‘Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation’
I’ve often been asked what mindfulness is.
The mindful state itself is an experience which has no real words that get close to describing it.
Like ‘fingers pointing at the moon’, the words cannot be the thing itself. The mindful state lies somewhere in the gap between perception and rationality, as impartial observation.
The original term for it, ‘sati’ has been translated in English as ‘bare attention’ or ‘non conceptual awareness’. It is awareness without thought, without memories, labels or concepts and it is always in the present moment. In mindfulness, there is no past and no future, simply’ the now’ of being.
Many describe a sense of ‘oneness’; of being at the interface of the self and consciousness, yet consciousness itself is still a mystery to the neuroscientists.
There are some intriguing theories about the nature of consciousness; of our disconnection from a ‘source’ at birth and our lifelong search for reconnection. Across the religions, there are many reports of transpersonal or peak experiences through meditation, contemplation and prayer.
The practice of mindful meditation itself could not be easier to describe. Put simply, it involves taking a psychological ‘step back’ from thoughts, feelings and experiences so that you are in the position of detached observer.
It’s a little bit like ‘streaming’ rather than ‘downloading’. As an observer, we are simply a witness to our experience.
Some describe mindfulness practice like lying back and watching your thoughts drift by like passing clouds.
Dr Daniel Siegel, author of The Mindful Therapist, favours the analogy of being at the hub of a wheel, with awareness of any element of our inner or outer worlds on the rim of the wheel. From this point, he suggest, we can focus our attention and be open to whatever arises.
I heard a nice description from a colleague whose client was troubled by intrusive thoughts. She encouraged the client to ‘shoo away’ the thoughts, a little bit like when a cat jumps on your lap and you simply encourage it along with your hand, not allowing it to settle.
The image that works for me is to consider the mind as an ocean. Even if there is a storm on the surface, at the ocean bed all remains calm, clear and still.
From these tranquil deep waters, we can observe thoughts and sensations floating past like fish, sometimes in ones and twos and sometimes in shoals.
Simply put, the art and practice of mindful awareness is about ‘focusing our attention’ and, when we do that, with regularity of practice, we enhance and strengthen the prefrontal cortex. This is the area of the brain, which is the modulator between the hemispheres. It inhibits; it is the centre of executive control.
We make thousands of choices every day; what to wear, what to eat, what to say, what to do.
With every choice we make, we are standing at a psychological ‘fork in the road’ and, with every ‘mindful’ choice we make, we enhance our ability to make good choices. In this way, we are less likely to over eat or indulge in addictive behaviours. We are more likely to be able to let go of instinctive reactions to stressful stimuli.
The STOP System is a quick and easy way to access that ‘fork in the road’ mindset.
Formal mindfulness practice builds the ‘muscles of the mind’, just as gym work builds the biceps and triceps.
A simple mindfulness exercise
Wherever you are, you can choose to stop ‘doing’ and start ‘being’ for a while, by following these simple steps to mindful awareness.
- Direct your focus to your breath, to the sensation of air as it goes in and out of the nostrils.
- Notice the warmth or coolness of the breath as it passes over the upper lip.
- Begin to be aware of the breath in the upper chest and observe the movements as air comes and goes, as it ebbs and flows.
- Do not force the breath, simply observe and follow, as you continue to redirect your focus into the abdomen.
- Allow your attention to ‘ride and rest’ where it will, following the column of breath as it enters and exits the body’ observing the gentle rise and fall of the belly as you do so.
For many, this one simple exercise is enormously calming. This is why I recommend it to my clients.
It’s a wonderful way to have better quality sleep at night time if you practice it as an ‘end of day’ exercise and, a gentle way to wake up in the morning… but comes with a word of warning.
This morning, as my alarm clock encouraged me to wake up with its insistent beep, I thought I would take the opportunity for some mindful breathing…..
Two hours later, I awoke, deeply refreshed but beginning the day two hours later than planned.
Perhaps I need to use the snooze button next time.