Every now and again, I like to ask myself what I’m doing when I propose to myself to be practising mindfulness meditation. Give myself a little refresher. Go back to basics. It always helps me to look up Jon Kabat Zinn’s description: ‘Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.’ Okay, so I’m sitting down because I decide that’s what I want or need (“on purpose”), and relaxing (“non-judgmentally”) with reality as it is (“the present moment”). This means I accept things as they are, or at least that it is my intention to accept things as they are. I don’t try to feel any particular way. I don’t try to change anything. I don’t try to ‘get anywhere’. I shut up and feel, I open myself up to what I perceive about “what is”. I allow all emotions and sensations. My breath is my anchor. Once I’m well established in following my breathing (and this can take a moment, a day, weeks or months, depending on how much I practise), I trust that I have the wherewithal to look at all feelings: the ones that are difficult or painful or taboo, the ones I’ve been avoiding, suppressing or exaggerating, the ones I have been reacting from or tried to fix. To the degree I can do this is the degree I will also be able to feel joy, pleasure, ecstasy, lightness, bliss, happiness. And then I can open up to wider awareness. It’s not all as linear as I’ve just described; that’s just the easiest way to describe it. In reality it is more up and down, and more fluid.
The reason I sit down and close my eyes (or fix my gaze on a neutral spot) to do this on a daily basis, is to train myself to be able to do this (in the long term) at any moment, in any situation. An athlete trains every day so that when it’s time to compete in the Olympics, she’s as prepared as she can be and at the top of her game.
For a lot of people in so called lockdown here in New Zealand/Aotearoa, their main issue is difficulty concentrating. As you probably know (since you’re visiting this page), a meditation-a-day will help with mental clarity, mental peace and the ability to handle being here and now, not dwelling on the past or leapfrogging ahead to the future. Hopefully you’re able to find a quarter-of-an hour of time-out from others if you are in a “bubble” with more people. Hide under a duvet in the laundry wearing headphones if you must. Because here is a new recording for you to practise with if you wish: a guided, 14-minute, guided mindfulness meditation, with lots of silences – especially at the end. It focuses on breath, upper body and relaxation and of course, focus for the restless mind.
Also, I do think it is important to stay informed and not somehow hide under a rock while this COVID-19-thing is making its mark on the world. But there is so much information available and so much of it is only half the (currently available) story or fear-based biased rubbish, that reading or listening to the news isn’t always helpful, and the shouting crowd on social media sounds kind of extra nutty at the moment.
But this morning I found all my current questions answered in Kim Hill’s interview with British clinical virologist Dr Chris Smith (especially regarding whether or not to wear a face mask in public; currently a hot topic in many countries, including New Zealand/Aotearoa. I felt their conversation was very sane, scientific and calming. So if you’re interested, this is the link to the interview for additional peace of mind.
I’m curious: How do you describe your own mindfulness practice, now that you have experience as a mindfulness practitioner, be it regular or irregular, fledgling or badass?
During the introductory courses I teach for Mindfulness Works NZ, I like to encourage participants to come up with their own definition of mindfulness practice during the course. This is not merely a mental exercise or wordplay, but a really good trick to help deepen your understanding of what you’re actually doing when you are meditating. Writing it down makes it even more powerful. Repeating it to yourself a few times a day like a mantra: boom!
First of all, a definition or description is essential to help reminding yourself what mindfulness is not. It is, for instance, not a relaxation method (although it leads to relaxation), it is not a method to become enlightened (though it may serve as preparation for renunciation), it is not a way to improve yourself (though you may effortlessly change in ways that please you) nor to change your circumstances (though it will help you have a clear understanding of your current situation and possibly your next moves). And on and on.
Secondly, having your own definition helps strengthen your connection to the (idea of) practice and thereby assist you in “keeping it up”. It will also help to nurture (or initiate) an amicable, if not love relationship with your practising of mindfulness. It will enable you to claim the practice as your own.
Sure, the practice of mindfulness meditation cannot be owned as such by anyone. It is a universally available trait, if not natural ability, and accordingly the responses of each human nervous system will be more or less the same, with our breathing, blood pressure and heart rate finding a healthy balance, resulting in a better oxygenated and clearer, relaxed body and brain. But we all come to our practice as a unique individual concoction of experiences, nature, conditioning, DNA and mysterious life purpose. This is why it’s a good idea to come up with your own definition. And as your practice changes (which it will, because you change and everything else changes all.of.the.time), so too might your definition change.
In the Mindfulness Works intro course, we start by using a definition from the founding father of modern-day “scientific” mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, which most of you will remember: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.” Of course, this is a flawless, relatively easy to understand description.
And yet, my own definition reminds me more strongly of my intentions with this practice, which in turn keeps me motivated to show up at my meditations, again and again, and with gusto. I have made sure it covers all the elements of “pure” mindfulness practice as described by Kabat-Zinn. You know, the three main ingredients of neutrality (being non-judgmental), the here-and-now (in the present moment… not that there is any other moment) and intentionally (the ‘on purpose’ bit). Bonus: in the sentence above, you already have received three new words to potentially include in your own definition or description.
I guess now it’s time to share my definition or description with you. I currently have two. One is for my formal practice, the other one a regular reminder throughout the rest of my day. I mentally call my formal sessions “Sit still, shut up and witness what is and what emerges”. In informal situations, whenever I want to remind myself of the necessity of anchoring myself with all my faculties (mental, emotional, physical) to engage with the reality of life, I whisper in my own ear: “The opposite of not here, not now, not with you”.
Neither of these descriptions may make much sense to you, but they work for me. In case they cause any confusion, I sincerely apologise and urge you to create an antidote by way of your own definition or description, without further ado. For inspiration, you may also want to check out a few more (much more polished :)) definitions from others:
“To practice mindfulness means to orientate ourselves through attention and feeling to what is current in our experience.” Stephen Archer, lead trainer and supervisor of Mindfulness Works and director of Mindfulness Training.
“Mindfulness is the practice of being present and developing awareness of the ways in which we rob ourselves of the natural joy of being alive,” says Rachel Tobin, Mindfulness Works NZ trainer and director of The Art of Mindfulness.
is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are
and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s
going on around us.” From the staff of Mindful.org
“Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment “. Wikipedia
Now I would love to hear from you what yours is!
Sitara Morgenster, June 2019. Written for the Mindfulness Works (NZ|AUS) Monthly Newsletter.