Making Mindfulness Work for You

IMG_1746 Mindfulness is receiving a lot of media attention these days but you may be wondering what it means exactly.

The “mind” includes the brain but is not only the brain. It is alignment with the head, heart, and center of our soul. Mind is consciousness. Mind is being awake.

To be full of mind is being fully aware or fully available to whatever appears in the mind as well as the physical body.

Meditation and mindfulness are both considered contemplative practices. Contemplative practices are Eastern or Western disciplines that encourage people to reflect and get to know themselves better. In addition to the aforementioned options, contemplative practices could be some martial arts or reflective journal writing. For many of us, when we hear the word “meditation,” we think of people sitting in pretzel-like poses. Fortunately, there are many ways of approaching meditation that do not include sitting in a cross-legged position on the floor.

Since seated meditation may feel like another obligation to put on our “to do” list, the practice of mindfulness can be more accessible and less of a time commitment. (However, a consistent seated meditation will give you more time…not sure how this works exactly, but I think it makes us more efficient with our schedules and priorities). The truth is most of us need to do less, not more. This is about being not doing.

There is no need to fret about adding a seated meditation practice into your schedule unless you want to. And if you do, start with three to five minutes of meditation. Starting slow will help you attain your goal. And if it still sounds overwhelming to sit in silence for a spell, then perhaps after beginning with mindfulness, a seated practice will naturally sound more inviting. And if it doesn't that is fine too!

So how does one practice being mindful? By simply noticing the breath; a gentle inhale and exhale anchors us to the present moment. Inhale deeply, exhale fully. Or you can inhale peace and exhale tension. Or just breathe.

There is no need to try not to think. One misconception regarding contemplative practices is that they require us to clear our minds and stop thinking altogether, but this is impossible. Although with more practice, the space between our thoughts gets more drawn out and opens us up to a sacred and restful place of silent stillness, the goal of mindfulness is not to rid oneself of thoughts. Instead it is about being more available to whatever comes up.

Mindfulness is about paying attention. Just noticing the thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Many meditation teachers instruct their students to watch thoughts pass like clouds in the sky or like waves cresting and breaking, cresting and breaking. Nothing including the breath needs to be fixed, changed, altered, or labeled as good or bad. It is about opening and being aware of the experience of living, recognizing thoughts and feelings, and then coming back to the breath, back to the moment, again and again, with gentle, loving focus.

Now some of you may wonder why we would want to stay in the present moment if in fact that moment is painful and scary? This is a question I think about often. And for me the answer looks something like this: Fear of something is often scarier than actually experiencing it.

Think about what it feels like in your body when you hear that hair lice or the stomach flu is going around, and the family you spent all day with yesterday are all on the toilet today. The fear of contracting the stomach virus is awful and can send us into the never-ending downward spiral of “what ifs?” But if you wake up and you are sick with the stomach bug, it certainly sucks, but most of us deal with it rather well because what choice do we have? As Mark Epstein writes in his new book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, If one can treat trauma as a fact and not as a failing, one has the chance to learn from the inevitable slings and arrows that come one’s way.” Essentially, we learn to move through life taking it step-by-step, breath-by-breath, and eventually day-by-day.

Mindfulness creates space. Writing these words and re-reading them is like slipping into something more comfortable. It provides a little wiggle room enabling us to release our shoulders from our ears and feel more alive in our bodies. It is strength and grace in space.

Mindfulness is pausing throughout the day. All is takes is a moment here and there to stop, center oneself, and locate the breath. Whether you are doing dishes, homework with your child, getting in or out of the car, having a difficult conversation, you can pause and breathe. The trick is if you are washing dishes, wash the dishes. Not wash the dishes, talk on the phone and plan tomorrow. This is a time to put multitasking to rest for awhile. This in turn will help bring to light what lies beneath the surface of the busy-ness, and reminds us that we can always connect to the deep abiding eternal essence at the core of our being no matter what is being stirred up around us.

Practicing mindfulness isn’t religious. But if you are religious, mindfulness may just bring you closer to your religion enabling you to experience it from a new, more embodied perspective.

Mindfulness is heartful-ness. When we feel chills, or when we cry, we are present with our feelings. We are operating from the heart. We are real, no pretensions, remembering that feelings are how our soul expresses itself. Feeling is helpful, feeling is healing!  It is a distinct very real way of knowing that helps us to understand others better as well.

So in the end, what is the point of mindfulness? For me, practicing mindfulness makes me less anxious, less prone to overreacting, more joyful, and more productive. “Researchers have found that people who regularly practice mindfulness tend to have more neural connections in the regions of the brain associated with self-awareness –making them less likely to react negatively to frustrating situations”, writes Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, and author of Hardwiring Happiness.

Personally, practicing mindfulness helps me to not only remember to flush but also helps me to savor the sweetness of the day as well as acknowledge the bitter parts. Being mindful feels like the afternoon sun burning through a coastal fog, unveiling beauty everywhere.

Give yourself permission to create a mindful or meditative practice that fits into your life. There is no time like the present and your options are as open as the vast blue sky our thoughts pass through.