Be here now. Pay attention! Let your thoughts, feelings, and experiences go by like logs on a river. Focus on your future. Envision success. Be aware of your breathing. Pay attention to your dreams. Immerse yourself in the feeling/image of what you want to be. Dwell on the characteristics of a compassionate saint, or virtuous warrior. Tune into the sensations that arise in your body as you move and breathe. Notice how you feel when you….
All of these instructions have in common some kind of injunction to attend somewhere and/or perhaps open your awareness up. All of these instructions are based on some idea and method of how we might develop personally or spiritually.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, (see the article Awareness and the Power of Attention) most methods of psychospiritual development involve some kind of training and practice with our attention and awareness. Indeed, a lot of “strictly” psychological work is done by working with where your awareness/attention goes (e.g., remember the painful event as you tune into the sensations in your body).
Awareness can be likened to one of those flashlights with a lens that you can twist to make the field of light broader or narrower. Our awareness can be more open, or it can be more focused. Attention is where we “put” our awareness.
In this article we’re going to look at a particular way of working with awareness and attention. We’re going to have a look at this thing called “mindfulness” and we’re going to take a practical look at how to practice and work with it. You can also skip the introduction and go directly to the instructions.
“Mindfulness” is a word that’s going around a lot these days. It involves a particular way of working with your awareness and attention – one that engages a combination of attending to a particular set of experiences, while also being open to what emerges in our awareness as we do that (e.g., count our breaths, and also notice what kinds of thoughts emerge as we do this).
Mindfulness requires a certain balance of paying attention (focusing down) and being aware (opening up and allowing). In fact, it’s a common approach in mindfulness practices to “train” or stabilize consciousness by first narrowing it (e.g. spending some time focusing primarily on the sensation of your belly rising and falling as you breathe), and then once stabilized, to allow your awareness to expand to let in more and more (e.g., start with focus on breathing, and then let awareness open up to the arising of thoughts, feelings, sensation that emerge in you as you sit still).
Mindfulness versus Mindfulness Meditation
It’s helpful to consider mindfulness in concrete terms. Jon Kabat Zinn, who has been the driving force behind the development of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), notes that mindfulness is “The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, J. 2012. Mindfulness for beginners: Reclaiming the present moment—and your life. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.)
Or, simply, mindfulness is (1) awareness, (2) of the present moment, (3) without judgment.
Mindfulness is often used in a way that is synonymous with mindfulness meditation. However, as you can observe from these defining characteristics of mindfulness – mindfulness is something (a state) that is potentially available to us at every moment. Though meditation is a way to practice mindfulness, we can be mindful without ever having engaged in regular mindfulness meditation practice.
Why does this distinction matter? Some people are not interested in – or feel they have the space for – developing a mindfulness meditation practice. This does not mean, however, that we cannot benefit from being mindful at opportune times. For example, when we have an moment of road rage, it can be helpful to learn to be aware (up close), of the present moment of our sensations (pressure in our chest, tension in our arms, etc.), nonjudgmentally (acknowledge and receive that those sensations are there, whether we think they should be or not).
Mindfulness can be especially useful when we have a feeling that we don’t want to have, or feel we shouldn’t be having. In our road rage example, we might feel we shouldn’t be having these feelings. This is lack of acceptance, and is one of the things that makes it difficult to work productively with anger (or any other feeling).
A regular practice of mindfulness meditation can and will make it easier for us to bring mindful awareness to such moments, but is not a requirement for the practical use of mindfulness in such situations. We can work very usefully with our moment-to-moment experience without deliberately sitting down to meditate on it! That is, if we can only remember to do so in the midst of everyday life.
In somatic psychotherapy and coaching work, we might engage in a movement that triggers, say, sadness, but perhaps we don’t want to have that feeling. This is a judgment about the feeling experience. And so, we might try to ignore the feeling and also try to think of something else. This lack of acceptance (that is, judgment), along with a tendency to move away from the present moment of what is really happening with us, creates additional difficulties in our lives. In a different metaphor, how can we effectively work with a skidding car if we deny the reality and momentum of the skid?
Self-awareness – and specifically mindful awareness – is an important component of the work in body-mind and bioenergetic psychotherapy. We might, for example, twist a towel or hit a foam cube and be asked to stay with whatever sensations, impulse, feelings or thoughts that emerge (often unbidden) as we do that motion. Mindfulness allows us to tune into, say, any anger that emerges – and if we can let it be there nonjudgmentally, we can work with it constructively.
