by Ashwin Jose
There has been quite a bit of talk in the media regarding mindfulness (specifically meditation) and its importance to mental wellbeing, emotional awareness and stress reduction among its many benefits.
Yet, many find that committing to a practice of sitting meditation or any practice of “observing the mind” is wrought with challenges and disruptions. Here I try to get down to the core of what Mindfulness is and how to circumvent the choppy internal seas.
Mindfulness as defined by Merriam-Webster:
“the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis”
The definition does provide a starting point for understanding the “internal state” but for a true comprehension of this concept, “experience” is paramount.
The default state of existence for most of us is, a mental state of a constant association/fixation to mental images and inner dialogue.
This state arises from a need to constantly assess and judge external conditions for our physical and/emotional safety. Survival is the name of the game for all living creatures and the mind has evolved from many millennia to keep us safe from physical harm. Yet, in the modern age some of us do not have any overt threats to our survival like our ancestors had to deal with (luckily).
Hence, the mind had to create elaborate systems to make sure that pain is avoided at all costs- emotional and physical. (The need to constantly look at a phone, a screen, reward yourself to sugar cravings, or other compulsive behaviors from this innate urge to avoid discomfort and anesthetize it)
Imagine you are on an isolated beach with an all pervading silence. How much time will you be able to stay in that space, enjoying and being with the environment, till your mind starts questioning and judging? Will the judging create with it associated physical discomfort? Will it tell you that there is something more important, different, or better that you would rather be doing right now?
The mind will question you constantly and try to convince you, of all the things that might and will go wrong. This in turn, is based on interpretations of past painful events and the need to avoid it. It arises from a subconscious mind that equates all pain to death or threat to survival.
Yet, all growth begins at a point of discomfort or a break in habitual patterns (mental, emotional and physical). For instance, that first day at the gym, or the day you decided to commit to eating healthy, leaving an unfulfilling job or a relationship. All of these seemed like painful, life threatening situations when it happened.
Yet, in hindsight it was best thing you could have experienced in the moment. It was the undertone of discomfort/ dissatisfaction with the state of current existence that prompted you to seek and commit to a different outcome. It had to come from an internal shift where you overcame a sensation of fear with faith that whatever action was done was for for the best.
Fear — is your friend. It is simply trying to protect you from perceived pain. You have to constantly re-assure Fear that pain will not cause your death but rather lead to a “greater growth”. Allowing fear to be present and not giving into the sensations but rather creating awareness around it, is where mindfulness begins.
It is simply realizing that you have thoughts, fears, considerations and judgements but your true essence is beyond all of those.
Your true essence is pure awareness, or being present in what is happening — right now — in the moment.
Ekhart Tolle’s phenomenal book “The Power of NOW” is a great starting point to experience the “now — the present moment”. https://www.eckharttolle.com/books/now/
The mind constantly wants to go to the next experience or wants to remember some past incidents. Most of the time it is in refusal of what is actually so. What is actually happening now. Acceptance of what is now, is the key to peace and inner-development.
Meditation or mindfulness hence becomes a process of disengaging from these default states of existence, in order to train the mind to bring awareness back to the home base — Your body. The mind’s nature is to wander, so initially it is best not to fight the impulse to wander, but rather let it be. When the mind has ceased to wander, bring it back to a point of focus inside the body. The rhythmic sensation of breath going in and out is a good place to start.
Our minds and psyche are complex, yet the the awareness of it is a “simple experience”. It simply exists and is in a constant state of “IS”ness.
Mindfulness is truly becoming aware of the mind through the body.
Here is a quick Meditation practice you can engage in for an inner experience of the NOW:
- Set a timer for a certain time you feel comfortable and add 2 minutes to it. The purpose is to stretch the mind beyond its perceived habitual threshold.
- Sit in an upright and comfortable posture and close your eyes. Best to be in a silent setting, with less sensory inputs.
- Settle into your sitting posture and feel free to shift your posture until you can maintain a certain erectness to the spine so that your stomach relaxes outward.
- Once you have settled into your seat, start feeling into your breath. By that I mean, the actual sensation of air going in through the nostrils and coming out.
- What have you observed? If the breathing seems short or quick, I urge you to first take at least 5 counts of deep diaphragmatic breathing (deep breaths which will actually elevate and release your diaphragm)
- Once the 5 breaths are complete, try to pay attention to any body sensation that you can sense immediately. The most effective technique is to observe the breathing pattern of inhalation and exhalation.
- If you find this extremely difficult, focusing on any other bodily sensation, like your feet touching the floor or hands resting on your lap could be a good starting point.
- If you feel that this is also difficult, naming what you feel aloud or writing what sensations were brought up is an effective method to clear the slate of thoughts and start anew. Its all about “the observation of your mind and bodily sensations”
- Once you have eased into the sensation of breathing, try to observe what is going on in your body. Thoughts, mental images, voices, sense impressions, physical pain or discomfort may obscure the experience. This is simply bringing awareness to what was avoided or what you had chosen not to address.
- Let them be and don’t fight thoughts. Just remember to observe the breath whenever your awareness shifts.
- Once you have completed the exercise slowly open your eyes and try to arrive at a neutral posture by consciously slowing down movement. Try not to break awareness with abrupt body movements.
- Writing down sensations, sketching images or pictures that came to you while meditation is a good way to process the experience and integrate the experience.
In conclusion, acknowledge yourself for undertaking a practice of looking within and starting on a process of self-inquiry. Like every practice, the beginning will require a sincere effort and a desire to break away from your current state of affairs. Acknowledge resistance and discomfort. It is only temporary. And with most things in life “This too shall pass”.