What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness can be defined as simply being aware of what is happening in the present moment. Without this awareness of the moment, we are usually lost in thought about the past or the future. Many of us spend most of our lives caught up in a virtual reality of thought, disconnected from the aliveness of this present moment, and this contributes to a lot of the everyday suffering that seems to characterize the human condition. Mindfulness practices help us get in touch with our senses so that we can fully experience this life as it unfolds moment by moment.

Practicing mindfulness

Here are some mindfulness practices you can experiment with right now:

Mindfulness of Breathing

Bring your attention to your breath. As you breathe in, feel your belly rise. As you breathe out, feel your belly fall. Try not to manipulate the breath; simply breathe naturally with awareness. Do this several times. You'll probably notice that your attention will soon begin to wander, and you'll forget all about your breath. Don't fret! When you realize that your mind has wandered (and that you were probably thinking about something), gently acknowledge that you were thinking (say to yourself, "Ah, thinking,") and KINDLY return your attention to the belly rising and falling. (Caution: Please don't beat yourself up for having a wandering mind! It is the nature of the mind to wander. Compassion is key here.) Simply breathing, and knowing that you're breathing.

Mindfulness of Eating

Give yourself a full minute to really experience eating one raisin. Begin by looking at the raisin, smelling it, feeling it in your hand. Place it on your tongue and sense how it feels in your mouth. Slowly begin to chew and notice the sensations of chewing. As you swallow, pay attention to the many processes involved in swallowing. Don't think about the experience; allow yourself to fully experience the sensations. Any time you eat is an opportunity to practice mindfulness since so many senses are involved. Simply eating, and knowing that you're eating.

Mindfulness of Sound

Wherever you are right now, take a few minutes to listen to sounds as they arise and pass away. Clock ticking, cars driving by, the humming of fridge, birds chirping. See if you can simply attend to the sounds, without focusing on the thoughts about the sound. Simply hearing, and knowing that you're hearing.

Mindfulness of Walking

Anytime you are walking, you can practice mindfulness of walking. As your left foot rises, pay attention to the sensations in your foot, and as you place your left foot down, be there for that moment. Do the same when your right foot lifts and moves and lowers. You can even repeat silently to yourself, "Lift, move, lower, lift, move, lower..." When you realize your attention has moved from walking to thinking, gently notice that and bring your attention compassionately back to walking. Simply walking, and knowing that you're walking.

Mindfulness of Emotions

It seems to be a human tendency to push away unpleasant emotions and cling to pleasant emotions. When fear or envy or nervousness or sadness, or any difficult emotion arises, see if you can simply notice it and name it, rather than pushing it away and trying to feel something else. How does the fear feel in your body? Where in your body do you feel it? Can you turn your attention away from the thoughts about yourself or the situation and just pay attention to the sensation of fear itself? Simply feeling, and knowing that you're feeling.

Befriending Ourselves with Mindfulness

All of the practices for inner peace and self-compassion depend on a certain degree of mindfulness. How can you tend to your emotional pain if you are not even aware that you are in pain? The more aware we are of what is going on inside ourselves, the more choices we have about how to respond. Do you want to respond harshly, or do you want to respond kindly? The choice is yours.

How do I learn more?

Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist meditation, but it is not limited to spiritual practice. Many Western health care professionals are incorporating mindfulness into their treatment plans. For more information on mindfulness in health care, check out the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society. If you are interested in getting formal mindfulness training, there are many options, from classes to daylongs to retreats. Two popular programs are Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) andMindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).

Recommended Reading

Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Williams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn

Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach

Open Mind: Women's Daily Inspiration for Becoming Mindful by Diane Mariechild

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