By the way, mindful awareness not only helps us tune into our anger (or sadness, or excitement, or fear), but also helps us recognize and have space for any restraint that emerges along with it. For example, I may feel sad, but I may hold back that feeling because I don’t want to appear ineffective or weak. Mindfulness awareness (of the moment, in a nonjudgmental way) lets both the sadness and the restraint be there. Once there is room for both the feeling and the restraint, we can get somewhere with what is happening to us.
Self-awareness plays an obvious role, too, in psychospiritual development. How can we work with our fears or desires, for example, unless we can first acknowledge the reality of their presence in us? “Know thyself” is an ancient injunction for development of the self – and today, we might call it something with a bright new name – emotional intelligence.
In fact, Kabat-Zinn, in defining mindfulness as the awareness that arises from purposely attending to the present moment with acceptance – sometimes adds to the definition “in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”
To repeat, mindfulness is not synonymous with mindfulness meditation. However, in the end, this distinction becomes less distinct. That is, practicing mindfulness meditation facilitates our ability to be present with something that arises in the present moment (e.g., physical or emotional distress) in “everyday life.” Also, practicing in daily life – as the moments present themselves – builds the habit of mindfulness, so we can live mindfully in ongoing ways.
One could argue that bringing awareness to one’s emotions, and related physical sensations, is in fact bringing a meditative attitude to bear on that moment. But this is a subtle topic for philosophers, and not ultimately of import when it comes to actually being mindful, whether in these everyday opportune moments, or in a regular meditation practice as it might generally be understood.
Now, to the practice of mindfulness!
Everyday Life as Practice – Instructions for Being Mindful as the Opportunity Presents Itself
As noted, mindfulness (without the sitting meditative part) can be practiced in ways that are directly connected to our everyday experience. We can practice mindfulness with most anything that is part of our daily life. We can beneficially bring awareness of the present moment, without judgment to bodily sensations, breathing, feelings, thoughts, other people, our environment, and so on.
By the way, “without judgment” can also mean “acceptance” – as in, “I accept the reality of the presence of this experience.” Acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean “I’m OK with this.”
Here are some instructions for bringing mindfulness to your everyday experience. Just do them for a few moments, or a minute or two at the most. You can go longer if you like of course.
Practice awareness, of the present moment, without judgment, of….
- Bodily sensations – Bring your awareness to some concrete sensation in your body. Noticing where your body is touching the chair, or where your clothing is touching your body, or the feeling of gravity pulling on your body.
- Physical activity – If you’re eating, walking, stretching, just bring your awareness into the present of what you are experiencing. For example, the movement of your feet on the ground, or the felt sense of your muscles stretching. If your mind comes up with stories about your experience (e.g., I should be more flexible, eat better, etc.), just gently bring your awareness to the physical movement.
- Breathing – Be aware of the movement that happens as you breathe. Gently bring your awareness to how your stomach or chest moves gently with each breath you take. No need to modify your breathing, just let it be and let your awareness notice that movement. That’s it.
- Feelings/thoughts – Sometimes when we bring our awareness to physical sensations or activities, feelings and thoughts come up. Just let them come and go (without pushing them away, or getting too immersed). Let them pass like logs on a river. And continue to sense your body as well.
- Listening to others – Experiment with bringing awareness of what they are saying, right now, without judgment. If you feel judgments or reactions coming up in you, just let them be there and accept those too – and turn your awareness back to what they are saying.
- Nature/environment – Bring your awareness to the sounds of the wind in the trees, or crashing of waves on the ocean, or let yourself visually notice these things, as they change and move, without judgment, anticipation, memory. Rest in what is happening with those things right now. Moment to moment.
- Bodily tension or emotional discomfort – Become aware of a bodily or emotional experience (tension, discomfort) that is drawing your attention right now. We might, for example, become aware of something going on in our neck. Perhaps a feeling of tightness. We can be aware of that feeling tightness in our neck, as it is right now, and we can accept the reality of what it is right now. If it’s an emotional experience, bring your awareness to how it feels in your body. If you notice that you have a worry about it, you can acknowledge that worry as a thought that’s happening in the present moment, and accept the reality of the presence of that thought. Just return to awareness of that sensation right now, and now, and now. Take in the size, shape, edges, intensity, movement, etc. of the experience, from moment to moment.
I elaborated a bit on the final example because awareness of bodily tension, or physical or emotional discomfort, can be very fruitfully explored and worked with via mindful awareness. So, for example, if we’ve chosen to keep our awareness on the sensation of tightness in our neck, we gently bring our attention away from the story in our mind, and back to the sensation in our neck. Over and over. The key is to be with the experience as it is, without trying to rush it way, or use mindfulness to get rid of it (e.g., How long to I have to do this mindfulness thing of discomfort until it goes away?).
