‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally’
(Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4)
“Meditation means learning how to get out of this current, sit by its bank and listen to it, learn from it, and then use its energies to guide us rather than to tyrannize us. This process doesn’t magically happen by itself. It takes energy. We call the effort to cultivate our ability to be in the present moment “practice” or “meditation practice.”
In a previous blog titled New Year’s resolutions and chronic pain – 12 days later, I reflected upon being able to look beyond the all too common goals/desire to improve my health, get stronger and more flexible and ultimately reduce my levels of pain. I continue to resolve to improve my lifestyle as much as I can, and do things that will ultimately improve my quality of life and that of my loved ones; However, rather than focusing on these and these alone, always looking into the future, I decided this year to endeavour to live in the moment as much as possible, regardless of how well are unwell my body feels. This practice of learning to live fully in the moment is gaining more and more momentum in the Western world, and is referred to as Mindfulness.
Mindfulness has been found to improve the well-being of people experiencing a range of psychological disorders, including anxiety and depression. Many people practice mindfulness to develop themselves personally/spiritually. Its ideas and philosophy are being adopted in health care, schools, businesses and many other parts of our communities.
Mindfulness has been found particularly beneficial for those of us experiencing a wide array of chronic illnesses, psychological or physical. Studies have shown regular practice of mindfulness to improve psychological well-being, and reduce pain and suffering. There have also been many very interesting studies showing how regular mindfulness practice actually changes the biochemistry of our brain and nervous system. Vidyamala Burch, a fellow chronic pain/chronic illness sufferer, adapted mindfulness techniques to specifically meet the needs of those of us getting up every day, trying to cope with a body that no longer functions as we would like. Her breathworks courses are being run in venues across the globe and have been reported by many chronic illness sufferers to be extremely beneficial. www.breathworks-mindfulness.org.uk/
I thought it may be beneficial to give you all a little flavour of some of the ideas behind mindfulness and what its practice actually entails.
What are some of the core themes involved in mindfulness practice/thinking?
Living fully in the moment: how much of our daily lives do we spend living in the past or in the future, ruminating about things we have done or not done or worrying about what might happen in the next hour, day, week or year. Whilst doing one activity we are often thinking about what we are going to be doing later in the day, or thinking about something that happened last week. This is referred to as the Doing mode, and yes it is important and indeed necessary that we engage in the world this way from time to time in order to organise our lives.
Living fully in the moment is referred to as the Being mode. There are so many activities and experiences we have every day that we do on automatic pilot, missing out on often the simple beauty of what we my perceive to be a mundane activity, such as:
Really feeling the warmth of a shower on our muscles,
Truly tasting and smelling the aromas of the food we eat,
Fully seeing the beauty of the outside world whether it be trees, architecture or people.
Or even a strange as it may seem, allowing ourselves to be with the very many difficult physical sensations/emotions our various health problems might bring.
when we make new goals or integrate something different into our lifestyle, we have a tendency to beat ourselves up when we do not achieve things in a certain way. This can also happen when you start to practice mindfulness. I can recollect many times when I have thought to myself, either during a structured mindfulness practice or at some point during the day, such things as:
‘I am not doing this practice right, my mind keeps wandering’
‘Why do I keep dozing off during my meditation? I should be able to stay awake and complete my practice’
‘If only I had used mindfulness to cope with that situation rather than letting things spiral out of control in the way that they did’.
And of course we make a wide range of judgements every day: about ourselves, somebody else, an object, basically anything in the world around us. Judging is obviously an integral part of being a human being, helping us form beliefs and making decisions.
However, we frequently make judgements based upon our subconscious initial thoughts, urges, impulses and desires, which are often caught up in complex emotion and unhelpful patterns we have developed during our lives. During mindfulness we are encouraged to take a step back and observe these negative thoughts, urges and impulses from a compassionate perspective so that we do not beat up on, shame or berate ourselves for the uncontrollable initial thoughts and urges that inevitably appear.
Two quotes from the book Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana summarise these two themes of mindfulness nicely:
“it is impossible for us to be aware of what’s going on inside us and in our environment if [we] are busy rejecting its existence.”
“Whatever experience we are having, mindfulness just accepts it… No pride, no shame, nothing personal at stake – what is there is there.”
What does mindfulness practice actually entail?
A few of the different types of mindfulness practice:
Breathing meditation – this involves focusing on the breath as it is, not trying to change it but to connect with the sensations of the breath as they go through your body.
Body scan – the body scan meditation brings you through each and every part of your body starting from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head. It guides you through an observation of the various sensations felt that each different section of your body.
Mindful movement – mindful movement meditation guide you through some slow, purposeful and gentle movements, helping you to really experience what it is like to move certain parts of your body and get in touch with your body’s abilities and limitations through staying with the many sensations bodily experienced.
Sounds and thoughts – during this practice you are encouraged to become more aware of the many signs, big or small, loud or are quiet, in your environment. It also helps you to start to become more observant of your thoughts, being with them but also been able to let them go.
Befriending difficult thoughts/ feelings – this practice allows you to look inside and stay with whatever thoughts, feelings and sensations you might be experiencing and encourages you to connect and really being with some of the more difficult things you may be experiencing.
I hope this blog gives you a little introduction to the ideas and practice of mindfulness. I would really be interested to hear any of your thoughts/reflections on these types of ideas and principles and how they might be able to help you through your journey.
Gunaratana B,H. (Sep 2002) . Mindfulness in Plain English: Wisdom Publications
Kabat-Zinn. (1994). Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life: Hyperion