to become trapped in a cycle. When we don’t struggle and we can step back, pause, and allow the emotion to present itself, we can hit the pause button on these unbidden associations. Looking at it with non-judgmental eyes and a detached awareness helps us to break the cycle. In this way, we can also break negative or limiting thought patterns. We can treat each situation as a “new” event and reason accordingly. We then “respond” to the situation instead of “reacting” to it.
When we practice mindfulness, we approach the present moment with curiosity, awareness, and attention. We stay in the present moment and respond to what is going on rather than reacting to it in a nonjudgmental way. We begin to approach each emotion as if it were the first time, with no expectations.
Now we know what mindfulness practice is and what it can do for us—so where do we start?
Beginning Mindfulness Practice
Meditation is the groundwork for mindfulness. It is essential to practice meditation in order to truly become more mindful in our everyday lives. When we can learn to be still for a moment, we can learn to focus deeply. There are many forms of meditation, but for our purposes, we will keep it simple. For mindfulness practice, the best place to start is with your breath. There are several reasons for this, but most importantly, it is because you can practice this anytime, anyplace.
- Start by sitting comfortably. Release all expectations.
- Close your eyes or keep them open and “soft." Focus on the area slightly in front of you.
- Now, just breathe. Be aware of your in-breath; be aware of your out-breath. Breathe in and out, and stay aware of each and every breath.
- When thoughts arise, and they surely will, simply acknowledge that they are there and return to your breathing. You can even label your “thoughts” and allow them to float away. This includes feelings and sensations. You can see them as leaves on a stream, clouds, feathers on the breeze, or whatever way makes sense to you. You can also just be aware that you are thinking and see them pop like a bubble. Be aware of your thoughts without being pulled into them or following them.
When starting out, a minute or so is fine. You are practicing and training. When you want to run a marathon, you don’t start out by running twenty miles. Eventually, if that is your goal, you will do so. For now, take it slow. This will help you train your focus on the "now" during your daily life.
Along the way, you may find another method that works for you. You may also want to find a meditation class or group that will guide you in the practice of meditation.
Many of us fall in and out of a state of being present. How well do you feel you are doing?
The Teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known and well-loved Buddhist monk, has taught mindfulness for many decades. One of the stories he describes is of a teaching he was giving to a group of people. He asked the group a question, “What is the purpose of eating breakfast?” He received several answers, such as, “To fuel the body,” and, “To gain nourishment,” and so on. Then, a young boy chimed in with, “The purpose of eating breakfast is to eat breakfast." So, there it is. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh: “We practice mindfulness in order to realize liberation, peace, and joy in our everyday lives.”
It is simple enough to be mindful when you have set aside uninterrupted time to consciously pay attention. What about when you are engaged in your day-to-day life? Let’s take preparing and eating a meal as an example.
Unfortunately, many of us are rushed to our meals and shove the food down without awareness to what we are eating. This leads to indigestion or not feeling satiated by what we eat (which in turn leads to overeating). We also usually eat while doing something else: working, watching television, and so on.
When preparing a meal, try thinking of only the meal you are making. When eating, take a moment to appreciate where the meal components came from. When you eat, think about the flavour, the texture, and so on. Feel the food nourishing you. Try not to think of unpleasant things as you eat. This is especially helpful for those who struggle with weight or other negative associations with food.
When doing anything in your daily life, give it your full attention. Don’t think about yesterday or tomorrow (unless it has actual bearing on what you are currently doing). When your attention falls away, gently pull it back to the task at hand or simply breathe. Stay focused on the here and now. Be aware of what you are doing. When doing the dishes, for example, feel the water on your hands. Feel the texture of the soap. Think about the item you are washing and focus on cleaning it completely.
This practice goes for pleasant events as well. How often are we engaged in something we enjoy when thoughts about a meeting we have next week intrudes? Maybe a lovely Sunday afternoon is ruined by thinking about all the e-mails you have to answer at your job on Monday morning?
Return to the breath. Allow yourself to enjoy this moment. Additionally, try not to compare a good experience with other good experiences from the past. This robs you of the present experience which may or may not measure up. Be present in this moment.
