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What is mindfulness?

A brief introduction to mindfulness and how to get started with mind training

People often ask me two things: “What is mindfulness and how do I get started?” Mindfulness has changed my life. On the outside not much has changed – apart from general ageing. And yet everything is different to before mindfulness. I never realised how anxious I was till the first body scans, I never realised my heart could be as big and as open as it is now most of the time, I never saw the beauty in the ugly or the connection between my mood and thoughts, nor did I know how to change unhealthy ways of being or how to change unhealthy relationships.

What is mindfulness?

To give a short clear response to what mindfulness is can be difficult. It changes lives, ‘yes’, it reduces stress and anxiety ‘yes’, it results in clearer thinking, more kindness, more flexibility, less illness, better relationships etc etc.

When it comes to mindfulness it is a little like describing the moon by pointing to it, the finger is not the moon, it is a way of describing it but it is not till we taste moon dust that we know a little of the moon, and so mindfulness is in the experience.

So what is mindfulness? The theoretical foundation is more scientific than anything, as it is simply based in careful observation of the nature of things. The nature of our mind is of particular focus. The mind creates our story, our identity, our life experiences. The basis of this experience is having a past and a future and to have defined (consciously or unconsciously) what is right, fair, good, bad, great, beautiful etc.

Presence

Mindfulness training can be seen as what leads us to being more present, to being more mindful, more aware! At the same time when we are training we are present. A bit like when we exercise. During the exercise we experience the benefits of increased heart rate and oxygen in the system along with all the other feel good hormones, but at the same time we train for sustained body health. So we train for sustained mind health and ability to focus.

When we practice mindfulness we practice being present. It is a way of not experiencing life through the story-self. The story-self needs the past and future focus otherwise it disintegrates. When we are present there is no anxiety, no depression, no comparing, no worry. This is because being in the story-based self is a bit like being in a relational field. The basis of that is the evaluation: how are my ideas/expectation of me, others, life measuring up to how I perceive this moment to be – consciously or unconsciously.

Mindfulness is a doing thing that leads to being. It is the experience that matters more than the doing and it does not come about by reading a book.

Medicine

Mindfulness can be seen as medicine, a way of resetting our misinterpreted way of seeing life. A way of enabling the occasional glimpse of reality uninhibited by the mind constructed filter.

Making changes

Mindfulness enhances our ability to make changes as we become aware of how we actually see things and it enables us to challenge our deeply held beliefs and assumptions. We start to function less on autopilot, rather we start to choose our responses. We become response-able and creative rather than reactive.

Consciousness

Mindfulness training is not the final destination and at the same time it is. We are training in consciousness, training to become aware of how the mind works. Becoming aware of the relationship between the mind, feelings, body states and external influences.

Mindfulness is mind-training with attitude! It is using our mind to change our brain to change our mind! It is also about paying careful attention to reality, to what is going on underneath our preconceived mind interpretations.

This is what we do with mindfulness training:

  • We train the brain for increased ability to focus, as we know a wandering mind is an unhappy one. A wandering mind is a non-efficient mind and a non-clear mind. Focus or attention is the scalpel that shapes our brain. It is therefore crucial that we have choice around what we pay attention to!
  • We train the brain for presence as this improves all aspects of our lives, including reducing stress and mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health.
  • We train the brain for emotional regulation so that we become less reactive and more proactive. This saves us a lot of unnecessary grief both internally and within our relationships.
  • We train the brain for kindness as this is good for us physically, emotionally and mentally but it also improves our relationships. A kind mind-state is known to reduce stress and enhance mental flexibility.
  • We train the brain for mental agility, the ability to zoom out and access other perspectives as this improves our relationships and reduces the chance of getting stuck in conflict.
  • We train the brain so we can catch our judgments, our lack of inclusivity and our reactivity.

Why is the attitude so important?

The mindfulness attitudes that we embrace are all antidotes to the story-based self. The story-self is based in judgments and assumed truths, and therefore is non-accepting as it is always comparing the moment to the way it has defined that it should be. When we are waiting at the traffic lights we get annoyed only when we are sitting in the gap between how we think it should be and how we perceive it to be. If we accept the moment, then there is no gap, only presence. When we get annoyed at other people it is because they are not the way we think they should be. When not mindful we are always comparing perceived reality with our idea of how it should be.

