by Gilbert Ross
Mindfulness is the quintessential meditative practice, the most valuable instrument in your mind’s toolbox and the key to personal development. In other words, it’s the shortest path to actualising your fullest potential – your real You. With so much talk and literature about the subject, it’s easy to get confused on what mindfulness really is or isn’t. Some think of mindfulness as an esoteric eastern practice reserved only to Zen buddhists who have spent years secluded in a monastery away from any cares of the world.
Yes, although mindfulness is very intimately related to Zen meditation, it is certainly not exclusive to such practice. The simplest way it can be explained is not through a formal definition but by real world experiences. Think of a time or situation where you felt really in ‘sync’ with your inner feelings, thoughts and felt collected, centred and ‘in one place’. Your emotions were balanced and your mind was not scattered everywhere. You were simply there. Things were still happening around you but you were totally still, even if only for a short while. Your awareness wasn’t quivering but set on whatever you put your attention on. That was being mindful in its broadest sense.
Now there are many valuable and comprehensive resources about the subject – from metaphysics to practical guides – and a lot of masters in the practice who definitely can shed more insight on the topic than myself. In view of this, I will reserve my article space here to suggest a few mindfulness hacks and experiments that you can carry with you in your everyday situations.
The 3 Breaths Experiment:
As easy as it sounds, your breath is a vehicle to mindfulness. Breathing comes naturally and automatically, whether we want it or not. But putting your awareness to it will ground you to the inner stillness underlying the frenetic stream of thoughts or feelings constantly arising in your waking consciousness. In short, breathing can be used to ‘anchor’ your awareness to a place and stay still. This is of course a very common method for meditation practice. However the purpose of this experiment is to experience the stillness and centre of power that comes from mindfulness. You don’t need to spend an hour in deep meditation to experience this. As Eckhart Tolle suggests in ‘A New Earth’ it only takes the awareness of one single breath to connect to your state of mindfulness and inner peace…well let’s make it three! Do it right now. Take three deep breaths and put your awareness on to it…just your breathing nothing more. Can you feel a sense of stillness and peace even if perhaps subtle for now? Do you sense a shift in awareness and focus, albeit briefly? This is mindfulness. The good news is that it can be practiced anytime, anywhere and extended to how long you feel fits your situation.
The ‘I’ inside my Body:
Another ‘anchoring’ method for meditation in general is being aware of your body – whether your body as a whole, a certain part of your body or else proprioception (the feeling of space and position your body is occupying). Personally for me, my chest area always works as a good anchor. The feeling is that my awareness suddenly ‘locks’ in that area. My sense of ‘I’ (or rather the awareness behind the ‘I’) feels centred and strongest in that place in the body. It can then be extended to other areas even outside the body but that is beyond the purpose of this mindfulness hack.
Like the three breaths, the purpose of this exercise is to access mindfulness briefly from anywhere, anytime. As I mentioned, you can focus on any part of your body but there are areas which are particularly useful to access mindfulness – the guts, stomach, the chest and the throat. These are places where emotions, tension or unresolved issues tend to manifest certain sensations. Not coincidentally these are some of the seven energy centres or chakras in the body. For instance a sense of powerlessness from a difficult relationship will manifest in a feeling of constriction around the chest area (Heart Chakra) or anxiety as ‘butterflies’ around your stomach area (Solar Plexus). Placing our awareness briefly in these major energy centres can help you connect much easier to your inner being which in turn will centre you in a state of inner calm and mindfulness.
For example you are in a coffee shop somewhere watching the world go by around you in a frenzy. Take a few minutes to place your attention to one of these areas. How does it feel? Is it tense or constricted or ‘cramped’? Keep putting your mindful awareness to it – do you feel it opening up and relaxing?
The Lucidity Test:
Let’s stick with the coffee shop scenario. You are there absorbed in something – perhaps chatting with your pal, texting on your smartphone or just engulfed in the experience of the world passing by. Just like in a normal dream, you are not aware it is a dream. You are sucked into its plot and its ‘emotional energy’. You just follow it, unaware it’s all a dream. But then something unexpected happens. Something triggers your conscious awareness to ‘pop’ out and realise you are actually in a dream. You ask yourself ‘am I dreaming?” and then you awake and become lucid – you are lucid dreaming. Back to the coffee shop. You are there going with the flow of whatever you are doing. Then you ask yourself “am I conscious right now or am I following the flow of the ‘dream’?”
This triggers a shift in your attention. You become aware that you were not aware or your awareness was diluted into many things. This triggers lucidity or mindfulness. You awake from the ‘dream’. Suddenly your awareness is in one place. The things which were affecting you – people passing by, chatter, your screen – does not suck you in anymore. You are in a state of mindfulness.
In short, the funny thing is that the lucidity tests or ‘reality checks’ used in lucid dream techniques can be applied to your waking life just as well and as effectively.
Some Helpful Resources:
The above suggestions are meant to ground your awareness and become mindfulness in short time windows wherever you are. This is why I am calling them hacks. Yet mindfulness is, or ought to be, a continuous practice and an extremely beneficial one. Here are some resources you might want to dig into to find out more how you can use mindfulness as part of your personal development.
Teach Yourself Mindfulness Course: A carefully crafted course designed to guide you deeper through mindfulness practice. This is a 10 week course, taught by teachers Benjamin Friedland and Barbara Cunnings. The course comes with ebook and 10 high quality audio files with meditations. Highly recommended.
Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment – When I think of Mindfulness I think of Jon Kabat Zinn, author of this fantastic guide to mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn is a scientist and meditation teacher who was a pioneer in demonstrating the benefits of mindfulness within western mainstream medicine. A must read.