Remember, we are working with attention and awareness. And we’re doing that with different objects of attention (e.g., breath, bodily sensations, waves on an ocean). It is the training of attention and awareness that is the fundamental concern. Different objects, of course, can yield different benefits (e.g., attending to what our partner is saying nonjudgmentally helps the relationship, attending to bodily pain mindfully can eventually change our experience of pain).
The intent to be mindful is important – whether working with everyday experience, or as a regular meditative practice. When working with everyday experience, it is especially important that we remember our intent. We need to decide that learning to be aware in this way could be helpful to us, and then we need to remember throughout the day to engage mindfully with our experience a few moments here, a minute or two here, when the opportunity arises. Don’t beat yourself up if you forget. Just keep remembering when you can.
Often, a good way to remember to practice in the midst of everyday life is to let a burst of arousal move us. So, when I feel a sharp pain, a strong emotion (whether pleasurable or painful) and so on, I can remember to practice at that moment. Also, frustration or boredom (e.g., with waiting) can be good reminders.
Why would we practice mindful awareness in everyday life as the opportunity presents itself? There are a number of reasons.
- The idea of “I have to sit to get benefit” gets in the way of actually doing it. Besides, it’s not true. You can be mindful and get benefit from being mindful without doing “mindfulness meditation.”
- Sometimes people just aren’t inclined to do sitting meditation. That’s fine! You can still practice being mindful.
- It’s “easier” – less of a commitment.
- Troubling emotions and experiences do arise in the midst of everyday life! What better time to practice being mindful?
- Physical pain can flare up at different moments. Practice being mindful when it does. You don’t have to go somewhere to “sit.”
- We can learn about our habitual fixations or struggles. When, in the moment, I feel my sadness in my chest, and also become aware of how I’m holding my muscles to hold the sadness back – I’ve learned something important about myself.
- Everyday life is not separate from our psychological or psychospiritual practice. So ultimately, mindfulness meditation practice enjoins us to bring mindfulness to wherever we find ourselves, right now.
- We already do it anyway. That is, we drop into a mindful place from time to time in daily life. Knowing that, and knowing about mindfulness, we’re better able to recognize it when it arises and we can also find our way back there.
Instructions for Mindfulness Meditation Practice –
Basic Instructions for Mindfulness of Breath Meditation Practice
You’ll learn this best by doing it. So, let’s get right to it. We’ll practice using mindfulness of breathing…
- Have a seat in a relatively relaxed and comfortable position with your spine relatively upright.
- Breathe normally. Don’t control your breathing. Let breathing happen.
- Bring your attention to the sensation of the breath moving in your body. Pick some place that’s easy to note, for example, the rising and falling of your stomach, or chest, or wherever you have the sense of the movement of the breath.
- Whenever you get distracted (get immersed in some train of thought), just gently bring your attention back to the sensation of your breathing.
That’s the basic technique. Really. That’s it.
Since we’re talking about mindfulness meditation practice, the key is to do this regularly. This same thing. Five to ten minutes a day (most days of the week) is all that is needed to get measurable and discernable results. You do not need to start with more than that – unless you’re absolutely drawn to do more!
Give it a go. Whether you’re just beginning, or if you’ve laid off a bit and are now returning. Sometimes setting too high a bar keeps us from starting something. Therefore, I repeat. You only need five to ten minutes a day (and not even every day).
Earlier we said that mindfulness practice commonly involves first narrowing attention and then over time opening up awareness. Breathing is the initial focus here, and if you did nothing else but focus on the sensation of your breathing for five to ten minutes each day, you would derive enormous benefit. Over time you’d feel more calm, centered, and resilient to whatever life throws at you.
As your awareness stabilizes with attention to your breath, you can open up your awareness to allow for more and more of your experience (other bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, environment) and letting them be as they are (nonjudgment). For now, though, we’re working with mindful awareness of the sensation of the breath.
Though the basics of mindfulness practice are straightforward, there are many instructions that can support you in making the most of the practice.
- Find a comfortable position that is upright. Being upright (not rigid, not tense) helps us stay alert. Sitting in a comfortable chair, sitting on the floor, sitting on a log under a tree – all are fine. You need just enough uprightness to be alert, that’s all. You can really meditate in any position (e.g., laying down), but when you’re beginning, it’s best to start with a position conducive to relaxed mental alertness.
