7 Musts of Mindfulness
For people who have only ever heard of Mindfulness; just what it is can seem both unknown and simple at the same time. Simple in that its very name, “Mindfulness,” seems to suggest focusing on something. Unknown, in that just what it means to focus on something is not quite so clear. For those who practice it, Mindfulness can seem all consuming at times as it permeates more and more aspects of their lives, particularly when they are still learning to practice it. Either way, sometimes it can be a lot easier to understand something if you have a few basic principles to follow. It this piece we are looking at 7 such principles that i feel sum up Mindfulness and the practice of it in easy to understand bite size pieces.
1. Observing your Monkey Mind.
Zen Buddhists refer to the constant chatter of the mind as having a Monkey Mind. The Buddha held that the human mind is filled with monkeys flinging themselves from tree to tree, jumping around, and chattering nonstop. It is that constant movement of our thoughts from one thing to the next that they were referring to. It can be the pain of a relived past event, the anxiety of a future event you feel unprepared to deal with, or something as simple as the plan for the rest of your day, the plot of a soap opera you have been watching or what you will have for your lunch. It is all and every thought that runs through your head, one after the other, with no seeming rhyme or reason.
So having identified what the Monkey mind might look, sound and feel like now all you have to do is notice sometimes when you are doing it. Given that this is pretty much how our minds work all of the time don’t worry about wasting a lot of energy trying to catch your self being in the Monkey mind. Any time you look you will probably find it. The trick… if you want to practice being mindful… is to look. It is the observation that mattes. You do not need to try and shut it down or change it, just observe it and recognise what it is. If your mind is wondering where you might pick up some salmon on the way home then acknowledge just that, “My mind is wondering where i might pick up salmon on my way home.” This act of noticing is being Mindful
2. Limit multi-tasking.
It is very hard to become aware of what you are doing when you are doing many things all at the same time. For example you might be working on a project at your computer when suddenly “Bing,” a mail comes in. Distracted you open the mail, read, it send a reply and return to your project. At the same time you have a pot of potatoes cooking and you are aware that at 4.40 you need to collect your son from basketball practice.
We all live very busy lives and multi-tasking has become a way of life. Mindfulness however is being aware of what you are doing as you are doing it with all of our attention on that one thing. If, as you wash the dishes you are thinking about what you are going to do afterwards then you are not being, you are doing and living in the future at the same time. This is the very simplest of multi-tasks. Try sometimes doing only one thing. I mean really doing just one thing. Wash the dishes, and as you do so focus only on washing the dishes. If you notice your mind shifting to what you plan to do afterwards or something in your past or anything else then just observe that your mind wandered and bring it back to washing the dishes. Do not scold yourself for your mind wandering because it will do so often. Better to congratulate yourself for noticing, for to notice is to be mindful. Then go back to the dishes. This practice of returning to the activity of the moment is as simple and perfect a mindfulness exercise as you can get.
3. Bells of Mindfulness or Cues.
Where Monkey Mind is the unguided ramblings of your mind, Autopilot is the unobserved process of doing something that we set out with intention to do. For example, you remember you need to gather the bed clothes to wash them and set off up the stairs. The next thing you notice is that you are standing at the washing machine, the bed clothes are in it and it is turned on and you have absolutely no memory of what happened from when you started up those stairs till now. This is a very common experience for most people. One reason it happens is that the job of collecting the clothes and putting them in the washing machine is so lacking in any kind of challenge and is such a familiar task that your mind can let itself wander, while your body goes about the task almost unnoticed. Again, just like your Monkey Mind, this is a perfectly natural thing for your mind to do because you are unlikely to be in any real danger of serious injury while collecting the bed clothes so your mind allocates very little attention to it.
However, since every moment that we are not being aware is a moment lost, never to be experienced or lived, then it can be a good idea to check into our living lives a bit more often than we do. And lets face it, when your mind wandered off it was not wandering off to solve the national debt crises, it was far more likely to have wandered off to wonder if the kidney beans of the butter beans would go better in the salad later, of if it was time to re-paint the hallway.
