What is Mindfulness?
While there has literally been an explosion in the mindfulness “movement“, I know there are still many people who do not know what “mindfulness” is, let alone how to incorporate mindfulness into a “practice”. Mindfulness has been around for a long time; based in the ancient meditation practices of the Buddhist monks. However, in the 1970’s, Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts developed an 8 week program he called “Mindfulness Based Stress Relief” (MBSR), for patients with chronic pain. The effectiveness of this eight week program have been and continues to be supported by thousands of scientific research studies. The success of MBSR in the healthcare setting, spilled over into the current “mindfulness movement”, which applies MBSR to various areas of life; including schools, prisons, professional sports, finance and government to name a few. Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the non-judgemental acceptance and “open-hearted” investigation of present experience, including body sensations, internal mental states, thoughts, emotions, impulses and memories, in order to reduce suffering or distress and to increase well-being.”
“From the point of view of the meditative traditions the entire society is suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder”Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness-based stress reduction uses a combination of mindfulness meditation, surroundings and body awareness, yoga and exploration of patterns of behavior, thinking, feeling and action. There are many ways to practice mindfulness which we will explore weekly. It is important to remember it is a “practice”, like yoga, tai chi, or any other type of exercise or therapy, and improves over time. The best way to approach the start of a mindfulness practice is to develop what is known as a “beginner’s mind“. Beginner’s mind simply means having an attitude of openness, eagerness, curiosity and freedom from preconceptions and judgments, when approaching anything. It is an approach of viewing things as if we are seeing them for the first time. We see this best displayed in small children; everything is new to them, they are curious about everything and non-judgmental.
I vividly remember the first time my son ever saw Jello; he was 2 years old; when I put it in front of him, he looked at it curiously, because he had never seen it before. He touched it, then pulled back immediately, unsure. He looked again, then poked it; it jiggled, he giggled. He poked again, it jiggled more and he belly laughed uncontrollably. He thought that’s all you could do with it, until I showed him you could eat it. I still remember his face when he took that first bite, a look of total wonder and amazement. It was like “I” was experiencing Jello for the first time all over again.
The breath is one of the most important, sacred and mysterious functions within every being. Spiritual teachings in every tradition, religion and culture have honored the breath as the primary source of life. Yet it is something we take for granted every single day. We are endowed with the very breath of life from our Creator at birth, and it leaves us at death. But how often do you even notice the complexities of your breath in any given moment?
Mindfulness meditation starts with a focus on the breath; it centers us, grounds us into the present moment. We can learn much about breathing patterns and techniques which elevates our general well-being, not to mention offers us a myriad of physical health benefits, but for today we will focus on a basic exercise to recognize our breath, and ground us in the present moment.
Twenty breaths is a mindfulness practice that helps you take a fresh start whenever and wherever you want. It takes only a few minutes and allows you to step away from the distractions, frustrations, irritations and stressful moments of your day. To receive optimal benefits it should be practiced 3-4 times each day.
To begin, sit in an upright position, feet flat on the floor; close your eyes, take a full breath, paying close attention to that breath. What does it “feel” like? What does it “sound” like? Don’t try to “alter” the breath in any way, you’re just observing. With this first breath, you have done what many people have never tried; you are intentionally bringing all of your attention to what is happening in the present moment.
I like to place my hands flat on my thighs as I’m sitting, and as I take each breath, lightly depress a finger to keep count. Don’t stress about this point! It takes about twenty breaths to allow your mind to settle and your heart rate to slow, but the number is not crucial; you keep track so you know when he exercise is complete.
Pause to Hear Your Breath
Continue observing your breath through each of the twenty breaths; every breath is different, no two are the same. With each breath, relax, lower your shoulders, relax your jaw muscles and release tension in your body. Try to notice each breath as if it were unique and new; pause briefly when you breathe in, prior to exhaling and pause again briefly prior to inhaling again. You may find paying attention even for the few seconds of each breath to be difficult; don’t let that bother you; simply notice it, and return to observing the next breath.
This exercise is not only helping you to take a pause in your day to step way from distraction, frustrations, irritations and preoccupations, but it is also teaching you to notice when you are becoming distracted so you can step away and refresh. When you have completed the twenty breaths, simply open your eyes observing your surroundings for a moment before continuing on with your day.
“Mindfulness is a way of befriending ourselves and our experience.”Jon Kabat-Zinn
Savor this Moment
Now that we have learned a little bit about what mindfulness is, and how to begin a mindfulness practice with a beginner’s mind and a simple breathing exercise, I would like to leave you with a little challenge to experience the present moment in a fun way.
With the arrival of the spring equinox, let’s look around and see, really see what gifts the earth is offering us during this season. Using a beginner’s mind, take a walk outside, maybe in a local park, through your neighborhood, or even just in your yard; notice what is new. It would be really great to do the twenty breaths exercise prior to the walk. Look at the trees, the shrubs, even the grass; how has it changed from the last time you saw it? Notice if the trees are budding, what color are the buds? If you can see more closely on smaller trees, what does the texture look like? Notice any flowers that are starting to come up; spring bulbs are already blooming in my yard.
See What You’ve Been Missing
This time of year we see crocus’, daffodils, and snow bells; maybe you have others. Notice the colors, fragrance, the complexities of the petals, textures; touch them, feel the difference between the leaves and the petals. Use all of your five senses! There are so many things we can see, but we rarely take the time to notice.
Take note, maybe if you like to journal, write down how you felt before you did this exercise and after. What difference did it make in your breathing? How about your stress level? Mood? You may notice over time just how beneficial this type of exercise can be for you in any season. By focusing on these things around you, your mind is forced into the present moment, the only moment we have control over right now. Depression lives in the past, anxiety lives in he future, calmness and peace of mind live in the present.
Practicing the Present
For those that practice mindfulness or mindful meditation on a regular basis, this may seem relatively simplistic and basic; but I don’t think we can ever revisit simple pleasures with a beginner’s mind too often. If you spend any time with children at all, you realize how many things you can experience “as if for the first time” and how refreshing that can be.
By practicing the present without judgment, we not only release stress from the past and anxiety about the future, but we learn acceptance of what is. We learn to recognize the distractions that steal our joy and our time. This helps us be more available to our spouse, children, friends and other family members. We start to “see” people, and learn to connect on more intimate levels. We become people who are grateful, live life to the fullest, learn to love others more unconditionally and in the process become more fully who we were created to be.