Mindfulness in 4 Steps
Posted by Laurie J Cameron
With TIME magazine featuring mindfulness on the cover this month, we can say that the idea of mindfulness is mainstream. A year ago I wrote a post called Mindfulness Has Reached the Tipping Point, and with the TIME cover it has officially tipped. I am seeing and hearing the word all of the time now. My nine-year-old daughter ran through the door after school yesterday saying “Mom! During Assembly Principal Smith showed the magazine and talked about mindfulness!”
I am glad that we are talking about it. I am a leadership coach and mindfulness teacher to business leaders and schools, and I am watching the speed at which people are becoming curious and interested in how to develop their minds to become more clear, focused, and compassionate.
We live just outside of Washington, DC and my neighbors are dedicated and driven professionals that go after life in full throttle. One woman, I will call Karen, is an attorney and an athlete and was sharing how lately she feels overworked and stressed a good part of the time. She wants to grab the reins of life and slow it down. At a recent dinner party she asked me to explain how to practice mindfulness in practical terms. I thought I would share it here with you.
Mindfulness is often defined as attention to experiences in the present moment. You can think of it as the ability to pay attention to what is happening inside of you and around you in this moment. Mindfulness can be practiced in a formal sitting meditation, but it is also be a state of being. It is how you live your life, and the quality of attention you bring to it, moment by moment.
Neuroscientists and Buddhist teachers alike talk about the two wings of mindfulness: attention and intention. The first component is the regulation of attention. The second component is about approaching experiences with a mindset of openness, acceptance and curiosity. When being mindful, we focus our attention and suspend judgment of what is happening.
Simple, but not easy.
Can we learn to regulate our attention? The answer is yes. We can increase our capacity to focus our attention by training the brain and body. About half of the dinner guests were runners, cyclists or yoga enthusiasists- they knew firsthand the dynamic of muscle training leading to increased strength. The time we spend sitting in mindfulness meditation is like taking the brain to the gym.
Think of the repetitions – or reps – that you do when working out. Here is a way to develop focused attention and calm your body:
1. Feel your breath.
Sit in a quiet place, with your back relaxed and straight. Breathe naturally. Notice where you feel your breath- is it at your nostrils, the rise and fall of the chest, or in your abdomen? Keep feeling your breath. It is one way to provide an anchor for your attention. Other ways are repeating a mantra or listening to a guided meditation.
2. Notice when your mind wanders.
Thoughts will come in to your awareness. Not to worry - this is how we are genetically designed. Just notice the thought. You can imagine that your mind is a flowing river of water and the thoughts just drift by like driftwood.
3. Let go.
Lets say you realize you are thinking about a comment that you made earlier in a meeting that you now regret. Or maybe you are thinking about what to have for lunch. You see the thought, you let it go. Letting go is already creating a sense of spaciousness in your mind and body.
4. Return to the breath.
Gently return to feeling your breath. You might get one breath in before a new thought pops up. Maybe you will get two breaths – and then a new thought. There might come a day when you have a good run of eight breaths. The key is not to scold yourself or tell yourself you are not doing it well – the letting go and returning to the breath is the core and essential part of the practice.
When you notice that your mind has taken you off to planning your 3:00 meeting, or a disagreement with your spouse, the noticing itself is mindful awareness. The noticing, letting go without judgment, and returning to your calm, centered, grounded breath is the heart of mindfulness practice.
In addition to become calm and centered, a goal of practicing is to increase our capacity. We train to build brain and body strength so that when we need it- in a high-pressure meeting at work, in a job interview, or listening to your child explain a troubling situation, we have cultivated the ability to stay present, grounded, and focused. We might not be able to pull out a cushion, but we always have the ability to pay attention to feeling our breath.
See if you can sit and breathe for 5 minutes a day to start. Set a timer. Put a smile on your calendar for each day you do it. You are taking your mind to the gym, and increasing the neural pathways that strengthen your ability to focus, to let go, and to pay attention with compassion.