One way to bring a little Mindfulness to you day is to use Mindfulness bells or simple cues to tune in and take note of what you are doing. If i am meditating i normally set my phone to chime a bell every few minuets, just to help being me back to the moment and to the awareness of what i am doing. Likewise you can easily set your phone to ring a bell a few times a day, just to remind you to take note of what you are doing at that moment.
Visual, or other cues can also be a great help in this regard. For example, you could use your morning coffee as a cue to take 5 minuets to gather yourself and focus on your breath. Or you could use a landmark you walk by every day to trigger you to remember to walk mindful for a few minuets. Get creative and have some fun with it. You do not need to be spending all day, moving form trigger to trigger. Try just one or two cues each day… a little goes a long way. To become aware of what we are doing is to be Mindful.
4. Always Come back to the breath
The world around you can be a distraction when you are trying to be mindful. It is full of colors, sounds, physical and mental sensations as well as people and things trying to get your attention. However, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, one constant is that you must breath because if you don’t well…. being mindful is the least of your worries.
Your breath goes where you go. It is always with you. If you decide you want to spend 20 seconds being mindful just close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Give it all you attention. Feel your breath as it goes in and goes out. How long does the breath take. Is it deep, shallow, fast or slow. Can you feel it in your nose, throat or lungs. Can you feel your chest rising and falling? Does your belly rise and fall also?
Even if you are practicing being mindful or are engaged in a mindful exercise, it is normal for your mind to drift. When it does use your breath as a focus point of return. To be aware of the breath is to be Mindful.
5. Be curious about your distractions.
As we have mentioned several times already… your mind will wander. Sometimes when this is happening it will keep wandering to the same subject. When this happens it is often because there is a particular issue that you are dealing with. Instead of fighting it, it can be useful to sometimes use these distractions as a means of focus. Mindfulness is not about emptying your mind, but rather about focusing it in a non-judgmental way on what you are doing. Perhaps you can bring your mindfulness to the problem at hand. Start with the breath as a means of grounding yourself and then focus you attention onto the issue at hand. Why is it in your head so much? What part of it is troubling you? How might you resolve the issue? Are there barriers to you resolving the issue? If so, what are they? How can you deal with these barriers?
Once you have examined an issue in this way and come up with a plan of action, it will normally stop being a distraction and you can return to whatever other Mindfulness exercise you had been doing. To focus your attention to one problem or issue is to be Mindful.
6. Practice a little every day
A little goes a long way, as the saying goes, and for Mindfulness this is certainly true. The object of the practice is not to allocate one big long meditation session once a week. It is to do just a little bit often. Yes, you can of course plan longer sessions but don’t focus on them as your main practice. 5 minuets in the morning before work 4 or 5 days a week will have a much greater effect than a 30 minuet session once a week.
Habits are formed by short frequent practices not occasional long bouts . As we saw in the “Bells and Cues,” section, you can practice anywhere and at any time, the trick is to create the cues and triggers to do so. Once the habit of being mindful takes, it starts to come to your attention more and more often and it does so naturally and effortlessly. To practice being mindful is to be, Mindful.
7. Practice imperfectly
If you were to take only one point away from this whole piece I think the most valuable one would be this one. Practice Imperfectly. Mindfulness is a practice in being in the now, it is not a destination. Yes, you will get better at it with time and a little effort but there is no, Black Belt, in Mindfulness. There is no, “being the best,” for if you believe there is, then you are living in the future, and that is not being Mindful. Being Mindful is being in the now, whatever that now is.
If you miss a session, no big deal. If a session goes badly and you just can’t focus, just let it go. When you feel your mind wandering that’s okay, just noticing it when it happens is being mindful. Remember being mindful is not sitting on the floor, looking like you have just slipped into an alternative dimension, it is the practice of noticing when you have drifted away from the moment and then coming back to it.
Your Mindfulness practice should be easy and if it is not, then you are probably trying to hard. Let go if you feel it is getting hard and if in doubt always just return to the breath. Mindfulness it is not about perfecting it, it is about practising it.
Plan for the future, learn from the past but live in the now.