What is mindfulness, and why practice it?
One of the most influential teachings of spiritual authors such as Eckhart Tolle and Buddhist monk and prolific writer, Thich Nhat Hahn, communicates the power of engaging fully with the present moment. Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose, in a particular way (Jon Kabat-Zinn). When we are mindful, we consciously bring our awareness and attention to our thoughts, feelings, actions and the environment around us. We do this in a deliberate, non-judgemental and compassionate way.
Many of us do not know how to be compassionate towards ourselves, and very often we do things on ‘auto-pilot’, without noticing what we’re doing. We automatically judge ourselves and others and try to do ten things at once. We frequently get caught up in thoughts and feelings about past or future that we get lost in them, disconnecting from what is happening here now.
By practicing mindfulness we can learn how to cultivate awareness, kindness and acceptance of ourselves as we are right now. We can get in touch with our “authentic self”, how we are actually doing, and allow for things to be “as they are” or as they happen in real time. Doing so creates space and time between our thoughts, emotions, actions, people and situations, and enables us to respond in a more understanding and meaningful way rather than just reacting to emotions, getting caught up with the story in our mind, or neglecting ourselves or others.
Why practice mindfulness?
- Improved mental and physical health
- Improved communication
- Improved focus and concentration
- Improved relationships
- Improved quality of life
Many people practice mindfulness both formally and informally to experience a more enriching and deeper connection with life and to help build inner strength and confidence to stay steady and focused regardless of circumstance.
By practicing mindfulness, we can recognise that all living and non-living things are interconnected. We may also become aware of how our actions may be creating suffering for ourselves and others. We can become aware of our habitual patterns or tendencies, and in doing so develop insight into the causes of our own suffering. Rather than controlling conditions or searching for conditions to be “just right”, we can actualise freedom in this moment by being fully present and allowing ourselves to experience “life as she is”.
We are often unaware of our tendency to project our preference onto others or the world around us and how this can warp or skew our perception of reality, thus greatly impacting on our relationships with others. Mindfulness teaches us to “shine the light inwards” and be a kind witness to our thoughts, emotions, actions and habits in daily life. In this way we cultivate the capacity and freedom to make choices that lead us to live a more harmonious, peaceful and happier life.
Examples of formal mindfulness practice
Mindful body scan
This is usually practiced for about 20-30 minutes or more and involves systematically and mindfully focusing attention and awareness on each part body part from the tips of the toes to the crown of the head. This can be practiced either sitting or lying down, and usually beginners are provided with guided instructions on the practice.
Mindful abdominal breathing exercises
This is usually practiced for around 20-30 cycles of breath. Each inhale and exhale may take around 6-7 counts and is completed in a mindful way. Initially, beginners may be guided or given instructions on how to complete the breathing exercise with the goal of practicing independently.
Mindful movement (eg. Yoga asana or postures, Tai Chi, Chi-Gong)
Making time to practice yoga asana or stretching in a mindful way helps us to focus our attention on how our body is moving, the tension we may hold in our bodies as we move, how our breath is regulated as we move, and the thoughts that may arise when we move through a sequence of postures (or asanas).
‘Zazen’ or sitting meditation
In Zen Buddhism, zazen is a sitting meditation and in general it can be regarded as a means of insight into the nature of existence. Practitioners traditionally sit zazen as a group in a meditation hall, usually referred to as the zendo. The practitioner sits on a cushion call a zafu which itself is usually placed on top of a low, flat mat called a zabuton.
‘Kinhin’ or Walking meditation
In Buddhism, kinhin is the walking meditation that is practiced between long periods of the sitting meditation known as zazen. Practitioners walk clockwise around a room while holding one hand closed in a fist while the other hand grasps or covers the fist (‘shashu’). During walking meditation each step is taken mindfully after each full breath. The pace of walking meditation may be slow or brisk.
Examples of informal mindfulness practice
- Mindful breathing; eg. of each breath as we sit, walk, stand, wait, talk, watch, listen etc.
- Mindful eating; eg. when we eat (or don’t eat) breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks etc.
- Mindful walking; eg. to and from our car, work, home etc.
- Mindful cleaning; when we clean (or don’t clean) the dishes, vacuum the house, scrub the bathroom etc.
- Mindful conversation; eg. when we talk or listen to others etc.
- Mindful working; eg. when we are on the computer, in a business meeting, typing emails etc.
- Mindful waiting; eg. while we wait for the bus, our next work meeting, at the traffic lights etc.
- Mindful driving; eg. to and from work, home, the gym, to friends or family’s places etc.
- Mindful listening; eg. to music playing in our car, to the birds, surrounding noises etc.
- Mindful watching; eg. when we watch the TV, watching a footy game or favourite sport etc.
“My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand”
- Thich Nhat Hahn
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