What is mindfulness and how can it be cultivated?


By Deb Duer

By now, almost everyone has heard of mindfulness in some form or fashion. It’s a technique being employed in such places as hospitals to help patients control pain, by schools to help students focus and prisons to aid inmates in uprooting old behaviors in favor of more adaptive behaviors. The applications of mindfulness are almost unlimited and its benefits can’t be over-estimated.

After researching about 20 authoritative sources, I have found this to be the most prevalent definition of what mindfulness is: It is paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, without making judgements. Without mindfulness it is hard to know what we think at all, or to understand why we react the way we do. Mindfulness notices whatever comes up. It observes change, looking at whatever is passing through the mind but not attaching or holding onto any one thought or impression.

We are rarely in the moment. We constantly think about the past, ruminating over our emotions and experiences, or we think about what will happen next or what the future will bring. We are bundles of habits, seldom aware of what we are doing. We cruise through life on autopilot. This practice helps us free ourselves from thoughts, which more often than not are our own personal terrorists. In mindfulness we begin to see ourselves exactly as we are. It does not want to achieve anything, it just looks inside, outside or both without judgement.

Mindfulness does not have to be practiced only in seated meditation, it can be done anywhere, at any time. You can walk, sit in a chair or lie down in the grass. Nor is it dependent on what emotional state you are in. You do not have to change whatever state you are in to practice it. You don’t need to move slowly, you don’t even have to be calm, in fact, you could be solving calculus problems at the same time as being mindful, which might be a little difficult at first…

Research tells us that we navigate life in a way dominated by left brain thinking, missing out on right brain activity and thus the balance of the two. We spend too much time thinking and franticly doing, and not enough time in being. Mindfulness allows us to step back from automatic behaviors and habitual thought patterns to see things more clearly. Within being we are much more likely to find solutions to our problems, creative ways of doing something, or other previously hidden bits of knowledge and insight. Mindfulness can bring calmness, a silencing of brain chatter and help us shift out of the fight or flight habit of the left brain.

So, how do you do this practice? You begin. I recommend starting this way; take yourself for a 10 minute walk. While walking, be an unattached observer to your environment. You see trees plants, cars, sky. You hear sounds you have thoughts. Try your best to let everything you perceive flow through you. When you become aware that you are holding something in your mind, let it pass and continue your observation. You will be amazed at how much you notice in ten minutes, you might even become aware of things you have never been seen before. My teacher once asked me to write about what it is like to be a blade of grass. I thought at the time I would not be able to write more than 3 or 4 things. I ended up filling two sheets of paper with perceptions about being grass and it was really fun!

After you have gotten these visual observations down pretty well, turn your attention to ways you think, feel and react. Again, for ten minutes while walking sitting or jogging, just observe these constructs and let them pass. This will expand your self- awareness, bringing you wisdom and patience. What else were you going to practice for the rest of your life anyways! Please email me your questions or comments, I’d love to hear how mindfulness is working for you!

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