- Don’t try to suppress your thinking. People often think that “meditation” means “I have a quiet mind.” That belief will get in your way of working constructively with meditation. Trying not to think is definitely not meditation. Don’t do that to yourself. Gently return your awareness of the sensations of breathing, over and over again, and let the thoughts, imaginings, memories, feelings, distractions and so forth just be there. Let them come and go and bring your attention back over and over to the object of your focus (in this case, the sensation of breathing).
- Label what is happening with your breathing. This can very much help you stay focused. In this case (being mindful of breathing), you can – in your mind – say “Breathing in” and “Breathing out” when those are happening. Even for people who have a lot of experience meditating, a few moments of this kind of labeling in the beginning of the session can help settle you.
- Stay with one approach and don’t jump around. In this case, you’re practicing mindfulness of breathing. Stick with that for many days, even a several weeks. If you keep shifting your practice, it can make it more difficult to make progress. And, if you stabilize your attention through mindfulness of breathing, you can expand from there over time to be mindfully aware of more of what is happening (e.g., feelings, thoughts, environment). The stabilized attention you get from being mindful of your breathing will be enormously beneficial in its own right, AND will serve you as you later expand your field of mindfulness. There are, of course, other kinds of meditation, worthy of exploration and practice. Mindfulness is simply one method/approach.
- Let go of expectations about how meditation “should be” – and let whatever is there just be there. Your job is to be mindful. Some days this will be easier, some more difficult. Some days it will feel like a slog, and other days light and easy. It’s like training in anything. There will be times when you have feelings of lightness, energy, pleasure, and there will be times when you feel heavy, dull, and unbearably distracted. And this can happen even within one session! Crazy, huh? Your job is to be mindful. In this basic practice, your job is to return your attention gently to your breathing, and whatever comes up, let it be there, whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant, of nothing much at all. This is the hallmark of mindfulness – awareness, of the present moment, with acceptance.
- Don’t get distracted by “experiences.” This is an extension of the previous topic. You might have some exciting (and/or bothersome) experiences of energy moving, vibrations in your body – or, you might have experiences of losing your bearings, openness, being “off the map.” As we let go of habitual tensions, preoccupations, it can be a bit disorienting. Let those things be there and gently return to your breathing. Don’t make a big deal of “experiences.” We are not seeking experiences, nor are we running from them. We simply let them be there, mindfully.
- Increase your time SLOWLY. Don’t push for long sessions because you imagine they must be better for you, or because you want to prove you can do it (or a thousand other reasons). Meditate for five to ten minutes for quite some time, and follow your instincts to increase, but increase slowly. It’s like training in any other thing. A little more weight, a little time shaved off, a little longer on the hold/stretch. You know what I mean.
Why practice (regular) mindfulness meditation?
Practicing mindfulness meditation has a number of well-researched benefits. I can tell you about all the different areas of your life that could benefit from mindfulness practice. However, it’s really your subjective experience that will prove to you why it’s valuable.
So, for example, I could tell you that research shows mindfulness meditation can reduce your stress hormones, and that research has shown across numerous studies that it helps anxiety and depression. There’s also plenty of evidence that mindfulness meditation changes the structure of your brain in ways that are linked to improved cognitive capacities and emotional regulation. However, these are objective data that demonstrate to scientists the value of the practice, and also helps identify concrete and measurable (neuroanatomical) pathways associated with these benefits.
For you, as a person living with yourself, once you practice mindfulness of your breathing five to ten minutes a day, you will notice all on your own that something is different in your life – and in a good way. You will feel more resilient. Things won’t bother you in quite the same way, though you may have difficulty saying exactly why. You will feel less wound up and bounce back a little more.
So, there’s objective research (for those who’d like to, you can look at some of the resources I’ll mention), but there’s your subjective experience. And that’s why we do this. We do it because we want to feel happier and/or feel less stressed out.
So, in quick summary, mindfulness meditation has been shown to
- Reduce stress
- Improve focus and memory
- Increase empathy and decrease emotional reactivity
- Improve memory and mental flexibility
- Reduce the experience of pain
- Enhance athletic performance
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Mindfulness and research on mindfulness meditation has been brought to a wide variety of activities. In short, mindfulness is good for you!
Mindfulness benefits – escaping the trap of assumptions
But wait, there’s more! To briefly continue the theme of the subjective benefits we can experience, let’s visit with the inner sense of why we might find mindfulness valuable in our lives. Because practicing mindfulness meditation is a fine laboratory to learn all kinds of things about ourselves.
