Mindfulness has become a buzz word in the recent years. If you are one of the many people for whom the term has become ubiquitous, and if you are no longer sure of its meaning in today’s society, I invite you to read on.
Mindfulness meditation is an ancient Eastern practice that invites us to become present with our experience here and now, to sit with our fleeting thoughts, turbulent emotions, and physical pleasure and discomfort, and find equanimity. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali writes that in our yoga practice, we seek to detach from discomfort so we can learn to resist attachment to pleasure, which are two sides of the same coin. We tend to lean toward what we find enjoyable and avoid anything that we perceive as less than pleasant. The way to rise above these desires and aversions is by accepting that nothing in this life is permanent and cultivating a sense of curiosity about what is here now.
Before I proceed further, I will pause and fully admit that the above paragraph presents several ideas that might sound entirely foreign to you. In future newsletters, I will write further about those points and the lessons they offer us. For now, let it serve as a working definition. In short, the practice of mindfulness is about cultivating awareness without judgment.
That’s great, you say, but how does this apply to me?
In our yoga practice, when we step onto the mat and sit with our ankles crossed, we might first begin to observe stiffness in our joints and ligaments, or tightness in the muscle tissues. Instead of immediately starting to move and stretch, forcing the body become more mobile, challenge yourself to sit with those feelings of discomfort. Observe, while seated, the quality of your breath and what is happening with your thoughts and emotions, all without trying to change anything. You might notice immediately just how impossible it might seem to prevent ourselves from changing our breath or to stop following our thoughts as soon as we start to observe where they wish to take us. When you start to move, notice if you naturally want to go faster or slower, and as you start to flow with your breath, observe how it feels to move in natural rhythm with your inhalations and exhalations. Your mind might chatter at you. You might start to feel impatient. Let those thoughts and feelings come and go and remember that your experience is valid.
What about life off the yoga mat?
When going out for a walk, observe your natural pace. Look around and pay attention to the trees, grass, flowers, and everything else around you. Look up at the sky and notice its colour, or if the clouds are moving or creating shapes. When driving to work, turn off the radio and pay attention to what you are doing right here and now. Notice if your thoughts tend to drift and gently invite your mind to focus on the task at hand, without letting it become mechanical. When sitting down to eat lunch, put away your phone or (if you’re like me) your book, and simply focus on eating the beautiful meal that you or someone else has loving prepared. Notice the colours of the dish before you, the textures and flavours. Breathe slowly and evenly, and take some time to truly appreciate your meal. Whatever you do, do not reach for your phone! When cuddling at the end of a long day with your children or pets, be all there. There is no need to think of what you might be missing. There is no need to document your special moment for anyone else. Instead, cement this moment in your own mind, because every moment is an incredible gift.
The concept of this practice is simple, but the practice itself can be challenging to us, especially today, when the world around us seems to move and change too fast. As soon as we start to pay attention to our environment, and then to our internal experience, it’s not uncommon for us to suddenly become aware of emotions and thoughts that might be lurking under the proverbial rug. It can be downright scary to face all that old dust, but there is no need to dive into the deep end. Simply choose a five-minute period once or twice a day when you can dedicate that time to simply paying attention.
The easiest choice is often to revert back to what we have known much too well in the recent years. I believe that the real bliss is not in ignorance but in awareness of the so-called good, bad, and neutral, with all the perfect and imperfect beauty that this world continues to offer us. All it asks in return is that we keep training ourselves to pay attention.
For more on Mindfulness, Awareness, and being here now:
Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by B.K.S. Iyengar
The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle
The Matrix (yes, the movie, and yes, I’m serious)