by Mary Ann Christie Burnside, EdD
In this post, I share a few simple ways you could begin to cultivate a personal mindfulness practice. I'll start by saying that simple does not mean easy, so be prepared to struggle a bit and to work with that struggle. Life itself is not without some struggle, so we really have nothing to lose and so much to gain. Mindfulness is a practice that pays dividends in a number of ways, many of which we can't even imagine when we begin. It's as if the possibilities are endless (which I think they are). In my experience, this is a struggle worth having.
Perhaps your mind has already begun to entangle itself around questions or judgments: "What? Struggle? What kind of struggle? How much time is this going to take? I'm not sure I like the sound of this." If so, just notice this and let it be there, which is a good idea because it already is. Instead of trying to figure all that out now, just reflect on a few words from Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn "Mindfulness is an appreciation of the present moment and the cultivation of an intimate relationship with it through continual attending to it with care and discernment. It is the direct opposite of taking life for granted" (p 5).
How many of us instinctively know that taking our lives or the people in them for granted is not healthy and yet find we do that anyway from time to time? I think we can all do that unintentionally, in other words mindlessly. To me, learning not to take life for granted is worth a struggle. Before I offer a few simple mindfulness meditation practices for you to use, I want to share a story from my own practice:
When I first began to practice mindfulness meditation, I had a strong disliking for the whole thing. My mind was always wandering. I got very annoyed with myself. The whole time I sat, I was struggling to be still inside. I reacted to this struggle by unconsciously piling self-criticism and judgment on top of the original struggling: "What's wrong with me? Why can't I do this? This is never going to work. I am wasting my time." If my mind wasn't judging me for my failure to be still, my mind was busy questioning meditation or judging mindfulness: "Is this really necessary? My back is bothering me. My knee is uncomfortable. I want to get up. Isn't there another way?"
My initial experience with meditation was very unpleasant but I was intrinsically motivated to continue on and so I did (that's another story). After a time, I was able to find and focus on my breath. In these moments - almost without fail - a loud truck would go by outside my window or, if in the company of others, someone would invariably cough or sneeze. Then I would find myself annoyed at that person for disturbing the one moment of stillness it had taken me seemingly forever to find.
Now when I meditate, I notice how quickly I can get annoyed or judgmental.
Shift happens. On the one hand, you might be thinking this is a pretty small change in my experience (i.e., I can still get annoyed or judgmental quickly). And yet, on the other hand, this particular change, small as it is, has made a substantial difference in my life because I am aware that I can get annoyed or judgmental quickly. I think this is good news. When we practice and develop our capacities for mindful awareness and compassion, a lot can happen over time, even if it only seems like a little at first. And shift can happen to you too. I share this particular story because I think it illustrates four lessons you can expect to encounter as you begin to practice:
- Resistance. Mindfulness is about being in the moment, as you'll notice when you begin to practice the exercises below. It's important to know that this is not easy for any of us because we are unused to being in the moment or to simply being period. We're much more at ease with "doing." I think it's also important to understand that we, as humans, are wired to resist anything that's even remotely uncomfortable, so resistance could be strong at times. Try not to let it stop you. Instead, notice it, let it in and continue practicing anyway. As Jack Kornfield likes to say, resistance is futile.
- Monkey Mind. Even when we climb atop of this resistance and try to practice anyway, our minds often distract us very soon into this process. Mindfulness practitioners speak about the mind as a monkey or a puppy. Moving this way and that. Jumping from thing to thing. Constantly bouncing or running around. And hard to control. Once you try practicing, you'll have a new appreciation for how our minds work and why mindfulness is a continuous process or a practice and not a discrete event.
- Positive, negative and neutral. Just like the life itself and every relationship we have, mindfulness is an experience that varies in terms of good times and bad, happiness and sadness, comfort and discomfort, liking and disliking, joy and sorrow. Neither mindfulness nor meditation is always going to bring about the same experience, let alone peace and joy or rest and relaxation. And although there will be times when it's uncomfortable or painful to be with highly attuned to our present moment experience, this is good news. We can learn a lot by connecting to all of our moments, especially the ones in which we're struggling. Difficult thoughts and emotions have a lot to tell us about our experiences and our relationships, especially the ones we have with our own selves.
- Rotations and transformations, big and small. With continued practice, shifts begin to happen in our understandings and in all of our relationships, which we might not even notice – that is, until we do. And even the slightest shift in how we relate to an encounter with meditation or with anything else can profoundly influence the quality of our experience and our lives.
Here are three simple mindfulness meditations you can try at home, at work, or in your car. Keep in mind that doing the same mindfulness practice everyday is not as important as doing a mindfulness practice everyday. Repetition is what helps us skillfully bring what we learn in these meditations into the moments of our lives. Try one, two, or all three. Just don't try the walking meditation in your car.
1. Mindful awareness of breathing is a basic practice. Reliable and informative, our breath is the perfect focus for practicing present moment awareness because it truly is something that we need do nothing about. Our breath is always happening in the present moment - without our help - and we can choose to pay attention to it anytime, anywhere. You can begin by practicing for approx. 5 minutes a day and increasing the duration over time.
Sit up straight so that your ribcage is lifted up off your abdomen. You can sit comfortably on the floor with your back against the wall or in a chair. Bring your awareness to your breath. Let your attention follow your breath in and out of your body. Notice if you feel it more strongly on the in breath or the out breath and whether you notice it more in certain parts of your body (e.g., nostrils, chest, abdomen). At some point if (when) your attention drifts off to thought, emotion or some other sensation, gently bring it back to the breath. Each time you notice that you've lost touch with your breath is a moment of mindful awareness that strengthens skillfulness. Practice letting your experience be just as it is.
2. Observing present moment experience is a helpful practice because in it, we become skilled at connecting to our experience, rather than to our mind's judgments about our experience.
Begin by noticing your breath (you can follow the instructions above to get you started). After a few minutes, open your awareness to sound. Notice what you hear. If you start naming the sounds, that's OK. The mind may do that. Try to bring your awareness back to the experience of sound. After a few minutes, and one by one, open your awareness to include your experience of sight, taste, thought, emotion, physical sensations then return to awareness of breath. Again, your mind might name things or evaluate them (like this, don't like that) or even try to distract you. Stay with your present moment experience and just let it in.
A fun variation on this meditation is narrating present moment experience with a friend or family member.
Sit across from each other and notice your breath. Then take turns narrating what you notice right now in this moment, which is going to change from moment to moment. For example, the first person might say "I notice a tingling in my hands." The second person would then speak to his or her present moment experience "I notice the light." "I notice my eye is blinking." "I notice my stomach is growling." And so on. You can also do this exercise on your own, narrating your present moment experience out loud.
3. Mindful moving, like walking, is helpful to get us out of our heads and into of our bodies. Awareness of our physical being is important because our bodies are so much more than transportation for our brains, just as we are so much more than our thoughts and feelings.
In walking meditation, as in other meditations, you are not trying to get anywhere. You are just trying to be fully present wherever it is that you happen to be in this moment, and in this one. You can walk in your house or yard, on the street or in a park, even in a supermarket. The practice is simply to walk and as you do, to pay attention to your body as it moves and to meet whatever comes up (thought, emotion, sensation) with kindness rather than judgment. You can focus on sensation of your foot as it meets and leaves the ground; or on parts of the movement such as lifting and placing your foot or shifting your weight; or on the movement of your whole body. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, walking meditation is about watching your step from the inside.