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 you are experiencing without resistance. This is a very informal practice that can be done anytime, anywhere. The next time you’re folding laundry, washing dishes, taking a shower, or walking down the street to buy lunch, try engaging fully with your senses and surroundings, making note of any judgements directed at yourself or others. 
  2. Focused Awareness requires your deliberate attention on an object, sound, question, or physical sensation. This can be a mantra (mind tool) you sing or chant, self-inquiry and repeated affirmations (who am I / I am peace), an image you focus on (leaves on the ground) for one you imagine in your mind (a flickering candle flame), or simply the feeling of breath in the nostrils (the cool air of your inhalation and the warmth of your exhalation). Whatever focal point you choose, your intention is to remain anchored on that, in the present.
  3. Mindfulness Meditation is the formal practice of mindfulness, typically done seated with closed eyes, and drawing on the first two techniques. Try taking a few deep, cleansing breaths then begin to expand your awareness to the sounds of the room, the clothes in contact with your skin, any scent in the air, the taste in your mouth, the colors when you close your eyes. Shift your attention back to your body and note any physical sensations before choosing a center of interest for the rest of the practice (focused awareness). 

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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