Mindfulness or being mindful is a term that has exploded in popularity in the recent years. It has become a buzz word for work done in the field of mental health, organizational health, and has swept many individuals into an increasingly spiritual mode of living. These are all wonderful aspects, bringing an awareness of the concepts and practices into our world. As someone immersed in the field of positive psychology and mental health, I have read, learned, practiced and deepened my awareness of what being mindful really is, and how a practice of mindfulness can enhance our lives. While I have meditated for more than a decade, the practice of mindfulness has resonated with me immensely, and I strive to practice it personally, as well as incorporate it into my therapeutic practice where relevant.
What is MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness, from my understanding, is a non-judgmental, present moment awareness. It typically involves your senses, as they are inherently grounded in the present moment, and involves looking at your situation with a curious, kind, and compassionate lens. It is based on various Buddhist philosophies, such as impermanence (i.e. change is inevitable), non-attachment (i.e. the cause of suffering is attachment, and to alleviate suffering we must practice non-attachment), and the main aspect that the Buddha emphasized around the importance of practice. The Buddha, through his life experiences, wanted to create a way of living, as opposed to something or someone to worship. He shared his learnings from his direct practice and encouraged others to live based on their life learnings.
One aspect I love about mindfulness is its relevance in both good and stressful times. A practice in slowing down, and being mindful of our life, can bring many positive aspects of our day to our awareness that we might not have realized existed, and aligns beautifully with a gratitude practice. I found myself noticing smiles of people I passed, interactions and actions of kindness in the city around me, and paying attention to the small things, like sunshine, the smell of freshly baked bread, savouring the first sip of coffee, noticing how soft skin can feel.
Mindfulness can also be extremely powerful during stressful times. It inadvertently creates a distance from your situation, as you become an observer, thus has been used when working with stress, anxiety, and depression, as it encourages practitioners not to attach to the strong emotions within a situation. Rather, you go back to your breath. You notice what is happening in your body, you bring awareness to your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and breathe. It makes it bearable to allow some of those feelings that you typically try to avoid come to light, through curiously looking at them. A mindfulness practice teaches our bodies to go back to the breath, and reminds us that thoughts will come and go, feelings might also be fleeting, but the breath is constant.
When it feels like your life is getting stormy, with thunder, lightning, waves crashing from all directions, tossing you back and forth like a rag doll, with a mixture of emotions, fears, and feeling overwhelmed and perhaps even a bit hopeless, I invite you to think of mindfulness as an anchor. Imagine yourself sinking below the chaotic storm, deeper to the part of the ocean that is calm.
Anchoring to the place in you that you know is constant – your breath. And whenever you feel yourself rising back to the chaos of the stormy seas above, you sink back into your breath, and allow mindfulness to anchor and ground you during tough times.
Knowing, and Doing
In the past year, in my own life, things have gotten busier, for the better. Life has been exciting, and I found that I strayed away from my practice (e.g. dedicated sit down silent practice) of mindfulness, with excuses, and reasons as to why I couldn’t do it (e.g. 1) I don’t have time, 2) I am getting some mindfulness in when I lead it within my therapy sessions, or in group therapy, 3) I try to be aware of what is happening all day, so I don’t really need to meditate anymore, etc.). I did however expect mindfulness to help me during stressful times, and found it increasingly difficult to stay with my breath, and employ the principles of non-attachment when my anxiety came up. I would feel frustrated, thinking:
‘It is not working anymore...’
‘Mindfulness is not going to fix my problem this time around...’
‘I don’t give a shit about being mindful right now…’
The longer I stayed away from a dedicated mindfulness practice, the harder it was to effectively lean on it during tough times. Does this resonate with you when thinking about other things in your life? Exercise, playing a musical instrument, math, basically any skill that you might need to practice. It doesn’t mean it won’t come back to you, in fact it absolutely does, but you cannot go from not exercising to running a marathon.
That is what I tried to do when I expected mindfulness to alleviate my stress and anxiety during really tough times, without a daily practice. When listening to numerous mindfulness experts at Conventions, Conferences, and at Buddhist temples, the emphasis on practice is non-negotiable. Have you ever known something, yet it doesn’t translate into your actions? We know broccoli and kale is great for our bodies, yet we choose the poutine. We know we need 7-9 hours of sleep a night, but… Netflix. Or Youtube. Or hangouts with friends. This is normal, and at times, needed. Many times, clients I work with know what they need, they are just unsure why they are not doing it, and it can be so frustrating.
For mindfulness, it is so important to practice it. It is important to choose to make time to maintain a practice. Do not let the busyness of life surpass its importance. Easier said than done, but of utmost importance nonetheless.
Mindfulness, as it is with gratitude, is a choice. We choose how we live our lives, the food we put into our bodies, the people we are close to, and the activities we partake in. We can choose how we want to respond (instead of reacting) in situations. We have the power to choose mindfulness, gratitude, positive thinking, awareness, kindness, love, and to maintain our practice.
In my next post, I’d love to share a bit of information about habits, and how you can leverage this to create new habits, or routines that can be sustained in your daily life. It is an iterative process, and each person might have different ways of incorporating the suggestions, but given the importance of practice, I think it is relevant and useful to talk about what we are programmed to do, and how we can hack our habits to better our lives.