Last week I was in the grocery check-out line when I noticed several of the magazines made referencing to mindfulness on their front covers. Rarely does a day go by when I don’t see or hear some mention of mindfulness in news or popular culture. And no, I don’t live in an ashram. I live in Chicago and take the red line to work. Mindfulness is having a moment. Professionally, I recall a time when I had to tread lightly with the mindfulness talk. I would use terms like, “relaxation breathing” or “stress reduction” to decrease the chance of conjuring up images of levitating Buddhas. In twelve years time, clients are now proactively bringing it up in session, “I want to learn about mindfulness” or sharing information about their existing mediation practice. So, yes, the mindfulness moment is indeed upon us!
What does mindfulness actually mean? With all this buzz about mindfulness what does it actually mean? Take a moment to imagine a time in your life when you were present; really awake and attuned with to all five of your senses. Here’s an example. When I moved to the Midwest from Colorado I was awestruck by the Great Lakes (I still am, for the record). For any of you who have spent time in Colorado, you may recall that there is not a lot of water there. What Coloradans refer to as lakes and rivers, Midwesterners regard as ponds or creeks. I have fond memories of warm summer days swimming in Lake Michigan, feeling the sun and water on my skin, my body rolling with the swells and admiring the depth of the water and the rocks below. I recall feeling safe and playful; like a small child. Whatever that moment is for you, that is mindfulness: presence, also referred to as loving-awareness or heartfelt presence. Author and teacher Jack Kornfield describes mindfulness as, “An invitation to be alive in the present.” When we practice presence we are not living in the future or the past. Some refer to presence as coming home. When we become present we have an opportunity to observe our current state from a place of openness and non-judgement.
Presence does not only occur during life’s joyful moments, as described earlier, but also during our unpleasant and in-between experiences. I recall feeling an acute sense of presence while observing a loved one go through their first chemotherapy treatment. I remember the smell of hospital disinfectant, the taste of stale coffee, the very uncomfortable chair, the sound of the drip from the IV, and the look of uncertainty on my loved one’s face. Just as presence can be experienced during life’s highs and lows, it can also occur during the in-between more mundane moments such as commuting to work, washing the dishes or weeding the garden. Mindfulness offers us an opportunity to compassionately be with life’s ebb and flow, providing us with tools to tolerate the full range of human emotions and experiences.
Presence sometimes occurs naturally (as described in earlier scenarios) and through the use of formal techniques. Formal techniques for cultivating presence include breath and body awareness, seated and moving meditation (seated and moving), and yoga. Throughout this article you have heard me refer to mindfulness as loving-awareness, heartfelt presence and compassionate moment to moment awareness. These phrases refer to the role of compassion in mindfulness. When we are intentionally making contact with the present moment, we are working to do so without judgement. As the saying goes, “It isn’t mindfulness, without kindness.” Mindfulness is the practice of compassion for self and others. Teacher and monk, Thich Naht Hahn, offers us a practice of being with our suffering by caring for our pain and anxiety as though it were an infant, “We have to take care of it. When we understand our own suffering, compassion for self arises. We then have the opportunity to extend this compassion towards others.” Compassion can also be conveyed through the metaphor of the two wings of a bird. One wing of the bird is made up of mindfulness and observation. The second wing of the bird is comprised of loving-kindness, compassion and intention. If we are simply aware, but not able to respond to this awareness with compassion, we run the risk of becoming a bit robotic in our data collecting. When we bring compassion to our practice we are acknowledging that our struggles, suffering and mistakes are all part of the life process. The struggle is real, but it is also how we heal, grow and transform. The bird needs both wings to fly. Dr. Kristin Neff, one of the lead researchers in the field of self-compassion defines mindfulness as, “a way of befriending ourselves and our experiences.”
So how does one achieve this mindfulness state? You may have guessed it. Just as your souvenir t-shirt from Costa Rica states, “The Journey is the Destination.” Or in the words of Jack Kornfield, “Mindfulness is both a gateway and the destination.” Sure, it sounds simple enough: get present. However, presence is not a natural state for many of us. Culturally we are conditioned, encouraged and celebrated to do many things at once. We have a world of information at our fingertips. We send and receive major and minor information with the touch of a button and we are constantly inundated with 24-hour news updates from Kandahar to the Kardashians. Practicing presence is a bit counterintuitive and definitely countercultural, but nonetheless an opportunity to step out of autopilot and wake up to who we really are. Over time we build our practice of presence through the use of regular meditation, yoga and breath body awareness.
Join me for the next blog post, Mindfulness Moment Part II, for further discussion on building a formal practice and a look at the history of mindfulness and current neuroscientific findings. Until then, play around with bringing awareness to your day to day by intentionally shifting out of autopilot and making contact with the present moment. This may be something as simple as brushing your teeth with your left hand instead of your right or walking down a different side of the street to work. You’re also welcome to try this exercise of attuning to the senses the next time you notice that you’re in a stressful situation (i.e. stuck in traffic, hurrying to a meeting or an event):
- Pause for a moment. Take a few deep, slow breaths.
- Begin to visually notice five things you can see. Name each one (i.e. lamp). As you name each item, see if you can make your inhalations the same length as your exhalations. A four count is good for most people, but adjust as you need to. The main thing is that you are intentionally taking deep, slow inhalations and exhalations.
- Listen carefully, and observe a few things you can hear.
- Notice five things that you can feel in contact with your body (for example,) Here are some examples: your watch against your wrist, your trousers against your legs, the air on your face, your feet upon the floor, your back against the chair.
Remember, it’s not about trying to change what we’re experiencing. The work is changing how we respond to what we are experiencing. Have fun experimenting!