Mindfulness – chances are you already know a little bit about it. It’s said to be able to help anybody and can take only minutes of your day, which is part of its popularity.
Does this have you rushing to the nearest self-help section of the bookstore? Or, more likely, searching for mindfulness tips and tricks online to achieve the suggested calm and bliss that seems to be promised? Or are you laughing at the latest fad that you’re pretty sure will soon go the way of the trend of dancing “Gangnam Style” at your office party?
I hear many people talk excitedly about the newfound zen moments they are planning to discover or the yoga class they hope to start attending. There is an air of instant happiness expected, or being part of an elite group like Oprah’s Book Club of yore.
There is a danger of the mindfulness promise coming up empty and hollow after that initial class – the sore muscles that linger after trying to sit inhumanly still for more than 20 minutes, or the sweaty surprise of doing a “downward dog” that alerted you to unstretched calf muscles and uncomfortable dizziness from adopting an upside-down position you haven’t experienced since you were a toddler.
The reality is that mindfulness practices can change your life, or simply make it a bit easier to take. The key to consider is: what are you actually looking for?
There is more than one way up the mindfulness mountain to a sense of greater concentration, focus, calm, or connection to self or something bigger than yourself. Knowing your goal can go a long way to avoiding trying a practice that is taking you to an entirely different end. This is the first step:
1. Find your reason to try mindfulness
Greater attentiveness and focus – A growing body of research attests to the benefits of building the capacity to focus one’s attention, through simple practices that focus your attention on what is important and filters out the noise of everything else.
Greater mental creativity – A common focus of mindfulness practices is to let go of judgements or slow oneself down from forming them in the first place. Staying more curious, open, and flexible allows new ideas to form and new information to come in easier.
Greater self-awareness and the ability to deal with emotions – Some mindfulness practices are focused on becoming more aware and attuned to what is happening inside one’s body in the here and now. Focus on body sensations and breath while allowing emotional and physical tension to coexist. Paying conscious attention to these experiences directly increases one’s ability to make choices to relax, manage ourselves better, or behave differently. This allows us to interact with others differently too.
Greater connection to a sense of purpose or spiritual dimension in life – Mindfulness has its roots in multiple cultural traditions that contain teachings of how to live life in a more meaningful and connected way. For some, mindfulness is an ongoing discipline toward deepening a sense of purpose and peace.
How does one begin any of these paths? Once you have an intention, try one of these four additional steps to begin a path toward incorporating mindfulness into your life. This can later diverge and deepen along any of the preferred outcomes listed above.
2. Begin with what you already have going on – your senses.
Learning to become aware of how your senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell are already bringing in constant new information about your current life experiences gives you an ever-ready focus to practice with. Choose one sense to explore as you walk to work or school. What colours do you see around you? What sounds are in the background? As you eat your lunch, what does it really smell and taste like?
3. Practice taking a “time-in.”
Most of us are not used to spending a lot of time paying attention to what happens in our gut when we walk into the office, or as we are in the middle of a conversation with our manager or teacher. Take a few minutes to sit quietly and scan your body from head to toe – what are the different sensations that are happening right now? How do they change when you are around people? What happens when you are happy, upset, worried, or angry?
Regularly tuning into our bodily signals around emotion will make them less overwhelming and automatic. You can make choices that are based on what is best for you and notice how this changes what you sense in other people.
4. Become a breath surfer.
Your breath is your constant link to life, and is connected to your heartbeat, stress levels, and ability to slow down. Start by simply noticing that you are breathing – you don’t have to do anything different! Feel it at your nostrils, feel it in your belly. Practice changing its rhythm or count to ten as you take long, slow inhalations and exhalations.
When you focus on breath, you are finding the source of where you can influence the stress response in your own body, slow down your busy mind, or simply remember you are alive. Right now!
5. Move into compassion.
A natural outcome of doing these practices is a gentler, more open and accepting perspective – toward yourself and toward others.
You can also intentionally step into this space and give it a try. Adopt a mantra of kindness toward yourself that you repeat or type into your calendar “I am worthy of care” “I have strengths and skills to offer” or “I will treat myself with friendliness today.” These simple statements and reminders can go a long way to building a different attitude. Also be sure to put compassion into your actions and thoughts to others and life in general: “I am grateful for…” “I will see others through kind eyes today” “May we all live with greater ease.”
First Steps on the Mindfulness Path
Finding a reason to try mindfulness that makes sense and holds meaning for you will start you on a path toward it. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be complicated and it can help anybody, but without a clear intention, it can start to feel like it’s just a passing fad. Choose one small practice that connects to an intention you hold. It is much more likely you will notice the benefit and stick with it!
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