Breathing in, I calm my body
Breathing out, I smile
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment!
-Thich Nhat Hanh
One day John visited one of his old friends, Patrick. To this visit, John brought his 7 year old son, Conner. Conner was a rambunctious young fella. He was into everything. During the two hours that John and Patrick visited, Patrick noticed that John had to keep a constant eye on Conner. The young boy played, chattered away and interrupted John several times, making it impossible to carry on a real conversation. Conner was given books and toys to keep him busy but that only kept his attention a short while before he tossed them aside and was interrupting John and Patrick’s conversation yet again. Finally, John allowed Conner to go outside and play with other children. This gave John and Patrick a real chance to focus on their conversation. “Do you find family life easy?” Patrick asked. John answered, “I used to compartmentalize everything. One part was for Conner, another part for my newborn Jess, another part for my wife Ana and another part for my household chores. What was left over I considered as ‘my time,’ and I could do the duties I found joy in: reading, researching and long walks.” Patrick asked: “Does this work for you?” John quickly answered, “no, not any more. I try not to divide my time into compartments.” John continued, “my time with Conner, my wife and the new born are all the same time – I find ways of seeing their time as my time. In that sense, I chose not to do any task just in order to get it over with; rather, I resolved to do each job in a relaxed way with my full attention. I have chosen to enjoy and be one with my work.” Patrick smiled and said: “How do you accomplish full attention while you work?” John simply said: “The art of mindfulness.”
John is correct in saying that mindfulness is an art. It takes practice in order to master its goal, which is being present in each waking moment. To some people, this may sound daunting, but it is a very simple practice. In this short excerpt, I will discuss how to practice mindfulness; the differences between mindfulness and meditation and finally, 5 simple truths about mindfulness/meditation. At the end of the excerpt, I will provide you with some references.
How to practice mindfulness
There are many ways to go about this practice. As it is said: “there is more than one way to peel an orange.” The essential discipline of mindfulness is that one comes to complete awareness in the moment. So, when someone is walking he/she must be conscious that he is walking; when sitting, the practitioner must be conscious that she is sitting. No matter what position, the practitioner lives in direct mindfulness of the body. However, bodily positions are not enough. You must be aware of each thought and feeling, and each breath as it comes into and out of your body. Again, this probably seems insurmountable: “how am I able to be aware of breath, and thought and bodily position?” The following are some simple suggestions that may help and will be explained in an up coming video. Stay tuned!
Step 1: Taking hold of your breath.
The first step is to take hold of your breath. We are breathing each and every moment. Our breath resides in the present moment; however, we forget we are breathing. We are like Conner in our story, jumping from one activity to another. Our breath is our anchor. Therefore, simply saying to yourself in any moment: “I’m breathing in (inhale), and I’m breathing out (exhale). There! Your first moment of mindfulness! Exciting, isn’t it, and super simple.
Step 2: Following one’s breath
As you are mindful of breathing in and out, we want to be able to focus, or “stay with” the breath. For some this may be as simple as counting the seconds of your inhalation and the seconds of your exhalation. For example, “breathing in (counting 1,2,3,4,5…) breathing out (counting 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,…10). Exhalations are usually longer than inhalations. You may use whatever prop helps you, such as, a clock with a second hand or a clock that has a loud ‘tick,’ which will help with your focus.
Step 3: Bringing breath and awareness into daily activities.
In our story, John found a way to de-compartmentalize his life. He did so through the practice of mindfulness. John found a way to bring his breath and awareness into whatever he was doing. So, when we are washing dishes, we are fully invested in the moment of washing the dishes, feeling the water on our hands, the temperature of the water, and the slipperiness of the dish soap. When we are peeling a tangerine, we breathe in and out, we are able to feel the skin of the tangerine, and smell its sweet fragrance as we break its skin and separate the wedges. When we are walking, we are aware of our breath; we are able to feel the contact of our feet onto the ground. As we breath, we can smell the fragrance of the trees and flowers nearby. You may find it easer to breath in and count your steps and breath out counting your steps. Do this for one minute and you have just experienced one minute of mindfulness!
