In many Eastern traditions it has been known for centuries that the practice of mindfulness can have profoundly healing and transformative effects. The benefits of mindfulness practice and meditation are beginning to be understood and appreciated in the practice of psychology with research demonstrating that it enhances psychological and physical well-being. Mindfulness practice improves immune system functioning, lowers blood pressure, reduces pain levels and muscular tension. It is known to improve mental clarity, reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.
It is sometimes thought that the aim of mindfulness is to be calm and relaxed in every moment. While one of the benefits of mindfulness is the cultivation of calmness and peacefulness, the purpose is more about developing awareness and acceptance. Learning to pay attention to our experience, remembering the patterns or habits that we see, and to observe without judgement. To develop an attitude of acceptance toward oneself and one’s experience.
Mindfulness practice invites us to notice and accept our thoughts as events occurring in the mind rather than as a ‘truth’ that defines us; that our thoughts are just thoughts. We often have the belief that we need to push or force ourselves in some way in order for things to be different, for there to be change in our lives, but this is not necessarily the case. Change can and does come through awareness and acceptance. We can learn to be with the fullness of our experience – our joy, our excitement, our aliveness, as well as our fear, our sadness, and our heartache.
This does not mean that we will be perennially sad or fearful. Rather that we can learn to see and experience our sadness or our fear and not feel overwhelmed by the feelings.
Rather than trying to move away from our selves by pushing, forcing or avoiding, we can begin to practice ‘being with’ ourselves.
It takes considerable energy trying to be someone or somewhere we are not. Jon Kabat-Zinn who has been instrumental in introducing the benefits of mindfulness to the practice of psychology says, ‘Wherever you go, there you are!’ When we have been working hard at not being where and who we are, it can feel unusual to just ‘let our selves be’.
Being rather than doing invites a quieter mind and more relaxed body. We have the opportunity from this quieter, more relaxed state to experience our selves and our world differently; to notice that which we have not noticed before and to become curious and interested, rather than critical and judgemental. We are then able to see and consider new choices and to move toward something new.
Practising mindfulness assists you to:
Often when we are new to mindfulness and meditation practices, we can find it daunting. We can regale ourselves with thoughts such as ‘I should meditate every day, or for 30 minutes each morning.’ ‘I should be able to sit in a certain posture’. ‘If I can’t do these things then I can’t benefit from mindfulness and meditation.’ I encourage you to just begin. If a sitting meditation or regular practice feels beyond you, then consider meditations that require body movement and sensing into the body.
Examples of these types of practices are: walking meditation, (paying attention to what is around you as you walk). You can walk slowly and deliberately or you can walk a little faster. It doesn’t matter as long as you are attending to your movement or what is around you in your environment. It may be yoga, tai chi or qigong. Doing any of these activities with conscious awareness is mindfulness practice. If you find yourself back ‘in your mind’ thinking about something other than what you are doing, just notice that you have drifted away and bring yourself back to the moment you are in.
In daily life there are many opportunities to practice mindfulness.
We can attend consciously and mindfully to every activity. As we take our morning shower, we can feel the warmth of the water against our skin, we can enjoy and see the soap forming into bubbles, appreciate a sense of aliveness and waking to the day. Or notice our physical body as it creaks, or springs to life.
We can notice the colour and texture of the food as we prepare our breakfast; the taste as we eat. We can enjoy the sounds of the emerging day; bird calls, traffic beginning, children stirring.
We can experience our feelings of enjoyment and pleasure, tension, anxiety or irritation. These are all part of the passing parade of thoughts and feelings that we as conscious beings have. The aim is to be fully in each moment as it occurs whatever it may be.
We are all mindful to one degree or another. It is an inherent human capacity that we can all foster if we turn our attention toward it. In learning to be mindful we can increase our ability to be fully present in our daily lives, develop resilience, and enhance our sense of well-being.
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