Practising Mindfulness on a daily basis has the potential to bring about increased self awareness, mental stillness, calm and a mechanism to disengage from negative thoughts. Mindfulness is a conscious moment to moment awareness, cultivated by systematically paying attention on purpose and being an impartial witness to your own experience (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, 2004). It involves intentionally bringing one’s attention to the internal experiences (thoughts, feelings, emotions and bodily sensations) and external experiences (sights, sounds, etc) occurring in the present moment (Baer, 2003). The Mindfulness that Kabat-Zinn (2004) promotes in his mindfulness-based stress reduction program is underpinned by the following seven attitudes:
Stepping back from the constant flow of mental judgements and preconceived ideas we have about the world. To help practice this, we can use the mindfulness meditation to note the judgements that arise while completing the meditation (e.g. ‘I’m not doing this right’ or ‘that noise is annoying and distracting me from being able to do this’). Note the judgement, and then bring your attention back to the meditation. Each time you do this, you’ll be stepping back from the judgement (even if it comes up several times).
Giving time to experience what we are experiencing without need to get to the next experience that may be more pleasurable. To help practice this, we can use the mindfulness meditation to note the urges or thoughts that attempt to compel us to move to the next part of the meditation. Note these urges/thoughts and then move your attention back to the part of the meditation that you are currently on. You may have to do this several times, but that approach is ok and very much an integral part of the meditation process.
- Beginners Mind
To see events as if for the very first time without any preconceived labels or ideas of that experience. To help practice this, we can use the mindfulness meditation to be curious of the different aspects of our experience. Being curious will help to go further than the instant labelling of the experience. We often label things instantly and reduce the depth of them. As an example, we see a tree, simply label it as ‘a tree’ and move on. However, there is much more to a tree than a label. The depth of a tree includes the type of leaves, the colour of the leaves, the texture of the leaves, the network of branches, the trunk of the tree (and how still this can be when the wind is blowing and yet the branches are swaying), the bark of the tree and so on. In the mindfulness meditation, we can become curious of our experience by noticing on purpose the different aspects of what we can sense in our body. For instance, the temperature of our skin, the sensations (or lack of them) when we focus on a particular part of the body. We can also focus other sensations in our body and their characteristics such as discomfort, a sense of feeling relaxed, tingling or just a kind of subtle feedback that tells you that part of your body is there and ok. We can also observe how our thoughts attempt to pull us away from the meditation.
To have reliance and belief in our own ability and intuition. To listen to the innate sensations or feelings which arise within us and to honour them. Often, we can note something that arises within our intuition but quickly dismiss it. We can doubt our thoughts, feelings and urges. Signs that tell us we are ok, or not, as the case may be. Having trust that our body and mind is doing the job it always could is an important aspect to recognise and develop. This also applies to the mindfulness practice. Each person will have a different experience of the meditation. It’s important to trust that your experience is the right one, simply because it is your experience. It’s also important to trust and have faith that during each practice you are developing and refining your mindfulness skills, which can take time. Trust that these skills will develop even if in the first few attempts you may not fully understand the process. Continued practice has the potential to lift the mist for the skills to reveal themselves to you. However, trusting in the process is especially important at the beginning. Those that have learnt a complex skill (e.g. learning to drive a car) will not have understood the full complexity of driving on their first lesson. However, over time, lesson by lesson, being introduced to each skill in turn, and then putting it all together, uncovers the learners ability to drive a car.
To 'be', rather than 'do'. Allowing the experience be what it is and not creating an end goal. One of the missteps we can make with mindfulness practice, is to want the practice to do something for us in that moment. Wanting peace, calmness, lowering of turbulent emotions, clarity of mind, etc. However, while these aspects are potential pleasant side effects of practicing mindfulness meditation, they become obstacles if we crave them. Present day life often can be filled with tasks and, ‘doing’ or keeping oneself busy. If we sit still we can suddenly become aware of our inner thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Our minds tend to tell us this is not productive, that we should be making the most of our time… with ‘doing’. Doing isn’t such a bad thing, it’s just it can often take on a momentum of its own. We fill our lives with distractions and miss the life that is within us. We continue to keep busy and not recognise that our capacity and energy is being depleted. Sometimes, stopping and not doing can be the most productive time. It can allow us to rest and replenish our energy and let go of the busyness of life. In the mindfulness meditation, we practice this non-striving or non-doing by allowing our experience to be as it is. Simply noting our experience without needing to do anything with it, and trusting this is ok.
Allowing things to be as they are, without denial or rejection of the present situation. One thing to note here about this type of acceptance, it’s not the same as giving in or submission. This acceptance is very different. We allow what is, in the present moment, to be as it is… because it’s already there. Denying what is, is effectively denying reality. However, once we accept that something has existence in our reality, it opens the possibility of doing something about it, if we want to, and if that is possible in the present moment. If we can’t do anything about it, then we accept that in this moment we are unable to act. However, there may come a future moment when we can act. Until then, we accept it is there without attempting to change it (Tolle, 2004). Attempting to change something when we can see there is no possibility, is like standing in a river and trying to push the flow in the opposite direction. It’s futile, expends wasted energy and creates frustration or other negative emotions. As an example, within the mindfulness practice we may note that many thoughts arise. We may prefer a different experience, but as the thought has arisen, we allow its existence (because we have no choice, it’s there already!). Thoughts tend to come and go like leaves on a river that float past and disappear out of sight as the river meanders. In the mindfulness meditation, we simply note the thought and let it pass on by as if it were a leaf on a river.
- Letting go
To have no attachment, repulsion or holding on to thoughts feelings or experiences. In life we have a tendency to hold on to those experiences that are pleasant and resist those that are unpleasant. This could be the same for our thoughts (the memories, judgements or decisions we make about our experiences). We can also hold on to negativity (e.g. grudges, fears, harsh judgements). We can hold on to the need to be right, and in some cases, holding on as though our life depends on it. We can hold on to power in many subtle or explicit ways, even holding on to a desire for power. Seeking or having power isn’t necessarily a bad thing in the right circumstances. However, the intensity of the desire or use of power can be very toxic in certain circumstances. During the mindfulness meditation practice, we simply observe our experiences, thoughts, emotions or sensations without the need to hold on to them. We allow them to arise (because they will) but we then allow them to disappear. If they are persistent, then we continue to observe them without getting caught up in them. It’s important to notice any resistance within our experience while completing the meditation practice. Either resistance to letting go of pleasant thoughts (by adding to them with more thoughts), or attempting to push unpleasant thoughts away. Often our focus of attention gets pulled away by these different types of thoughts. One way of letting them go is to note you are having them, and then refocus back to the part of the body you were currently observing. This may have to be repeated several times, so watch out for any judgements that suggest you are doing the practice wrong or that it’s hopeless!
Baer, R. A. 2003. Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention: A Conceptual and Empirical Review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10 (2), pp. 125-143.
Kabat-Zinn, J. 1994. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion Books
Kabat-Zinn, J. 2004. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness. 15th Year Anniversary edn. New York: Delacorte.
Tolle, E. 2004. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Vancouver: Namaste Publishing.