When speaking with someone, focus on what that person is saying. Don’t listen intending to reply. Allow yourself time to process what they are saying. When focusing this way, we can respond and not react. Our breath becomes a “pause button." If we are having a discussion with a friend or partner that begins to get heated, we can hit the pause button. Be aware of the breath. This helps break the cycle of reactions from our database. We can then keep our mind from going into the past—“This is just like the time that they . . . ”—and allows us to stay focused on the discussion in the now. We don’t react out of anger.
When being mindful, we are less likely to misunderstand what is being said as we have taken time to truly listen. We are not comparing “now” to “then." We break the cycle of reaction and counter-reaction that spirals into an argument. Before speaking in such situations ask yourself: Is it True? Is it Necessary? Is it Kind? Generally, if something is true but it isn’t necessary or kind to say, refrain from saying it.
Mindfulness practice can also keep us from making impulsive decisions. When the desire for something arises, we can observe it and find its true nature. Do we really need that piece of cake or are we simply bored? Do we need another jacket or are we envious of our friend’s new jacket?
During stressful moments, mindfulness practice is our best friend. Once again, our breath becomes a pause button. When stressed, our breath tends to become shallow and quick. We also tense and hunch, which makes our breathing even more shallow. By purposely being mindful of our breath, we can change the physical reaction of our body. That allows us to act less out of fear or stress and more from a calm and informed position.
The Core Teaching of Impermanence
The Buddhists have a core teaching about impermanence. This means that nothing is lasting. This concept is often highly misunderstood and thought to be nihilistic. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Everything is changing, everything. If things did not change, we would not grow or evolve. We wouldn’t learn.
This means that those we love will grow old, become ill, and eventually die. That is a fact of life and cannot be changed. It is our wanting it to be otherwise that makes us unhappy. This, in turn, robs us of the time that we have with loved ones. It doesn’t mean that we don’t grieve for those we have lost. What it does mean, is that we should appreciate the moments we have with them now, being mindful that one day we will not have them with us doesn’t mean we are constantly thinking of their death. Instead, we are aware of how precious each moment we spend with them can be. Good times and good experiences will not last. We should, therefore, take the time to be present and enjoy them.
Impermanence also means, however, that difficult times will not last. We can breathe through them and know that they will fall away. It is a beautiful teaching that has been misinterpreted so much in Western thinking.
Break the Pattern, Break the Cycle
We are often not mindful because we go through life on autopilot. This can be remedied by simply changing your pattern. Listen to different music. Go a different route to the store or to work. Read a book that is unlike your usual genre. Change your routine in someway each day.
Here are some exercises that can help you become more mindful:
Acquire a physical orange fruit. Bring your awareness to the orange and only the orange. How does it feel in your hand? How does it smell? Peel the orange, noting how it feels, smells, and looks. Slowly, take a piece of the orange and look at it. Smell it. Feel it. Take a bite. Note how the juice feels in your mouth. Note the taste. Chew it completely and move to the next piece. Do this with the entire orange.
Dress comfortably. Do not listen to music or use your earphones. Go to your favourite spot to walk. Before beginning, take a few deep, centering breaths. As you put your first foot forward, feel your body as it moves. Feel your foot as it connects to the ground. Be aware of the type of ground—is it grass? Gravel? Sand? Be aware of each movement of your body. Feel the breeze on your skin. Hear the leaves, the birds. As thoughts arise, bring them back to the feel of your body and your feet on the ground.
This is especially good for anxiety attacks.
Bring your awareness to where you are right now. Find and identify five things you can see. Find and identify four things you can touch. Note and identify three things you can hear. Note and identify two things you can smell. Note and identify one thing you can taste.
In closing, mindfulness practice helps you center and pause. It helps you be where you are without judgment. When you feel like you are losing your balance, remember: Just Breathe.
- "Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World," by Mark Williams and Danny Penman
- "The Miracle of Mindfulness," by Thich Nhat Hanh
- "Peace is Every Step," by Thich Nhat Hanh
- "The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness," by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
- "Mindfulness in Action," by Chogyam Trungpa
- "Transformation & Healing," by Thich Nhat Hanh
- "The Power of Now," by Eckhart Tolle