Beginning a Mindfulness Practice
So what exactly is mindfulness? A lot of people out there have the misconception that mindfulness is synonymous with meditation or relaxation. While meditation is certainly a core aspect of a mindfulness practice, there is a lot more to mindfulness and the practice of it.
Thich Nhat Hanh described mindfulness as "show[ing] us what is happening in our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and in the world." More recently, mindfulness has gained popularity after the teachings of Jon Kabat-Zinn. Mindfulness is becoming well researched and has gained evidence for effectively decreasing symptoms of depression, anxiety, binge-eating, and a multitude of other health conditions.
Below are some basic principles that encompass practicing a more mindful lifestyle and are adapted from the works of Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Non-judging: It allows for a person to become an impartial witness to their own experience. You do not try to stop anything from occurring, you do not try to analyze it- just become aware of your experience. You can even practice by noticing your stream of judgment (good, bad, neutral, etc.).
Patience: This allows for a person to let things unfold in their own time and practicing patience within ourselves. Patience means a person is willing to be open to each moment, accepting it, and not trying to rush onto the next "better" moment.
Beginner's Mind: The stories we have developed over time about ourselves and our relationships, the assumptions we make, and our beliefs stop us from seeing things as they actually are. For example, when you see a box, you know that a box is a thing that you put other things into. However, a child doesn't see a box for a box- it is this amazing device that has infinite possibilities. It can be a car, a castle, a rocket ship, or so much more. When we utilize a beginner's mind we are receptive to new possibilities. We get out of our own "expertise."
Acceptance: Closely relating to the principles above, acceptance allows a person to see things as they truly are from moment to moment. We often put a lot of effort into avoiding experiences (internal and external) or denying what is in fact actually occurring. We tend to focus on what we want it to be. This ends up creating anxiety. Now, a crucial point to acceptance is that you do NOT have to passively tolerate everything or even like everything. You do not have to stop trying to engage in healthier behaviors or try to stop decreasing those bad habits or behaviors. Essentially, acceptance is a willingness to see things how they are. Now is the only time we really have for anything.
Trust: We often don't trust ourselves - not even our thoughts or emotions. Trust your own intuition and honor your feelings. You may make mistakes, but you will work through them. Take ownership and responsibility for yourself, your actions, and your well-being.
Non-striving: The only goal in a mindfulness practice is to simply be yourself. Pay attention to who you are right now in this moment without judgment and with plenty of patience. As you begin to incorporate the principles above and move away from striving to something "better," you will notice that you will begin to naturally move in a direction consistent with your values.
Letting Go: Instead of actively pushing experiences or feelings away, simply let them be. Accept things for how they are in this moment. We can let go by just watching (like you would watch clouds drifting by in the sky). If you have a particularly hard time of letting something go, bring your attention/awareness to what the experience of "holding on" feels like. When you can bring your attention to this feeling of "holding" you are already beginning to let go.
Where to Begin?
One of the easiest places to start your mindfulness practice is to simply breathe. Schedule a five to ten minute period of time in a spot where you can sit comfortably, close your eyes, and begin to breathe deeply. Draw your attention to your breath and simply notice what it feels like to breathe. What sensations do you feel physically? Do you feel the rush of air in your nostrils as you breathe in? Can you feel your stomach inflating or rising as you breathe in? Do you notice how your abdomen falls (perhaps slowly, or perhaps quickly) when you exhale? If you notice your thoughts beginning to stray from the breath, do not judge yourself or berate yourself. Simply acknowledge your mind has begun to chatter and gently bring your attention back to your breath.
Another one of my favorite places to begin is to practice a body scan. Start by focusing your attention on your toes and slowly work your way up the body (your feet, your ankles, your calves, your shins, your thighs, your hips, your glutes, your abdomen, etc.) all the way to your head that contains all of your thoughts. Pay attention to any physical sensations. If there is a tightness or a discomfort, acknowledge it and if you are able to adjust allow it, but if it cannot easily be remedied - just notice it and accept it for what it is (e.g., a cramp, a headache). When you reach your head slowly begin to become aware of your thoughts, and in a non-judging manner simply watch them as they flit through your mind. Notice if your mind may becomes stuck on a particular thought or feeling. Try to let it go by acknowledging this "stuck" feeling. To close the exercise I usually then like to turn my attention to my breathing.
Beginning a mindfulness practice can be very helpful. If you are looking to further your practice and learn more, reach out to your therapist, find a local meditation group, or attend any of the numerous mindfulness trainings and seminars offered in the community. There are many classes taught throughout South Florida. I recommend that you find someone to help guide you in your mindfulness training who is certified in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Enjoy! And best of luck on your mindful endeavors! - Dr. Toni