Look at the child in this picture. That stare . . . it’s called the 10,000-mile stare and you see it when somebody is totally absorbed in the moment. His eyes are open, but he is completely present with the smell of the flower. That’s mindfulness: absorption in the present moment. No judgment, just presence.
Simply noticing what is. Not judging it, not making assumptions as to why it is this way or that. Just allowing your mind to do what it is designed to do at the most basic level: Notice reality, just as it is.
Mindfulness master-teacher John Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as, “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” Now I should point out right now that Kabat-Zinn is a highly educated, very respected professional with a Ph.D. in molecular biology from MIT.
Mindfulness practice helps everything from stress, anxiety, and depression, to motivation, frustration, and insomnia.When it comes to dealing with anxiety, for example, a mindfulness-based approach gives you the ability to recognize your anxiety triggers (i.e. be mindful of anxiety triggers), and develop an intuitive method that relieves anxiety when it does show up.
Meditation is a powerful way to practice mindfulness since it focuses not on an outcome like “no thoughts, no mind” but instead on simple awareness of what the mind IS doing (this is also called Meta-Cognition, or Meta-Awareness). Meditation is sometimes misunderstood; the idea of attaining “no mind” works well for some, but leaves others bewildered as to why they can’t ‘make’ their mind stop working. To be clear, we don’t say “mindlessness,” instead, we say “mindfulness” because we are increasing our awareness of the mind’s antics for a period so that we get accustomed to it.
Mindfulness practice is so simple that it’s hard
Many people talk about practices like mindfulness and meditation (the 2 are not unrelated . . . in my approach, meditation is an exercise in mindfulness) as being quite frustrating in the beginning; like they just cannot get them “right.” See the judgment right there? That’s the stumbling block for most of us. We think that mindfulness means that we are not distracted by anything; that we are 100% in the present, 100% of the time, with zero distractions. WRONG! Mindfulness is much easier than that. The practice of mindfulness can seem difficult because we are not used to things being as they are; we add judgment and assumptions–the distractions. These distractions, however, can be used as leverage. If we will use meditation practice to help us release attachments from being perfect, then we become mindful of what it feels like to be distracted! In other words, as soon as we realize that we are distracted by judgments, assumptions, etc., we simply breathe in, and think, “Ah. This is what distraction feels like. Ok.” then we move on, exhaling, grateful for the realization that there is no reason to judge the judgment (but if we do, breathe in and notice what it feels like to judge judgment, then exhale. . .).
Once you have formed the new habit of letting go of attachment to perfection, doing it “right” etc., mindfulness does kick in as a second-nature skill. So how do we cultivate it? Well, meditation, for starters.
There is no shortage of methods to use to cultivate mindfulness. Find what feels natural to you. I’ll list just a few here.
Mindful eating means that you slow down, turn off the radio/tv/computer etc., and be present with the total experience of eating. For example, let’s look at a common healthy snack: raisins. Take one raisin and put it in the palm of your hand and look at it; really study the shape, the texture, the color. Is it shiny? Is there a stem hole on the tip? Then slowly and gently roll the raisin between your thumb and index finger, slightly squeezing it (but not squashing it — unless you just want to feel that experience); really feel the texture, the grooves, if it’s hard or soft, etc. Then bring the raisin to your nose, and inhale deeply; study the aroma. Does it elicit any feelings (the smell center in the brain is next to structures responsible for memory and emotion, so if you grandma made great raisin bread, you may feel nostalgic)? Once you have done this, place the raisin in your mouth, but don’t immediately chomp down on it. . . instead, notice the texture with your tongue, roll it between your cheek and gum, etc. Then, when you are ready, slowly bite down and feel the explosion of flavor! Don’t swallow immediately, just sit with the flavor for a moment; when you do swallow, see how far you can follow the raisin as it goes down your esophagus and into your stomach.
You can use this technique with any food. You will find that you eat slower, enjoy the food more, and eat less because you are not rushing and shoving food down as quickly as possible.
Mindfulness with nature
Take a walk, or even just sit on your patio, and notice nature. What do you hear? Smell? See? Feel? Really use all of your senses. How do you feel? I had a Taiji teacher who would encourage us to go into the woods, or a park, etc. and hold each position until we felt a shift in the wind, or a bird chirp, or when the sun peeked back out . . . basically being mindful of nature and allowing the mindfulness to guide our practice. Very cool.
You can also just sit there. If in a kayak, feel the waves, the breeze etc. Just notice all that nature is doing around you.
Mindful body awareness
This is often used as a part of Progressive Relaxation. Start by laying down with a pillow under your knees to relieve pressure on your lower back. Then, starting with your toes, just notice if there is any tension; move up your feet, over your ankles, over your calves/shins, past your knee, gradually scanning your body for tension, relaxation, etc. If you feel tension, breathe in and flex the muscle, then exhale as you release the muscle.
Another practice in body awareness uses your pulse. You can still be laying down for this. Begin by feeling your heartbeat in your chest; if you have trouble finding it, it’s ok, many people do . . . just place your hand over your heart and you will find it. Next, see if you can feel your carotid pulse, again, if you cannot feel it in your neck immediately, it’s ok, just use your middle and ring finger to find it–it’s where you check the pulse when doing CPR, just to the side of the windpipe. When you have it with your fingers, try finding it with just your mind. Be patient, the further away from your heart you get, the harder the pulse is to find because the blood pressure is lower. There are many pulse points all over the body. You may notice some in your head, arms, even in your thumbs and index fingers (and palm). Typically, the most difficult to find using only mindfulness (vs palpating with fingers) is the pulse point in the big toe; it’s the furthest from the heart, so the blood pressure is lowest there. Again, be patient. If you feel frustrated, simply inhale gently, then think, “Ah. This is what frustration feels like. Ok.” Then exhale and return to your practice.
Please email me any unique practices that you come across and I will add some of them here.
Mindfulness through studying it
Read authors like John Kabat-Zinn, Eckhart Tolle, Wayne Dyer, Tich Naht Hahn, Alan Watts, Ram Dass, etc. Check out my book list for more ideas.
Learn more about Mindfulness-based Counseling in Austin.
Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan is a Gottman-trained Couples Counselor, and in 1998 received training by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.