One of the valuable reasons to practice mindfulness meditation in a more systematic traditional way (e.g., sitting and watching one’s breath for ten to twenty minutes at a time) is that we begin to learn a lot about how our minds work. We learn just how many thoughts, feelings, images, memories, ideas, and imaginings arise and fall unbidden all the time in our minds. Practicing in this way brings stability to our mind and experience, a sense of settled resourcefulness – and it also helps us develop a deeper sense of how we work, how our psyches work. We learn what preoccupies us, for example, or the repetitive stories and patterns that come up in our lives. I may learn, too, just how much my mind seems to turn to worries about financial security, or potential loss of a relationship, or ways I talk to myself about how capable I might or might not be.
Being able to mindfully let those thoughts, feelings, experiences be there is a very powerful practice that helps us have more and more freedom in our psychic lives. Seeing the worry over there – and letting myself have the physical/emotional sensation associated with it – can be enormously liberating. Acceptance (nonjudgment) is key to this process. By seeing how the same story about the world recycles over and over leads to our having the same feelings over and over – we are already beginning to “unhook” from the seeming absolute truth of our stories about ourselves and the world.
If you’re a fan of the Matrix movies, mindfulness can help us begin to see, and perhaps question the reality of, the stories that continually run through our minds – the stories about who we are and what the world is. We can begin to wake up from our assumptions! Red pill all the way!
Further, the regular practice of mindfulness meditation is an excellent way to learn the habit of staying aware in everyday life – aware of what is actually happening, no matter what our thoughts, feelings, experiences throw at us. It’s like any other skill. You practice your tennis serve over and over, without the added pressure of competition, and then in a game, that skill is available (though it may crumble a bit under pressure).
Sitting practice spills over into everyday life – in a good way. Stability and calmness learned in sitting can carry over into more and more of our day.
There are many excellent resources for learning mindfulness out there. A quick search for mindfulness will yield more than you can use!
Mindfulness readings/books. There numerous good readings that can help you learn the basics and explore the many variations of mindfulness, as well as some other forms of meditation. Here are just a few…
- Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- 10% Happier by Dan Harris
- The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh
- Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach
- Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation by Sharon Salzberg
There are also many apps in the Android and iOS worlds that can support and encourage you in your pursuit of mindfulness. Most include other kinds of meditations as well. A quick search will reveal many in addition to the good ones below…
- 10% Happier
- Insight Timer
- Smiling Mind
Whether you’re trying out different apps, or reading different books, there is always a danger of learning about something intellectually, but not actually doing the thing. There’s also the issue noted earlier of jumping around in technique and therefore not getting consistent – or any – results.
Be sure to do the thing. That is, practice mindfulness. Whether it’s at different moments in daily life or in a brief but regular practice. Practice briefly, practice often, practice consistently. You’ll feel the benefits.
The Farther Reaches of Mindfulness – Deconstructing the Observer/Self
Something really cool about mindfulness meditation is that when we’ve gotten some stability of our attention, we can begin to deconstruct our assumptions about who we are and our relationship to the world – in ways that begin to cut to the very root of our unhappiness and suffering. That is, we can bring mindfulness practices to bear on how we – in ongoing ways – construct our sense of self and the world. I’m not talking about examining the validity of any given story (e.g., is it really true that everyone abandons me?), but rather examining the role that such stories fundamentally play in the sense of being a self (e.g., who is that I’m imagining is being abandoned?). From there, we can explore what lies beyond that construction.
As we practice mindfulness, over time, we begin to unhook – in a good way – from the contents of our minds. As a result, we begin to have the experience of “me over here” being mindful of “that content of consciousness over there.” In mindfulness – and especially in the beginning – our awareness is resting gently, with acceptance, with the objects of awareness. The subject (me, the observer “over here”) is not so much in our lens of awareness. With practice, though, we can usefully turn awareness back to the subject, to the “who” that is being mindful. In doing so, we begin to discover just what this subject, this self, is made of.
This kind of exploration leads to a different kind of awakening. As we pursue this line of enquiry, we may even begin to discover the nature of awareness and may even find ourselves resting as awareness itself. My article The Experience of Freedom – Mindfulness and Direct Awareness provides a brief comparison of mindfulness with this direct approach.
At the most basic level, though – as a practice we’ve outlined in this article – mindfulness is a very important tool and practice for discovering freedom in our lives. It helps us feel more centered, stable, and able to work and play with whatever arises in our experience.
Remember. Do the thing. Don’t just read about it.
Mindful awareness is also a natural and important part of psychotherapy and somatic counseling work.
For therapy and coaching clients who are interested, we can even more explicitly bring mindfulness work into our work together. That is, I can instruct you, support you, and help you process your practice of mindfulness meditation. To learn more, contact me to schedule an appointment for one-to-one work!