Much is said and written about mindfulness. It is associated with stress reduction, performance at work, compassion, amongst others. All of these are true. Yet, what is mindfulness and how do we truly practise it? Here are 5 tips for practising mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
The essence of mindfulness, as Thich Nhat Hanh said, is to be ‘deeply in touch with each moment”. In that moment, the quality of our experience begins to change. As the mind becomes absorbed in its object of attention, a new appreciation begins to emerge. Qualities of peace, acceptance and even love may arise. More importantly, we let go of the notion of time and drop into the timeless present. Instantly, mindfulness becomes a vehicle for transformation. How then do we do it?
5 tips for practising mindfulness
These tips are inspired by the work of Larry Rosenberg in the wonderful book, ‘Breath by Breath – The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation‘.
1. When possible, do one thing at a time
Too often in the modern world we favour multi-tasking, either consciously or unconsciously. Yet, the real value is actually paying attention to doing one thing at a time. In Zen, the famous advice is: ‘when you sit, just sit. When you walk, just walk. Don’t wobble.’
This could be extended to all sorts of things in life. Eating meals, drinking tea or coffee, and of course listening to others.
The long and the short of it is to understand what is your central action in the situation. If the primary activity is clear, look into the present moment and attend to whatever needs doing.
However, if the current situation is confusing or chaotic, then sit with that chaos. It may well produce anxiety. Breathe into it, especially if that anxiety is felt in the body. The breath has a habit of self-regulation and the path forward may become more clear. At least in that particular moment.
The breath also acts as a ‘hand-brake’ on the mind’s tendency to be impulsive and react to whatever the situation presents. Impulses may feel natural, but often we regret acting upon them. Anger is a good example, which is like a boomerang – it has a habit of coming back to you.
People may also ask whether doing one thing at a time is more effective or productive. In my view it is. When you practice mindfulness, you tend to be more organised in your work and you make less mistakes. You remember more as you ‘touch into each moment.’ The mind develops laser-like precision as self-organisation becomes a tool for developing calmness. A concentrated mind is a calm-mind. A highly turbulent mind is not.
That said, it may not always be possible or practical to do one thing at a time, for example if you are socialising or eating a meal together with family and friends. But it is possible to break down each of the individual moments into ‘bite-sized’ chunks and consume whatever you are doing mindfully. Move from one person, to one bite of food – like a camera that is zooming in and out. All the time.
Overall, we make life very complicated. But often that complication is a function of too much, at one point in time. Carefully do one thing at a time and experience the difference in your mind.
2. Pay full attention to what are you are doing
The next tip is to really pay attention to whatever you are doing. It really is that simple. In this respect, even the most mundane can become the most extraordinary. So if you are washing the dishes, wash the dishes. If you find your mind wandering and becoming impatient that whatever you are doing is boring or ‘wasting your time’, you are becoming a ‘victim of time’. Your mind has become separate from your body.
Remember, the nature of the mind is empty. What we project is an imagination. If you find yourself getting annoyed or frustrated, then you are indeed stuck in the middle of an illusion, because your projection at that time is faulty. What only matters is what you are doing now.
Furthermore, in these moments, the experience of whatever you are consuming may begin to change. If you are washing the dishes, you may notice how good it feels to transform something that was previously dirty, to something that is now clean and sparkling.
You may notice the space that you create in your life and mind as a result of keeping things tidy and orderly. It could be that you may taste different flavours that were previously missed in the act of gulping down food or coffee whilst you read the newspaper or consume social media on your phone. You may hear more and develop more intimacy with the person of whom you are having a conversation.
In this respect, the end result of the mind’s absorption often is quite striking. From one moment to the next, we can begin to experience life very differently, all at a blink of an eye.
3. When the mind wanders from what you are doing, bring it back
The very act of noticing that the mind has wandered is an act of mindfulness in itself. When this happens, and we notice our thoughts, an act of magic happens. We touch into our ‘awareness’. Awareness is the realm that we all dance in. Most of us are completely unconscious of it. But when we do, there is an opportunity to pause and respond to the situation in a different way.
Thoughts are thoughts. In some respects we are our thoughts. In other ways, in the magic of mindfulness, we are not. Whether we are our thoughts or not is a matter of academic and intellectual debate, which themselves are merely a product of our consciousness.
The most important part is recognising that your mind has wandered. This brings stability to a situation. There is an opportunity pause and come back to whatever is the focus of attention. It gives an opportunity perhaps to respond to a situation in a different way.
This brings clarity – seeing things for what they are. Perhaps there is anger. Perhaps there is frustration. Things pass. In each moment.
From clarity comes inner strength, as we respond skilfully to a situation rather than impulsively. This allows us to move confidently in life knowing that mindfulness is always by our side.
4. Repeat step number 3 several billion times
The nature of the mind is to wander. It produces thoughts, thousands of them on a daily basis. So whenever you notice that the mind has decided to do its own thing, the instruction is to bring the mind back to its object of attention. Gently.
There is no need to self-judge or criticise yourself. That is what the mind does. Of course, if yours or someone else’s mind depended on it is another question, then a greater degree is required. However for the most part, a wandering mind is a healthy part of human consciousness. It may even have some benefits.
5. Investigate your distractions
Finally, as much as the instruction in practising mindfulness is to notice whenever the mind has wandered, and repeat that instruction endlessly, there is in fact a lesson here. If the mind is continuously being distracted, it might be a useful source of information for you.
Perhaps what you are doing right now is not serving you. It could be your work. Your relationship. Your life situation as it is right now.
Take the situation if you truly love what you are doing. You will generally find no problem focusing your attention on it. Through focus comes happiness, as the mind becomes absorbed in the object of attention. This is the true source of happiness.
So if you are not happy, and find that the mind is constantly wandering or being distracted, then investigate it.
In some respects, the practice of mindfulness is about waking up. If whatever is your distraction is consistently present, pay full attention to it. Try to understand what it is telling you.
That said, practice with grace but determination. Larry Rosenberg likens the practice to ‘falling asleep’ and waking up again and again. The key is not apply mindfulness in a downcast, ambitious and joyless way. It should not be heavy as the burden of self-expectation creeps in. This only leads to disappointment, especially if accompanied by attitudes of self-criticism and judgement. Comparing yourself to others, especially through the consumption of social media is another way of sabotaging your practice.
To the contrary, mindfulness can help you become, in the worlds of Larry, ‘freer and lighter’. There is a sense of tapping into awareness, sifting through the seemingly endless thoughts produced by the mind. Touching into those thoughts and coming back ‘home’ is where the experience of mindfulness really begins to transform.
In conclusion, these five tips for practising mindfulness is all that you need to start. Qualities and attitudes relating to stress reduction, compassion and performance at work or at sport are important, but ancillary to the main idea. Experience the joys of simplicity and make your life richer. It is in these moments that our lives are found. Ambition and achievement of goals can often be a vacuous and disappointing experience. Rather, it is the moments in between where we can really understand what it means to live.
If I can help you experience mindfulness for the first time or learn yoga and meditation, please feel free to get in touch.