I encountered a young woman recently who was asking me about this thing called “mindfulness” and why I center my work around this practice. There are so many ways I can answer that question as there are many branches of thought, history and interpretations. I will try to provide a simple, straightforward explanation.
Mindfulness practice is about decidedly conscious awareness of one’s experience with an aim of doing so without judgment. Having judgmental thoughts is something all humans experience. We are constantly judging ourselves, others, things, places, experiences by our very nature without realizing it. When we consciously choose to practice non-judgment, then we realize how often it occurs.
The practice of mindfulness begins with noticing our judgments without judging ourselves for having them… and… if we notice we are judging ourselves for judging…well, we notice that…without judgment.
Discernment should be distinguished from judgment. Judgement is when we place a value of good or bad on an activity, person, or experience. Discernment is when we assesses a situation or a person objectively and make a conscious decision to participate, to accept or to not participate or not accept.
Meditation is one way to practice mindfulness. There are many forms of meditation but overall there are two main categories according to author Daniel Goleman: Receptive practices and concentrative practices. Receptive meditation practice involves expanding the breadth of our field of perception in order to increase awareness of our experiences. This includes sensations of the body, emotions, and thoughts that we have. Concentrative meditation is when we narrow our perceiving by focusing attention on one point such as the natural flow of our breath, a word or phrase we repeat silently or a visual point such as a candle flame or a place on the floor in front of us.
Mindfulness meditation involves formal meditation exercises that combine both concentrative and receptive practices.
The benefits of practicing mindfulness can most readily be seen when we bring the same level of attention and awareness into our daily lives and relationships. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”
I recommend that we begin with awareness of our breath here and now and make friends with the breath as a vital tool to bring us back to the practice of mindfulness, to integrate mind, emotion and body and to anchor us in the present moment instead of allowing ourselves to be splintered between past, present and future. If we can first learn how to notice our breath we can then learn to breathe on purpose. Deeply, fully with awareness. When we become mindful that we are rushing and splintering, we can gently stop, take a conscious breath and come back to this present moment fully. From there we have created a bubble of awareness that allows us to thoughtfully respond, to use discernment and consciously choose our action.
Now, to answer the question of “why practice?”. Without a mindfulness practice, without conscious awareness, without integration of mind’s thoughts, heart’s emotions and body’s sensations we become splintered. When we are splintered, we develop physical pains, disease, sickness that sometimes we can address or avoid altogether if we had been decidedly conscious and integrated.
Without a mindfulness practice we don’t hear the whispers of our inner knowing that will lead us in directions that promote harmony in life and relationships.
Without a mindfulness practice a twinge of fear goes unchecked and develops into a full blow anxiety or depressive disorder.
If we practice mindfulness, we begin to experience an unwinding of tension in our body, heart and mind we didn’t even realize was there. If you are old enough to remember the telephones that hung on the kitchen wall with those long curly cords, you will remember having to hang the phone upside down to allow that cord to unwind and marveling at how it spun and spun until it finally settled into an unwound state and could be returned to the cradle on the wall. Practicing mindfulness takes us through that process. We unwind and allow for a bubble of acute awareness without judgment to help us slow down, see more clearly, feel more clearly and know more clearly.
Mindfulness practice has been shown through empirical research studies to alleviate all kinds of physical and mental health ailments, to reduced symptoms of stress and improve overall health.
It’s important to realize that mindfulness is not a pill to be popped with results in 20 minutes. It is a practice to be embraced day in and day out. It is very helpful to join and attend a mindfulness meditation group or class with an instructor on a regular basis in the beginning of starting a practice.
The one book I recommend to my clients and students is Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn as a course of practice and understanding this way of life.
So, take a breath into this moment and just notice…