What is Mindfulness?
Without going into the history of the word, I’ll opt for a broad interpretation. No doubt I’ll catch some flack for it, but I’ve never been one to draw hard lines. In my view, Mindfulness is a flexible practice that allows one to become both more focused and more circumspect.
Mindfulness is an ability to harness one’s mind. Rather than allowing thoughts to run wild through our heads, we can bring them back to whatever it is that we want to focus on. As an artist, it might be to zoom in on a particular object. For a conductor, it might mean an ability to hear and analyze the entire orchestra at once. Someone else may need to be keenly aware of surroundings, and yet concentrate on something specific. A practice of Mindfulness can help with all of these things.
My grandparents lived on the edge of a wood, in Oklahoma. As a child and adolescent, I’d wander out there for hours. Sometimes, I’d find a quiet spot in the shade, and sit. With my eyes closed, I could spread out my awareness to hear nearby bird calls, a zephyr moving among the leaves, the distant bark of a dog. Opening them, I would notice even tiny movement. A quick flash of light might be a grasshopper flitting from one blade to another. I learned to see birds and squirrels hiding in the branches, fish in the water. My teenage involvement with yoga taught me to attend to my body. How was I breathing? What was going on with my legs or arms? It’s only been recently that I understood that this was called Mindfulness. Until then, it was just what I did.
So, who might need to practice Mindfulness? My short answer is, anyone who needs to use their brain. Why? The regular mental exercise of Mindfulness can help us slow things down, be more cognizant of what’s going on in there, and to keep the upper hand when our thoughts want to run off to the beaches of Tahiti.
What Mindfulness Isnt
It isn’t strict. While it’s always good to work hard on a thing, there is no really bad way to practice Mindfulness. If you cant make the time every day, dont worry about it. Just do it when you can. As you do, time often begins to open up, and the practice will become easier.
It isn’t religious or philosophical. Anyone can develop a mindful way of living.
Mindfulness isnt judgmental. The longer we practice it, the more we can accept what Life brings us, without being critical. We see that a thing or situation exists, that it is a part of our experience, and we can decide if it requires anything from us.
One of the cool things about practicing Mindfulness is that you don’t need a special place or time to do it. In fact, ultimately, it should be something that we’re doing all the time. As we exercise our mindful muscles, it will become natural to take in our surroundings, or to bring our attention to that one thing that needs it, right now. As this happens, we’ll also notice a difference in the way that we respond to things that Life presents to us. Daily stress will be replaced by calm confidence. Instead of frustration, we’ll discover a well of patience. Of course, none of this can happen unless we get started, so let’s do that.
A Basic Mindful Meditation
To begin your meditation, you’ll need a five-minute timer, and a place to sit or stand comfortably. Mindful meditation doesn’t require any particular position, so a chair or couch is fine for sitting. You can also stand, if you like. The main thing is that you don’t want to fall asleep. Your back should be straight, but not stiff, and your hands relaxed on your thighs, in your lap, or resting at your sides if you’re standing.
Now, set your timer and get comfortable. You can close your eyes or find a place to rest your gaze as your body settles into this new position. This should take only a few seconds, then, begin to focus on your breath.
Unlike yogic meditation, for this exercise, there is no prescribed method of breathing. Just turn your attention to your breath. Pay attention to whether your breaths are long and deep, or shallow, but don’t try to breath any particular way. That isn’t important, right now. Instead, notice the feeling in your nostrils as the air moves in and out, and keep your focus there.
Already, your thoughts may have wandered, and that’s fine. Just let go of them and bring your attention back to the breath. Don’t worry if you cant hold it there for more than a few seconds. That’s why this is called “practice”. As you work it, you’ll gain more control and be able to hold your focus longer. Honestly, I don’t know anyone whose mind doesn’t stray, at least a little. Simply keep at it until the timer sounds.
Some people have trouble with a breath-based meditation, and that’s alright. Simply find something else to focus on. When this happens to me, I briefly touch a finger to a spot between my eyebrows and focus on that spot. When my thought’s take off, I come back to that spot.
Another method is to hold an object and set the focus there. A small sphere, a ring, a feather, or any other small object will work, so long as it wont be a distraction. As you meditate, make note of the texture of its surface. Feel the weight of it.
One excellent method works as both a focal object and a timer, and it’s easy. Place a piece of hard candy or a throat lozenge in your mouth and focus on it. Resist any temptation to bite it, and pay attention to the flavor and texture as it slowly dissolves. When it’s gone, you’re meditation is finished. How’s that for simplicity?
If closed eyes don’t work for you, find an object where your gaze can rest. Once again, any object will do. As you meditate, see the texture of it. Notice the way light and shadow play on its surface, but don’t analyze. Just see.
In meditation, Time seems to fluctuate. On some occasions, five minutes will seem like fifty. Then again, it can seem like fifty seconds. I have no explanation for this. It just is.
What if I cant make the whole five minutes?
It’s cool. Just do what you can. You’ll know when you’re done, but try. It’s been my experience that, if I drop out before my timer sounds, I almost always see that I had just a few seconds left. It will probably be the same for you. If at first you find that you just cant do five minutes, try three, or even two. It isn’t the time that’s important, it’s the process. Better to make the effort than to quit because you aren’t reaching a certain milestone. Mindfulness isn’t a competition.