As a mindfulness meditation instructor, I often get questions regarding this new ‘go to cure’ that is mindfulness. Even the government have jumped on the mindfulness wave here in the UK; and there has even been a slow shift in favour toward mindfulness based therapies over the previous NHS treatment of choice Cognitive Behavioural Therapy…a fine victory indeed that would be!
Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. Sounds straightforward enough yes? Well er, no…as much as we might be committed to living our lives that way (because we’ve read it in the Sunday newspaper that it is good for our health), mindfulness, like other abilities, needs training.
How can we cultivate mindfulness? “I want to learn to meditate so that I can stop all this thinking in my head, it drives me nuts”.Let me start by busting this popular meditation myth. Cultivating mindfulness is not about ‘stopping thinking’ – our mind will always think. In fact the Buddhist teachings consider the mind a sense – so just as our eyes see, our ears hear, we better not want to stop thinking! Nor is it practiced with the intention to change things. Instead, meditation helps us learn acceptance in the way that things are – for better or for worse. However, before acceptance, the first step is learning to observe and to be aware of what is happening in our experience. It is not easy to stay ‘present-centred’ in our everyday lives.
In mindfulness coaching we break the process down in to two types of practice: Meditation on the cushion; and Mindfulness exercises in everyday life
Consider this type of training as if you were preparing for a sporting event. Rather than going to the gym, we are prepping the ‘muscle’ of the mind. We start with small manageable chunks of time (your cushion is akin to spending time at the gym) and then get more specific by taking your new found skills in to the world at large (like an athlete may use training races). I like to break the development of mindfulness process down in to 3 stages to:
Stage 1: On the cushion meditation is a way to make the mind more stable and clear. Whilst based on Buddhist philosophy no spiritual beliefs are necessary to practise meditation. The word for meditation in Sanskrit is “shamatha”, meaning “calm abiding.” This is the natural state of the mind – the ability to be present without constantly leaving to follow our past or future orientated thoughts. Whilst there are many different meditation techniques, most require that we rest our attention on ‘an object’. In Buddhist meditation the object is commonly the breath. Depending on your prior experience, a typical programme would include: 1) Learning the proper technique (posture and approach to handling your thoughts); 2) Building the duration (and frequency) of your meditation sessions so that you develop a consistent practice; and 3) introducing different meditation ‘objects’ (mindfulness of the body, the feelings and emotions that arise, visualisations of you in relationship to others in your life).
Stage 2: In the world practice It is a challenge, even to the most experienced and diligent meditators, to become more mindful in everyday life. We may experience a ‘good’ meditation session, feel we have become calmer, stayed with our breath well…and then we get off the cushion and walk in to a steaming argument! In this stage, it is helpful to have short, controlled practices that challenge the ability to hold attention on ‘objects’ in everyday life. Exercises can be tailored the to particular needs, but common examples include brushing teeth (noticing the sensations that arise) or preparing food in the kitchen (being mindful of the cutting of vegetables whilst bringing awareness to other actions you need to keep an eye on, like pans boiling on the hob). One of the most fun exercises is mindful eating – believe me, food never tasted so good when you REALLY slow down and experience eating!
Stage 3: In the world with others Most of us don’t live in caves: we have to interact with our worlds. So moving on from mindfulness in controlled and individual activities, the practice arena becomes interactional – the ability to stay grounded and mindful in relation to others. Exercises can be designed to consider your relationships to self, to others, and to your livelihood. Common areas I coach people in involve practices in mindful communication and compassionate action, and a very popular yet challenging one: being able to watch your own emotional state during difficult conversations.
Breaking down the development of mindfulness in to these stages pays dividends. In my experience it is the most effective way to claim back the natural ability and clarity of the mind. We, as a society, have learnt to become mindless. We have to be patient to unlearn those habits. Learning on the cushion to come back to the body and the breath; slowing down in everyday activities; practicing in real time in the real world – this approach to practice is the foundation in transforming reactions in to more mindful responses.