Mindfulness is one of those buzz words we hear all the time, but what is it? Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in the moment. And what exactly does that mean, to be present in the moment?
Tara Brach, a psychologist and meditation teacher, asks “What would it be like if I could accept life – accept this moment – exactly as it is?” From my understanding, accepting life in this moment is the foundation of mindfulness. In order to be fully present in the moment, we would engage our senses and open our minds to what is going on all around us and within us. This allows us a broader perspective of the world around us, a more serene approach to our circumstances, and provides a good learning experience. We can practice many ways to bring mindfulness into our daily lives, some of which may include meditation, yoga, positive thinking, fully experiencing physical items around us, being fully present with others, visualizations, and practicing gratefulness. We’ll discuss each of these things in more detail… some of these things we will practice during our discussion today and some of these things will be things you may practice on your own.
For the first practice, we will learn how to be fully present in our bodies. Our bodies will tell us when something is wrong or when we may need to pay attention to ourselves, once we learn how to listen. This exercise will help us learn how to check in with our bodies and be mindful of how we’re feeling.
First, sit comfortably – if you are seated in a chair, place both feet flat on the floor and relax your shoulders. If you are seated on the floor, you may sit cross legged or stretch your legs out in front of you, whichever is most comfortable. You may close your eyes if you like. For this exercise, pay attention to your body and what it has to tell you as we proceed, and make sure to keep your breathing normal and steady. We will start by tensing our muscles throughout the body, starting with our feet – bring all of your awareness to your feet and start by tightening the muscles in your toes and feet. Keeping these muscles tensed, bring your awareness to your lower legs and tense these muscles as well. Continue moving your awareness up your body, keeping your muscles tensed as you move to the next place on your body – Tense your knees and thighs – There is no need to hurry, as we are observing our bodies’ reactions. Now tense through your bottom into your lower back and stomach, keeping your breathing even – into your chest and upper back – Across your shoulders and down into your hands – Finally, tense your neck and up into your head. Now that all of your muscles are tensed, take note of how your body feels – are there places that are more uncomfortable than others?
Now we will reverse the actions, taking our time as we release the muscles. Beginning with your head and neck, relax your muscles – Down in to your shoulders and arms, paying attention to how your muscles feel as they release – Release through your chest and upper back, remembering to breath as you go. Now release through your stomach and lower back, moving further down your body. Release through your bottom, into your thighs – down to your knees, and lower legs – and finally release the muscles in your feet and toes. Take a few deep breaths, with your eyes remaining closed if they are closed, and observe how your body feels now. Did you release all of the tension, or are there still places where your muscles are tight? If you still have any tightness, focus on that space and allow the muscles to fully relax. Once you are fully relaxed, take one more in and out breath and open your eyes. Did you learn anything about your body? How do you feel now that you have consciously relaxed your muscles?
Our next topic is meditation. One thing I have heard often is that we have to clear our minds completely during mediation in order to be successful. From my perspective, completely clearing my mind is almost impossible, and I can assure you you can still meditate and reap the benefits with the chatter occurring in your head. While I’m meditating, I have a tendency to wonder if I left the coffee pot on, or how long I’ve been sitting in one place, or what I may cook for dinner that night. Today, we’ll talk about some tricks on meditating mindfully and engage in a short practice.
The first trick I learned for meditation is to practice a three-count breathing method. This breathing method helps us move from the chatter of our daily lives in our heads to a more relaxed state of thinking, almost like a dream state. The three-count breathing is inhaling through the nose for the count of three, holding the breath for the count of three, then releasing the breath for the count of three. Follow this pattern for three complete breaths to help calm the chattery part of the brain. This technique can be used at anytime you need to clear your head as well, not necessarily just for meditation. It may not completely quiet the mind but helps slow the chatter.
Another trick that is especially useful during a mindfulness meditation, is to allow your thoughts to surface but not engage with them. You may see the words like writing on a whiteboard, you may see things like bubble thoughts, or you may perceive these thoughts in many different forms. However those come up for you, whatever your visualization may be, is perfectly okay. For me, during a mindfulness mediation, I see words floating across the sky. I observe a little person sitting next to a stream, and the person catches the words in the sky with a net and places the words in the stream. The words float down the stream out of sight and I know they will be available at another place and time if I need to refer to them. In this manner, I can observe the thoughts that I’m having without engaging in an emotional response or overthinking an idea.