The Difference between Mindfulness and Meditation.
Meditation is like mindfulness in the sense that it trains our mind to focus on one task; however, there are slight differences. Some people live their lives in an intense, anxious struggle, in a hurried swirl of speed and aggression, in grasping, possessing and achieving, always burdening themselves with more activities and preoccupations. This causes fragmentation and a loss of knowing who we really are, or what aspects of ourselves we should identify with or believe in. So many contradictory voices, dictates, feelings all fighting for control over our inner environment that we find ourselves scattered everywhere, both like Conner and John in our story. Conner’s incessant movements illustrate one who hurries through life at great speed, always preoccupied by the next best thing. John who needs to put people and tasks into compartments.
Meditation is the exact opposite of how some individuals choose to live their lives. In meditation, a person chooses a posture to be in for a specific amount of time each day. There is a connection between the posture of the body and the attitude of our mind. Our mind and posture are interrelated. For instance, someone who is anxious, poor self esteem or victim attitude may have a cowering posture with chest sunk in and shoulders rounded. However, in mindfulness, posture is not as necessary. A practitioner of mindfulness is able to practice seated, standing, walking or completing an activity. Some say that mindfulness is an introduction to meditation; I would have to agree. Mindfulness trains our minds to focus whether we are seated standing or moving.
5 simple truths about mindfulness/meditation
Most people have the conception that they have to meditate for a specific amount of time in order for it to “count.” That is simply not true. A person can meditate for 1 minute each day and find it just as fulfilling as someone who practices for an hour. Set a goal for the time you can spare each day. Let it be simple, say for 1-3 minutes to start out and then work up from your set time. This will give the practitioner confidence that they can achieve their goal.
Although some people may want to start with focusing on the breath, other individuals may find watching or following the breath a hindrance. If following your breath distracts you, then it is simple to find an object that will hold your attention for a set amount of time. When I meet individuals who cannot follow the breath, I usually ask if they have a favorite picture/image that draws them, or a favorite area such as a park or hiking spot. Pictures or images can be used to help one focus. Moreover, a candle can be used in the same way – focusing on the flickering of the flame. Sounds are also useful – the running of a furnace or heater, the dripping of a faucet.
The first section on timing dealt with choosing the proper amount of time. This section on timing deals with the time of day you choose to practice. Some people are more alert in the morning while others find evening times more conducive to practice. Listen to your body and its own internal clock. Morning times are better for me because I am more alert earlier in the morning rather than later at night.
Be intentional about your practice. What do you want to achieve? Greater clarity? Spiritual advancement? Better relationship with God? Whatever the intention, set it and practice with it in mind and heart. Also, being intentional is another way of saying we are going to be mindful about our reasons for practicing. Many people practice for various reasons, what are yours?
- Take the challenge
If you are new to mindfulness, set a challenge for yourself. You may want to try to practice for 1-5 minutes daily for 10, 21 or 40 days. Make sure it is an attainable goal. Most individuals set lofty goals, trying to sit for 30-60 minutes as a beginner. This is a recipe for failure. Set a realistic goal that you are able to achieve. If it is only 1 minute a day for 10 days then honor that challenge.
Mindfulness is both a practice and an art. Mindfulness is not something to be checked off of a to do list of accomplishments; rather, the art of it comes through our daily encounters with it in practice. By using tools that are already available to us such as our breath, daily activities, walking, siting and reading a great book, we can practice mindfulness. It is really that simple! Stay on the look out for a couple of follow up videos. These will be more on the ‘how to’ of mindfulness to be posted on our Facebook page.
The following are a list of great books on meditation/mindfulness. Any book by Thich Nhat Hanh is a wonderful source on mindfulness. He is one of the most practical authors I have read.
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche
The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh
Peace is every Step by Tich Nhat Hanh
Breath! You Are Alive by Thich Nhat Hanh