Mindfulness can be described as non-judging awareness. This unique ability we humans have to observe our internal experience, via the felt senses of the body: feeling, sensation and sound. The body can only exist in the here and now. Our feet, for example, have no notion of future or past, so when we place our attention on our pinky toes we have no choice but to arrive in the present moment.
Sounds simple. And it is, but it’s not easy. We might know mindfulness is good for us, however, to pause and take a moment and turn towards our inner world involves a slight conundrum – initially, and intermittently, it doesn’t feel very nice.
When we practise mindfulness we are going against our limbic wiring: to avoid pain and seek pleasant experiences. So, we need to call on something far more powerful than ourselves to make this vaguely do-able. And that is Love. As we turn our attention towards our inner experience we offer ourselves as much love, kindness and compassion as we can muster.
When we do this we create a separation between who we are and what is happening. We are disengaging our limbic reptilian brain and activating the frontal cortex, which allows more rational and calmer thinking, as opposed to a ‘holy crap’ response. This ability to separate, observe and investigate our thoughts, reactions, feelings and beliefs before reacting could be described as our evolutionary destiny. It certainly offers us a smidgen of hope in this currently bat shit crazy and volatile world.
So, how do we do it?
When most people think of mindfulness, they imagine a legs crossed sitting bolt upright formal meditation. And it is definitely the way of practice (that, and sitting in a chair) that induces the most ‘alert form of relaxed attention’. Yet, somehow it does require a little more effort and can feel like ‘yet another thing to do’. You may find your ‘inner delinquent’ throws a strop at the very thought. We need ways to entice our inner bolshie self into more formal meditation by letting them experience just how pleasant it can feel to take a pause and slow down.
Placate your inner delinquent by daring to do it, just a little bit badly
We can practise mindfulness very effectively lying down; although it’s so relaxing, there’s the delicious danger falling asleep during or at the end. So what, I say!
If we fall asleep, it’s probably because we need it. This is a beautiful way to meditate, especially when feeling battered and bashed. The lovely meditation teacher, Anh-Huong Nguyen invites everyone to lie down on the floor in her beautiful talk called Mindfulness and says ‘we all need a lot of support to be still’.
Mindful walking is another great way to go. We don’t have to go full-on weird about it; just slowing down and feeling our feet on the floor on the way to the bus stop can make a huge difference.
We can also practise moment-to-moment awareness (mindfulness) throughout the day. Take a pause, slow down and come out of the ‘thinking mind’ and into the body. We can bring our attention to brushing our teeth or even – !
Here’s a paradox for you. Mindfulness is not really about the ‘mind’ at all. This is where we spend most of our time already, lost in repetitive ruminative thought, trying to figure it all out. Eckhart Tolle talks about a more accurate description of mindfulness as being ‘mind-less-ness’, because that’s exactly what we are aiming for – to be ‘in the thinking mind less’, and we can do this in many ways. When we start to feel a bit better in our skins, then the idea of sitting still and doing nothing (aka mindfulness) doesn’t seem such a horrifying proposition.
If we think about mindfulness in terms of relaxed focused attention it’s easy to see that many people are actually doing it who wouldn’t be caught dead using the M word!
Listening to beautiful music, walking in nature, yoga, surfing, gardening, bird watching, cake baking, knitting, golf… just a few examples …
Major Result Alert! You mean we don’t actually have to meditate to get the benefits?!!
Hummmnnnn – well, not really. Before you get too happy for having spotted the most excellent justification for not bothering to, you know, actually meditate, remember scientific studies using MRI scans that show physical changes in the brain weren’t actually carried out on people who did a lot of sparrow watching. But I salute your determination never to sit still, so nice try! You are not alone, most people, including me, find this very uncomfortable. In fact, there was an interesting study carried out at Virginia University demonstrating just what extreme lengths we’ll go to, to avoid!
However, let’s definitely not get pious about the whole mindfulness endeavour. Gawd save us, there’s enough of this out there already! The bottom line is that anything relatively wholesome we can do that brings us out of the churning machinations of a troubled mind can only be a good thing. We are not trying to bludgeon ourselves into enlightenment. Most of us, after all, just want to feel better and be happy.