Today, we’ll practice a short meditation to see what our visualizations may be and practice being mindful of our thoughts without engaging. We are going to allow our thoughts to “be” and allow them to just pass by. The thoughts that pass by will be available later if you’d like to return to them in the future, but it is not necessary if you choose not to do so. It is perfectly okay to let them go completely. Please sit comfortably again and close your eyes if you choose. We’ll start with our three count breathing taking a deep breath in through the nose – hold it – and out through the mouth. And again, in through the nose –hold it – and out through the mouth. Last time, in through the nose – hold it – and out through the mouth. Resume your normal breathing pattern and check in with your body again. Are you comfortable?
To start our meditation, we’ll observe the breath. Breathe normally and observe how your body moves as you breath. Which parts of your body move when you breathe in? Which parts of your body move when you breathe out? Observe the breath as it moves in and out of your body. If thoughts arise, allow them to float through or be put aside for later, visualizing whatever you may like. During a mindfulness meditation, we can also practice allowing the things around to occur without distracting us – sounds of people passing by, birds singing, cars driving by, etc. … all of these things going on around us are a part of ‘what is’. We allow the sounds and movements around us, being one with everything… and allow our thoughts to flow through, without breaking our calm. If you are ready, take a few deep breaths – wiggle your fingers and your toes while focusing on your breath – feel your body on the chair and check in again to make sure you’re still comfortable – and open your eyes. How do you feel? What was your visualization for allowing your thoughts to flow?
This practice can be done at any time – even if only for a moment. A mindfulness meditation allows us to center ourselves, achieve clarity, and remain fully present in the moment. This mindfulness practice teaches us to be one with all that is going on around us, to allow our thoughts to flow without getting ‘stuck’ in them, and to keep from automatically assigning emotions or overthinking in a given situation. These practices give us a moment to step back, to understand how we feel in any given moment, and provides a more grounded approach to anything going on in our lives.
If you like to move around, Yoga and walking meditations are wonderful movement practices in which to practice mindfulness. Yoga is basically a gentle meditative exercise that improves strength and balance, which in turn will also provide strength and balance for your mind. Some forms of Yoga are more strenuous than others; if you choose Yoga for promoting a mind-body balancing activity, please be aware of your capabilities and check in with your body to avoid injury. Walking meditations may help us to sort out the thoughts in our head – studies have shown that moving from one place to another while we are working on a problem helps us to see new perspectives. If you choose this type of meditation, remember to stay completely aware of your surroundings to avoid getting lost while allowing the thoughts to ‘just flow’ at the same time.
Another part of mindfulness is positive thinking. Contrary to popular belief, positive thinking does not mean we need to be happy and cheery at all times. We, as people, tend to think about what may go wrong in different situations, which originated as part of our fight or flight reflexes. Considering what may go wrong in a situation enables us to be prepared for a multitude of outcomes, but remaining hyper focused on the bad increases our stress hormones which can also have negative effects on our physical body as well. Negative perspectives will cause undue strain on our physical, emotional, and mental health if allowed to continue for a long period of time. Positive thinking, on the other hand, gives us a tool to be aware of our thought processes and to make changes to keep us healthy.
If you are a person that has thoughts like “I’m not good enough” or “What if everything goes wrong?” or “I always do this thing and it turns out badly”, this is where positive thinking comes in. For each of these thoughts that arise, take note of the situation you are in. What may have prompted that thought to arise? Ponder the situation without engaging (remember our mindfulness meditation?) to learn what triggers these responses in you. Once you’ve thought about the situation for a moment, reverse the thought, such as “I am good enough!” or “I have faith that things will work out well” or “Sometimes I do this thing, but it is something I can learn from and change in the future”. Another practice could be to focus on three positive things that may have occurred during the situation. Focusing on the good things helps us to remember that the negative may not be as bad as we think.
Positive thinking takes practice but is something everyone can do! I still remind myself to practice this at times and have learned that it’s okay to lapse – when you remember, try again! As you practice, it becomes easier each time. Positive thinking helps us to realize that we ARE worthy, we ARE doing the best we can with our circumstances, and we are responsible for our own thoughts and actions. It enables us to learn more about ourselves in that moment so we can act differently in other situations.
Our next mindfulness practice is engaging with and fully experiencing the things all around us, such as nature, material man-made objects, interactions with other people, and even our food. Sometimes we take these things for granted as we go about our day, but they play a large part in our lives. For an example, if you have something in your pocket, I invite you to take it out at this time. If you don’t have anything in your pocket, take a look around and take note of something around you. Look at the object, really look at and observe all the little details. Imagine how the details would feel. Does the item have a smell associated with it? Does it remind of you anything? If you can, run your hands over it. Do your hands feel what you observed with your eyes? Did you notice any new details? Now, while you are observing this item, think of all the steps and people involved that brought it to where it is now. For a quarter, as an example, you may think of the minerals and crystalline structures that grew in the earth and the people that gathered those materials and delivered them to a factory. At the factory, the metals are melted down and stamped, then they are sent to a bank for circulation. Many hands have touched that quarter, purchasing many items and assisting many people before it came to be in your pocket. What does your item signify for you? Is there something to be thankful for that is associated with your item?
