Cultivating Mindfulness

Have you ever sat down to a delicious meal and suddenly all of the food is gone and you have very little recollection of eating a single bite? Perhaps you’ve read an email and a few moments later the contents of that message escape you. Maybe you’ve arrived at work and upon reflection have very little memory of your commute. These scenarios refer to states of mindlessness, a common occurrence in our over-extended, hyperactive lives. While mindlessness can serve as a coping mechanism (we often tune out the mundane routines that fill our days for self-preservation), this act of deliberate disengagement creates its own form of stress.

Mindfulness on the other hand – the nonjudgmental observation of the present moment – is the cure for our common disconnect; but, with technology and excessive stimulation, we’ve lost our understanding of its subtle art form. Engaging with all of our senses and experiencing our surroundings without criticism requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, especially considering how the mental and physical benefits of mindful practices are slow to accumulate and therefore challenging for beginners to adopt without the promise of immediate results.

Practicing mindfulness has nothing to do with controlling the mind – our stream of consciousness is far too powerful to keep us from distractions indefinitely. Instead, the gift mindfulness gives us is more personal – it helps us cultivate our interior world and discover the self that lies beneath the buzz of our thoughts.

Mindful practices come in three forms: Open Awareness, Focused Awareness, and Mindfulness Meditation.  

  1. Open Awareness is like viewing life as a panorama, accepting whatever your scene reveals without resistance. This practice is especially encouraged when completing chores or running errands, given the banality of the tasks and our subsequent tendency to turn to our phones for entertainment. The next time you fold laundry, wash dishes, take a shower, or walk down the street to buy lunch, engage fully with your senses and surroundings, making note of any judgements directed at yourself or others, without giving the narratives too much weight.  
  2. Focused Awareness requires your deliberate attention on an object, sound, question, or physical sensation. This can manifest as a mantra (mind tool) you sing or chant, self-inquiry and repeated affirmations (who am I / I am peace), an image gazed upon or created in the mind’s eye (a flickering candle flame), or simply the feeling of breath in the nostrils (the cool air of the inhalation and the warmth as you exhale). Whatever focal point you choose, your intention is to remain anchored in the present.
  3. Mindfulness Meditation is the formal practice of mindfulness, typically accomplished in a seated posture with closed eyes, and drawing upon elements of the first two techniques. Try taking a few deep, cleansing breaths before exploring the sounds of the room. Shift your attention back to the body and note any physical sensations before choosing a center of interest for the rest of the practice. Mindfulness Meditation is often tied to Zazen Buddhist traditions that use the cycle of breath to count to ten (each inhalation and exhalation is a count of one). The catch, of course, is that with any break in concentration, you must restart your practice. 

Without returning again and again to the present moment, our lives will continue to whirl by, unnoticed. And while tuning out is, at times, necessary for self-preservation, we should be able to choose those moments on our own terms, rather than passively handing over the reins to our unruly mind.

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