I’ve been looking around at quite a few different ways to learn and practice mindfulness. There are heaps and I realise that I’m just dipping my toe in water that has been flowing for many hundreds of years really.
If the essence of mindfulness is to be fully present, then most of us have probably achieved this at various times in our lives – that sense of ‘flow’ or the moments when body, mind, spirit and any other bits of the human self integrate without recalling the past, without predicting the future. To deliberately re-create this, especially during more challenging times, is what I want to consider today.
I mentioned a day or so ago that for some people, explaining the how and why is much less successful than plunging right in. I think I am biased in terms of preferring to understand the ‘why’ before I do things… Perhaps something that is distinctive in this therapy is the experiential elements – it really is important as a therapist to know how and to practice mindfulness, so that it’s a lot easier to explain and guide another person into it. Now I’m not the only person who has said this: Dr Chris Walsh writes about this in his paper on Practical Techniques in a section called Why mindfulness instructors need their own practice. He says ‘To teach an experiential skill (to coach) requires some mastery of that skill…experiential information is often conveyed non-verbally. This can be done skilfully if the instructor carries the information at an experiential level, within the body…This makes it easier to learn by modelling, just as a rock climbing student might do with an instructor.’
So…what can we do to learn?
My first steps for myself were to learn to be mindful of my breathing. It’s an ancient zen practice to meditate breathing – to achieve complete focus only on the breathing of ten breaths. Try it now – to completely focus only on breathing in, breathing out – without distraction, without mind chatter including labelling or naming sensations, without the thoughts taking off…
Now the mindfulness part of this is to notice the thoughts wandering and gently allow them to float away while returning the attention to your breath again.
Being a very visual person, I use imagery for myself a lot – so images like the thoughts are wrapped up in a bubble, floating in the air…. or thoughts are simply blowing away from me…. or are falling onto floating leaves in a stream… or drifting down like leaves from a tree….or feathers…
Most of my images are from nature, but other images I’ve experienced using include sitting in a train, allowing the thoughts to be falling far behind as I move onward…being in a boat, watching the thoughts floating away on the wake….thoughts being part of a machine, being taken in and being processed, coming out the other side on a conveyor belt and moving far away…
I usually spend a few minutes actively ‘managing’ my thoughts using imagery, then my focus on it’s own returns to my breath.
To guide my focus on my breath, I notice my breath in my body. The cool air coming in my nose, and down my throat, becoming warmer as it moves deeper into my body – the warmer air coming out of my nose and moving the tiny hairs of my nostrils. The movement in my body as the air fills my lungs, tightening pressure on my belly against my clothing as my lungs are filled, relaxing as I breathe out. Awareness that my breath out is often longer than my breathe in, that my breathing is ‘coming from’ my belly button…
And usually I become aware that I am naming these experiences, and allow my mind to name them then return to just feeling them rather than naming them. Being gentle rather than critical, taking my time so my mind and body have no coercion or force or requirement to do anything – rather, just allowing it to occur and noticing it as it happens.
A words I associate with this practice is ‘curiousity’ or ‘inquiry’ or even ‘exploring’, but not in an active sense, just in a floating sense.
A killer for mindfulness is to expect a certain emotion, feeling or result. That’s like expecting it to be something that it hasn’t yet achieved. My preparedness to receive what happens is the key to using this process. Sometimes I do feel incredible peace and connection, other times I feel detached, or as if I’m a spectator. Still other times I leave feeling energised or ready for action, while at other times I feel ready to fall asleep. What will be, will be and what happens, happens… That is at the heart of the practice, to just allow space for something or nothing to occur, and just be.
Sometimes while sitting with an experience during this breathing practice I can feel emotions welling up (and I have seen this with other people I have coached). Again, this is something that can just be allowed to happen then subside – emotions never stay forever, unless we are trying to edit them or restrict them or focus in on them. Allowing the emotion (fear, sadness, anger, loneliness) to rise then fall so we go with it, and accept it as part of our experience, makes it less powerful and it passes on.
Distraction in the learning stages of meditating is very common. Again, I’ve used imagery for myself, other times I have just said to myself before I start that I will hear noises or feel sensations and that they are there but will just help me appreciate the moment. So I allow them to be heard, then gently return to the breath. Sometimes just being aware of the space between each sound or sensation, or distinguishing between different sensations on different parts of my body can allow them to be felt then my mind returns to my breathing.
I have used prepared scripts, pre-recorded onto CD or MP3 player, and sometimes used music (mainly ambient sounds from nature or bells). This is great initially I think, but over time it can become the focus and be a sort of prop that interferes with the process of being fully present. So perhaps it’s something to use in the beginning, but later can be used occasionally to keep the experience fresh. The mindfulness can be brought into every day activity like brushing your teeth, or getting into the car and putting the keys in the ignition, or even while washing dishes and doing laundry.
For some good examples, Chris Walsh has made some great suggestions, with references to refer to.
I particularly like Chris’s description of ‘Urge Surfing’. This is a method to reduce the ‘feeding’ of an urge by either trying to resist it, or attending to it and actually doing it. Essentially it follows exactly the same format as I’ve described above for emotions and sensations, by sitting with the impulse or urge, allowing it to build by gentle acknowledging it as a thought, then perhaps defining it, or perhaps letting our attention return to our breath and noticing any changes to the urge or sensation throughout the cycle of the breath. Chris recommends five cycles of breathing – I think it doesn’t matter how long it takes! I can see application of this in exposure therapy, and I know I have used it myself without realising that was what I was doing! You know when you really want to scratch an insect bite? And can’t? And you can allow that feeling to pass… and it does…
Finally, this is a great site with a wonderful paper by Ruth Baer summarising the conceptual and empirical features of mindfulness training. Enjoy.
And for some koan to consider as you meditate? Try these… they are ancient.