When interacting with other people, do you interact with this same attention with other people? Being fully present during an interaction includes listening to understand, thinking through your actions and reactions before you engage, and to engage on the same level as the other person. We all enjoy when people are really listening when we talk, understanding what we say, and engaging in a way that is conducive to communication for all involved. Part of our mindfulness practice is to also give others this same consideration while interacting with them. While talking with others, focus on what people are saying, listen to understand, think through responses before speaking, and pay attention to body language as well. This helps you to completely understand a situation and promotes constructive communication for all involved. This is important for self talk as well – how do you treat yourself when you are having a conversation with yourself? Do you treat yourself with understanding?
The last two topics on the list are visualization and gratefulness. These two practices can work hand in hand. For our visualization practice, I invite you to open your hand in your lap and pretend that you are holding a fruit or a vegetable, or another type of food you truly enjoy. You may keep your eyes open for this practice if you’d like. Imagine what this food item looks like. Is it rough? Is it smooth? Does it have a peel? Does it have layers? Now imagine what it smells like. Does it smell sweet? Does it smell earthy? Does it have a savory smell? Fully engage in what it looks like and what it smells like. Now imagine taking a bite out of this food. Imagine how it feels when you sink your teeth into it – what texture do you notice? Is it juicy? How does that initial bite taste? As you are chewing this food, do the tastes change? How does the texture change? Once you swallow the food, recall if it has an aftertaste. Recall how your body feels when you finish this delectable food.
If you engage in this practice while you are eating, this would be considered a part of mindful eating. Mindful eating allows us to fully engage in and take pleasure in eating our food. This also helps the body to digest your food in a way that you gain more nutrients and health benefits. You may find that you eat a little slower, that you feel full and satisfied once you eat, and you may feel better once you have finished. Another part of mindful eating is to put away the electronics and minimize distractions. If we are distracted while eating, we may overeat or eat too quickly, which slows digestion and reduces the body’s ability to process what we need.
Gratefulness can be applied during this practice as well as many other practices. For our mindful eating practice, you may also think of how the food came to be on your plate or in your hand. If the food is a plant, think of the people who obtained the seeds, planted them in the ground, and nurtured them until they were ripe. If the food is meat-based, think of the plants that grew that nourished the animal, and the people that tend to that animal as it grows. You may also think of the earth that provided nutrients for the plant or animal, and the water and sunlight that aided in the growth of that item. People then harvest the food and prep the food to be delivered for processing. Other people then pick up the food, process and package the food, and deliver it to the grocery store. Once the foods are at the grocery store and set up for purchasing, you or your family may go to the store and purchase the food, store the food, and prepare the food to bring it to your plate. While thinking through these processes and all of the people who participated in bringing you the food, be thankful for their efforts and time spent. Practicing gratefulness while eating will also help promote healthy digestion and a greater feeling of satisfaction once the meal is completed.
Gratefulness can be applied to anything in our lives, such as giving it to people that we talk with, for appreciating beautiful items that are around us, for lessons learned in our lives, and for ourselves. Practicing gratefulness on a regular basis helps our brains to focus more on the positives in any situation, which in turn helps us feel better about ourselves and the world around us. You may find that the more you practice gratefulness, the more you find things to be grateful for. What are three things you can be grateful for, right now?
Being grateful for yourself is just as important as being grateful to others. For example, you may thank your feet for taking you to the places you need to go. Thank your legs for being supportive and maintaining balance. Thank your stomach and internal organs for digesting your food and pulling the nutrients from the food for your nourishment, and for packaging and disposing of waste products safely. Thank your lungs for processing the air you breathe, and your circulatory and lymph node systems for carrying all the life-giving items you need throughout your body. Thank your voice for being able to express yourself. Thank your hands for their ability to create, in any manner you choose. Thank your face, for showing your beauty to the world. Thank your mental and imaginative processes, for the ability to think, reason, and imagine, and for the ability to learn and grow. And finally, thank your skin and bones for providing structure to your body and for holding all of your pieces together. It may sound funny to start with, but I challenge you to try it and see how your perception of you may change. What other parts of you can you be thankful for?
The topics we discussed today are just the tip of the iceberg – I invite you to learn more about mindfulness as you progress, and take note of how the changes affect your life.