Where do I start?

The starting point is focus training in order that we can maintain our attention which is a prerequisite for the rest. This means doing a simple sitting called ABCD for a minimum of 10 minutes a day. It is useful to remind yourself that you can’t do this exactly right nor can you do it exactly wrong. There is just the space in between which is your practice.

ABCD Attitude, Body/ Breath, Counting, Distractions

The Attitude

Start by reminding yourself of the attitudes of mindfulness. Adopting these attitudes of mindfulness training is essential. The attitudes themselves are all stress antidotes and interdependent, when we cultivate one we naturally enhance them all. The acronym to remember them by is NACK. Non-judging, Acceptance, Curiosity and Kindness/compassion for self.

Non-judging  The mind tends to categorise experiences into: like, dislike and indifferent. The art is to catch the judging out and then observe and suspend it with an internal: ‘interesting’. Once we are not identified with our judgment we have the ability to zoom out, access multiple perspectives and from there it is much more likely that our ‘judgments’ become wiser. Our judgments are often not wise, they emerge as a result of our past experiences and biases.

Acceptance  – This means accepting sensations, feelings or thoughts without distraction, engagement, justification, explanation or a story. Acceptance allows us to relax and open to the sensations before us. Acceptance is the first step after awareness or recognition. Acceptance is not passivity. It is a courageous and essential step in the process of transformation.

Curiosity  – Or ‘beginners mind’ concerns seeing things with a child’s mind. Curiosity and openness of mind means less identification with our past; as when we are truly curious, we experience life beyond the labels and constructions imposed on reality by the thinking mind. According to Siegel (2007) curiosity creates flexibility in self-regulation and may enable individuals to shift from their habitual ways of adapting and reacting.

Kindness  Kindness is the neurological antidote to negative mind states like envy, hatred, anger, miserliness, stress and so on. Kindness not only pacifies negative tendencies, it uproots them. Kindness has scientifically proven positive effects on your psychological and physical wellbeing. The first step in cultivating kindness is to be kind to yourself. When you do mindfulness training with kindness you embrace any experience you are having with kindness.

The Body

The second step of the training is to place the attention in the body.

We start with checking the posture, calm and yet alert. Find a body posture that is conducive to mind training. This means:

  • Good grounded balance, make sure you have a firm connection with the ground beneath you. If you sit on a chair, place both feet on the floor. If you sit on the ground, sit cross-legged or in any other balanced and comfortable posture.
  • Maintain a straight back. Sit with a straight and yet relaxed back.
  • Relax the shoulders, arms and neck; it can be helpful to start by rolling your shoulders up and backwards to become aware of the possible tension held there.
  • Resting hands, you can place them in your lap and keep them open.
  • Closed eyes, we minimise distraction when we gently close our eyes.

The second part of Body focus is to place your awareness within the body, asking: ‘what is the body sensing?’

  • Check in with sensations in the feet, the body in the chair and the hands in the lap.

The Breath

Start by noticing the breath where it is most noticeable. Then gradually focus on it around the belly button area. This becomes the anchor point for the mind training. When we follow the movement of our breathing in and out, it should be left quite natural, just as it is. It can be useful to imagine that you are watching the breath through a glass unable to change or influence it.

The Counting

The counting is to further stabilise your breath focus, you add the number at the end of the out breath as this is where attention naturally wanes. Where you start counting depends on the length of the meditation, for a 20-minute session you can start at 50 and then count down to 0 and then again back up to 50. If you want a 10-minute session, then you start counting at 20.

The Distractions

Distractions come from six sources: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, body and mind. The mind tends to be preoccupied with: the past and the future or commentaries. A distraction can also be the tickle of an ant or a noise or body sensation.

Useful to remember that the mind just thinks like the eyes see. When it is untrained it just pumps out thoughts. The attentional muscle training happens when we catch out the ‘straying’ and then bring the attention back to the breath.

MIND TRAINING AUDIO

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