A Beginner's Guide to Mindfulness
Imagine standing under a waterfall. The weight of a million water droplets pelting into your body every other second. This creates discomfort, or even pain. You want to find a way to turn off the waterfall, but you soon become aware that this wish is futile. Just as you feel like you can't stand this suffering any longer, you suddenly realize that all you have to do is take a few steps back, into the space between the water and the rocks. Instead of trying to numb yourself from feeling the pain of the waterfall, now you are able to just watch the waterfall unfold before you, perhaps even appreciate the beauty and power of nature itself.
That is mindfulness in a nutshell. Mindfulness is paying kind attention to the present moment. It's the opposite of being on autopilot. When we feel anxiety, our minds are often in "rehearsing mode", where it worries about scenarios that have yet to happen. When we feel depressed, our minds are often in "rehashing mode", where it focuses on experiences that have happened already. Focusing a little too much on either the future or the past is something we all do, to some extent. It's called rumination. Rumination comes to us so naturally that sometimes we almost forget how to focus on just what's here in the current moment. But when we fall into either rehashing or rehearsing modes, we not only give up on the only point in time we have actual control over, those mental pathways often hijack our attention and emotional well-being, trapping our mental state in either depression or anxiety. By inviting us to simply observe rather than "merge with" our thoughts and experiences, like standing under a waterfall, the state of mindfulness changes our position when we experience suffering. Mindfulness helps us create space between our immediate reactions to stimuli, which can often be destructive (avoidance, repression, lashing out, escapism, etc.), and buys us enough time so that we can actually respond to situations in a manner that aligns with our personal values.
How do I practice being in that mindful state, you might ask? It's easy. Start by paying attention to your body while it's performing a task it has done thousands of times before. Like eating. Before each bite, engage with all of your senses. What does the food look like? What do you hear when you interact with the food? What does it smell like? What kinds of memories appear in your mind? What does salivation feel like? Do you notice how your cheeks and tongue position the piece of food expertly between your teeth as you chew? What is it like to resist the urge to swallow? And, when you finally decide to swallow, what does it feel like to be one bite heavier than before you started?
Or breathing. Notice how each breath changes your body. When you inhale, cold air flows into your nostrils, down your throat, and into your lungs. Notice how your chest or belly expands. Notice how your heartbeat seems to beat just a little bit faster for a few seconds. And as you exhale, track the airflow out its original pathway. Notice how your torso deflates. Become aware of what it feels like when warm and humid air pass through your throat, and out of your nostrils. Notice how your heartbeat slows as you exhale. And do it all over again. The breath is the perfect anchor for our mind, since we can only take one breath at a time. When one breath ends, the next one begins.
Staying mindful takes practice. Just like exercise, we won't be able to reap the benefits of staying fit without actually maintaining an active lifestyle. Cultivating a sustainable mindfulness practice has many benefits, including less depression and anxiety, more curiosity, awe and compassion, better relationships, and even giving us a boost in our immune systems and other bodily functions. Here are a few pointers that can help get you started:
- Start simple. Begin with shorter practices. The body scan can be a good place to start, because part of the practice is allowing your attention to shift, rather than having to focus on a single anchor for an extended period of time.
- Make it part of your daily routine by combining meditation practices with what you already do. For instance, if you already go for a jog, instead of listening to a podcast, try to notice things you see, hear, or even smell along the way. Or you could follow along a guided meditation as you're lying in bed. It's okay if you fall asleep, at least in the beginning. If you start the day with brewing coffee at home, do a short practice while you wait for the water to boil.
- Ask your friends and family to practice with you. Practicing as a group can make the practice more engaging by creating shared moments. It also creates an environment where each party can hold one another accountable for actually spending some time each week practicing.
- Seek out professional assistance. There may still be some barriers that are difficult to remove on your own. Mental health counselors or therapists trained in mindfulness approaches may be able to help you identify some underlying causes to these difficulties, and support your practice by generating a tailored action plan. Sometimes there are also mindfulness groups or relevant services available that can jumpstart your process.
Developing a new skill can be challenging. People come to mindfulness for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes it's curiosity after having heard of its potential benefits. Sometimes it's desperation, having exhausted every other means to try to get better. No matter your journey, you are here. You are about to start a revolution within your inner self. There will be times when you move swiftly forward, in great strides; and times when you get stuck. May we all stay open. May we all stay healthy and strong, and if that is not possible, may we accept our limitations with grace. May we allow ourselves to experience appreciation for taking matters into our own hands, for daring to confront our demons, rather than to run away from it. May we learn something about ourselves, whatever the future holds.
May we all be able to find that space between the water and the rocks.
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Photo by Matheus Natan: https://www.pexels.com/photo/stylish-dreamy-black-woman-with-afro-hairstyle-on-blue-background-5689042/