In my last entry, Mindfulness: An Ancient Remedy for a Modern Problem, I discussed the importance of mindfulness and gave an overview of a mindful approach to life. In this entry, I will discuss how to practice mindfulness.
Some of us are naturally more mindful than others. That is our attention tends to stay in the present rather than generating worry about the future, regret about the past, or complaints about the present. I am NOT one of these people, so I must practice mindfulness.
This is the case for most of us; we need to practice mindfulness. And like learning any new skill it requires practice. You wouldn’t pick up a violin for the first time and expect to play it like a virtuoso. Likewise, you can’t expect to direct your attention like a virtuoso unless you practice.
Learning mindfulness is not really learning anything new. We all have moments when we are naturally mindful. These moments may occur in nature and in special circumstances during activities we really enjoy. There is a joke within mindfulness teaching circles that teaching mindfulness is like selling water by the river. You already know how to do this!
Mindfulness practice helps to make these moments more accessible so that in any given moment we can be mindful.
To get started with mindfulness practice, just start where you are. Posture is important yet secondary to the cultivation of awareness. If you can sit cross-legged on the floor this will provide a stable posture for practice. But if you can’t and need to sit in a chair or lean against a wall there is no problem with that. The quality of your practice won’t be inferior. However, when you sit see if you can maintain as upright and open (not slumped) posture as possible. This will allow your breath to move freely. Mindfulness can also be practiced walking, standing, and lying down.
You can close your eyes or you can keep them slightly open, focusing softly on a spot on the floor in front of your body. Select a time to practice when you will be less likely to fall asleep and less likely to be disturbed by others. You may want to turn the ringers off on (your mind will provide enough distraction).
I call this process of getting ready to practice, “taking your seat”, and it consists of both the physical posture and your intention to meditate — to be with yourself in this deliberate and unusual way (unusual given the way we typically are telling stories about the future and past).
Start by bringing attention to the way your breathing feels now, and notice its physical sensations. Try to be as descriptive of these sensations as you can. That is, note the physical properties instead of your opinions or preferences. That is pay attention and when you notice preferences of like or dislike, come back to noticing. Like the mapmaker, try not to be for or against any features you find. Rather, notice each feature of the landscape as accurately as possible.
You can concentrate attention on one point such as you upper lip, or the air moving through your nose. Alternatively, you can attend to the breath in a broad way-the overall process of breathing–remaining focused on its physical proprieties at all times.
Whether you choose a narrow or a broad focus, work with the natural breath, the breath as it moves in the moment without trying to make it a relaxing breath or a special breath in any way. Taking your seat includes giving yourself permission to devote your attention in this way. The practice is to keep returning to the feelings of breathing whenever attention moves elsewhere.
Your mind will surely wander and this is to be expected, and in no way suggests you are doing the practice improperly or that something is wrong with your mind. Your mind may not want to sit still in this way and you may find that you are fetching and retrieving the mind, bringing it back to the seat repeatedly. The practice of bringing the mind back repeatedly is the key to mindfulness training.
As attention wanders away from the breath, with gentleness and kindness, usher attention back to the breath. There’s no defeat in having the mind wander; it is a natural feature of the mind and it happens to all minds. So, pay attention to this process of moving away from the breath and coming back to the breath. As you do so, you will become familiar with this movement of attention, coming back again and again, and cultivating a sense of patience and gentleness with yourself.
For more information and audio sample, visit my website Exquisite Mind.
Arnie Kozak, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, meditation instructor, and author of Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness(Wisdom, 2009). He also the founder of the Exquisite Mind in Burlington, Vermont and writes a daily blog entitled Mindfulness Matters: Tools for Living Now!
As an expert in stress reduction, wellness, and mindfulness, Arnie will present weekly practical wisdom for transforming stress. His award-winning writing will help you to lead a richer and happier life.
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- Mindfulness and Yoga: A Potent Combination for Combatting Stress
- Mindfulness :: Human Being Versus Human Doing
- Stressed? Drive Your Way To A Better Day
- How To Eat Less And Enjoy Eating More, The Mindful Way
- DESTRESS: Don’t Just Go With The Flow, Make Your Own Flow