Mindfulness is the act of deliberately paying attention to the full range of our experience, including our thoughts, sensory impressions (both internal and external), emotions, and impulses. In mindfulness, we practice bringing our attention back to the present moment with a sense of curiosity, openness, acceptance and love (what Daniel Siegel, 2007, refers to with the acronymn COAL).
Mindfulness is …
Keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality. ~Thich Nhat Hanh
Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. ~Jack Kornfield
Being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different.
Enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will).
Being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t) ~James Baraz
- Pausing or slowing down
- Gentle attunement to our internal and external experience
- Staying present with our experience, however distressing it may be
- Acceptance of our current condition with presence: “This is what is so…I am here with it now.”
Goals of Mindfulness
- Staying present with and being able to describe our perceptions, sensations, thoughts and feelings, even when they are unpleasant.
- The ability to find our way back when we catch ourselves running away, distracting ourselves, or shutting down from our experience.
- Staying present with what the moment calls for us to do, with acceptance.
- Connecting with an ever more accessible presence of kindness within ourselves.
Empirically supported benefits of mindfulness (to name but a few)
- Decreases rumination and emotional reactivity.
- Boosts working memory capacity and focus.
- Reduces Stress.
- Improves cognitive flexibility and integration of brain functions.
- Increases capacity to be present with self and others with greater clarity, attunement, and compassion and increases brain matter in these relational sectors.
The Practice of Mindfulness
While mindfulness can be a daily practice, it’s helpful to think of it as a way of relating to ourselves, others and our experiences, in other words, as way of being, rather than something we do.
Incorporating this way of being into our moment-by-moment living tends to be easier than mandating ourselves to add another task to our already busy lives. Daily practice of mindfulness will deepen the skill and increase the benefits. The following are ways that you might practice mindfulness.
Find a place where you can sit quietly for a few moments. You may want to start with ten minutes, but if this isn’t possible, find times during the day to spend a few moments in mindfulness, and eventually, you may choose to meditate daily for longer, with benefits increasing with the length of time.
Find an easy, alert posture with spine straight but relaxed. You may sit in a chair or on a comfortable cushion on the floor. When beginning to practice, it may be better to close your eyes, though opening them may eventually support you expanding your awareness to external as well as internal experience.
Begin by bringing your attention to the present moment by noticing your breathing. Pay attention to the sensation of the breath coming and going in the nostrils. Just let the mind rest in the physical sensations, the coolness in the nostrils or the rise and fall of chest and belly. The breath in your body is the anchor that brings you back home.
Let the breath breathe itself and simply witness it. Just be present with the sensation of what’s happening, rather than the thought. As the mind naturally generates thoughts, before long, you might notice that it has wandered. Gently redirect your focus to the sensation of the breath. With practice, an expansive calm will often emerge and linger- the sensation of spaciousness. You might feel that you are at the bottom of the ocean looking up at the waves of thoughts coming and going.
You may remember the acronym “COAL” as you are meditating, to help anchor you in helpful states of mind….Curiosity….Openness….Acceptance…..Love. In this way, we are teaching the mind to move toward a supportive state that with time, will become a trait.
How to facilitate Loving kindness
Loving kindness can be brought in to support the practice of simple mindfulness. Loving kindness is a practical and effective tool for cultivating a caring attitude toward ourselves and others and has the key benefit of helping us to shift psychological patterns of self-loathing, self-doubt, and negativity toward feelings of love and acceptance. For many people, bringing in an attitude of love toward ourselves and our experience, especially the shadow parts, such as depression, anxiety, fear, etc, is no easy feat. You may try one or all of the following to invoke and anchor loving kindness:
- Begin with the simple Mindfulness Practice above.
- Place a hand over your heart and breathe easily from your heart, letting it be soft
- With a hand over your heart (or not), recite a simple expression or prayer of well-being toward yourself, eg, “May you be well,” “ I’m here with you now,” “ May you be free,” etc.
- It can be helpful to imagine that you are holding the child within you, picturing yourself as a child, or even picturing a child or pet that you love if accessing your own inner child is too difficult.
- Invite in the presence of a person or being who invokes a feeling of unconditional love and acceptance for you, eg, a spiritual figure, a Higher Power, image of nature, pet, therapist, sponsor, close friend, mentor, etc.
- As the thoughts, emotions, memories, etc, arise:
-Ask the question, “What is happening now?” or “What am I aware of now?”
-Allow whatever emerges to be held within the presence of one of the loving kindness anchors.
-For example, “I’m aware of a feeling of anxiety and fear …I’m returning to my breath….I’m here with myself now…May I be free…May I be at peace …Imagine a picture of yourself as a young and beloved child, or, feeling beheld and supported by a loving spiritual figure or presence, which may come through images, sensations, or a feeling of “knowing.”
- Feel free to play with different words, phrases, prayers, mantras, etc. You many choose an inspirational reading or phrase to focus on before meditation.
As we expand our practice or find we need more to anchor us in the present, we may layer the following points of focus into our meditation, using COAL, and, as always, returning to the anchor of breath:
- Subtle body sensations. We may scan our body from head to toe and notice areas where there is a particular sensation calling to us. From here, we may focus our attention on this area or from one area to the next, with gentle awareness. We may notice how the sensations change and attune to their qualities, eg, temperature, shape, texture, weight.
- Observing feelings as sensations in the body
- Attune to sights, sounds, smells or other sensory impressions
- Attune to visual, musical, or verbal imagery
- Labeling different types of thoughts:
- “Oh, there’s ________eg, worrying, planning, remembering, judging, etc….” and “Now I’m coming back into my breath,”….I’m here with myself….I’m ok right now.”
When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace and love. ~Thich Nhat Hanh