What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is becoming increasingly popular outwith its traditional Buddhist meditative context and mindfulness-based courses and interventions are springing up everywhere, for clinical and non-clinical populations, including patients suffering from various ailments, and also in management and prison environments.
Secular Mindfulness is the ability to nurture awareness of the present moment. It is 'being 'in the present moment, right here, right now. When we connect with mindfulness we may experience moments of clarity where we're in touch with an awareness of what really matters.
The body ...
One definition of Mindfulness is about bringing our attention to the present moment and of course this brings up all sorts of sensory experiences, for example - what we see, hear, and feel externally and internally through bodily sensations; as well as mental visualisations of thoughts, stories and fantasies which can be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
We can notice each sensation/thought or mental visualisation as it arises and just let it be. This choiceless awareness can be difficult to practice at first, and in fact it can be easier to just try to focus on one particular area or type of sensation - which the BodyScan enables us to do. When we have thoughts we have a tendency to make judgements, and our mental reactions to sensations that arise in the body tend to have either 'good' or 'bad' judgements attributed to them
What happens when you practice Mindfulness? What happens to your thoughts and emotions as you practice? Some people find that they think they are doing it 'wrong' or 'I'm useless at this'...
Judgements will arise as this is just what the mind does. Whatever it is, however it is for you is exactly how it is meant to be in that moment. It's simply about just practicing it and noticing the experience, whatever that is in the moment that it is happening.
Our emotions and thoughts are often reflected in the body and can manifest in sensations in so far as, an awareness of one can often feed into an awareness of the other.
Thoughts and Emotions
Mindfulness can help us to be aware of the nature of our minds, and how we think. We begin to notice how often our thoughts pull us away from our moment by moment breathing experience. It can seem like it's happening to us rather than something we choose to do. We also begin to see that we are not our thoughts.
You may have also noticed that when we practice Mindfulness, we become aware of watching thoughts emerge, noting them and letting them go - and realising that we have no idea of what thought is going to pop up next or even if it disappears without warning to be replaced by another. One thought merging with another; as we engage with thoughts, they become thinking, which then become stories and mental movies that our minds are constantly generating. Almost as if they are facts. When the reality is - a thought is simply and only a thought, in the same way that the pictures in the cinema or TV soap are just pictures on a screen. We become completely absorbed in the scenario that we can forget we are watching the action of a film or soap.
In this moment, sit and think 'what am I thinking'? Notice the thought... Does this thought engender a tag or judgement of good or not, with it? Whatever emotion arises in this moment for you notice how your body responds to this. Now, think about that thought and ponder if that thought is a fact, or not.
It's a little like the environment - looking at the sky with clouds passing... the clouds are thoughts and the sky is the awareness within which thoughts arise. The sky is not affected by the clouds - even when the weather changes - the clouds will pass and the clear sky will be there, although it has been there all the time. We are so much more than our thoughts which come and go.
Acceptance and Letting Go/Be
One of the myths associated with meditation in general is that we all sit in a state of peaceful calm chanting 'OM'. Images of people sitting with blissful expressions on their faces in a perfect meditation pose - with the notion of health and happiness embedded in their faces.
Letting go of such assumed expectations within ourselves and our moment by moment experience of meditation can be a difficult one to accept and to confront ourselves with as we start meditating. Sitting for longer than we normally would may be uncomfortable for us; listening to different voices on guided meditations - possibly even noticing our resistance to what is being asked of us. Being aware more now, of our agitated minds, or even becoming bored by the thought of sitting for any length of time.
We live in a society where we need to be entertained 24/7, where instant gratification and constant stimulation is prevalent, and that sitting still is boring by comparison. We become so used to pre-conceived notions of what constitutes activity that we may not even be aware that we are doing something in a non-doing way, a way of being... when we practice meditation. The present moment is exactly as it is and we can no more change it than we can change the past or the future. Relating differently involves being with our experiences exactly as they are, not trying to change or fix them - they are already here, so we may as well sit with them and indeed embrace them and welcome them in. Acceptance and Letting Be takes practice and the tools and techniques within Mindfulness, especially the sitting practice, is quite a powerful tool that can be used to help us to do this.
Mindfulness Acceptance helps us to see what is actually happening in our moment to moment experiences and eventually through practice; we begin to see past our assumptions, expectations and constant reactions to which we hold on to.
When we focus on generating Loving Kindness for ourselves, for others and even for people we may not particularly like in the most unreserved sense of the word - loving intention for ourselves and others. Intentionality is what separates it from sentimentality, in other words, we may or may not feel like being kind - however, our intention to be so is present. Indeed the act of choosing to pay attention to someone can be an act of kindness in itself as we are giving our time freely, which is so precious to offer or give to someone.
We live in a very deeply connected world, and yet move through it as if we are detached and singular, as Mother Teresa said: "The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or Leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for". Our reality is quite simple - we only have control over how we are and how we respond and it is these qualities that practicing Mindfulness nourishes.
By being present, we offer a space for someone to be held in; where compassionate responses can arise.
When we practice the sitting mediation, we explore our experience through bringing our awareness of mindfulness to thoughts as they emerge - without getting caught up in them or engaging with them to carry us off into stories and fantasies. Being with whatever arises in the moment and observing what is going on with our thoughts and emotions and of course - physical sensations.
By observing, rather than reacting to how our minds are responding to our sensory world as we go about our daily tasks, we have an opportunity to acknowledge that whatever arises and whatever familiar path it takes us down; whether pleasant or unpleasant or neutral - that this too will pass and therefore will change. When we are in Auto-Pilot, we are not aware of the change and will be either trying to escape the feeling/emotion/physical sensation or try to hold on to it.
You can experiment for yourself with what works best for you and you may find that this varies from time to time depending upon your state of mind in the moment by moment experience.
Yet, if we can acknowledge we have an opportunity to be with whatever arises and accept it or let it rest in our awareness and not try to change it - we can discover insight and have "aha" moments for ourselves.
Mindful Movement - Walking, Qigong and Stretching
The challenge of course, is 'non-striving'. When sitting or lying still, we can bring gentle intentionality to the way in which we direct our attention, without 'trying' to change our experience. In other words, when we use Mindful Movement via QiGong, or Walking Meditations, there is likely to be a direct link between what we physically do and our experience i.e. pleasure, discomfort and pain.
Noticing how we move whilst being aware of our intentions and effort is a particular challenge of this practice, especially without being unkind or impatient towards ourselves. Therefore, we really need to take care and to listen to our bodies, doing only what is acceptable and beneficial for us in the moment.
The primary goal during Mindful Movement of any kind, is simply being present to the experience; letting go of any other form of striving, forcing or pushing ourselves to any limits - simply because someone else can 'do it better' or 'challenging them or ourselves' . It's not intended to be a work out or aerobic exercise; it's more a time of listening to our bodies and taking care of them. Although unpleasant sensations can arise and it's simply allowing ourselves to just notice that they're there, not avoiding- but exploring them.
Noticing how our body responds to movement can tell us much about the state of our mind. When we move quickly, how is our mind in that moment? When we slow our movements down, what happens to our mind?