What Is Mindfulness?
In the previous article, BIOFEEDBACK — NOT JUST ANOTHER TOOL, I discussed mindfulness as moment to moment awareness without judgement. If you are looking to learn more about mindfulness and biofeedback, I highly suggest that you give it a read. Biofeedback is an amazing tool that is currently gaining a lot of attention!
Mindfulness approaches and practices invite us to explore and become aware by being present. Mindfulness is noted by Guy Armstrong as “Knowing what you are experiencing while you are experiencing it.” Jon Kabat-Zinn expressed that “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Here, non-judgmental refers to self-judgment; that inner voice that constantly evaluates our internal experiences, thoughts and feelings as good or bad, and rewards or punishes us respectively.
What happens when we label our experiences as good or bad? We begin to react — we contract, we pull away, we obsess and ruminate, we travel into the past and the future. We do this with our minds and to our bodies. Instead mindfulness compels us to become gentle observers of ourselves.
Although you might ask, Observing what? What are we training ourselves to be mindful of? We are practicing to learn to pay attention and tune into our bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions and experiences.
How can this help us? Awareness and acceptance of our thoughts, feelings and experiences as oppose to resisting or fighting them facilitates the process of change and adaptation. Acceptance is not the same as inaction, in fact it’s about accepting what is so you can act to change what will be.
As Dr. Inna Z. Khazan states that “Mindfulness allows people to become truly aware of the present moment, to tell the difference between what they can and cannot change, and then focus their attention on the things they can change.” We can develop the capacity to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and sensations, knowing that they are dynamic and can change.
How Can You Practice Mindfulness?
There are many resources available to help you learn about different practices, but I will provide you with a small sample here.
Dr. Inna Z. Khazan states that mindfulness mediation consists of three components: concentration, mindfulness, loving kindness and compassion.
Concentration — We focus on one thing such as our breath, our feet, surrounding sounds, etc and that becomes our anchor. While our minds will wander time and time again, we can gently bring it back and not place judgement. The following three are examples of practicing concentration.
Breath Counting Meditation: Sit comfortably and begin to count every inhalation and exhalation: 1 as you begin to inhale, 2 as you begin to exhale, 3 in, 4 out and so on, until you reach 10 and then you start over again. If your mind drifts, bring yourself back to counting your breath and start over from 1. When thoughts, sensations, to-dos come up acknowledge them and go back to your anchor. You can do this practice for as short as 3-5 minutes daily or longer if you wish.
Breath Meditation: Sit comfortably and bring your attention to your breath. You are not trying to change your breathing in any way, rather you want to just notice it. Where are you sensing your inhale and exhale the strongest? It can be your nostrils, your chest or your belly. Pick one area and send your attention there and if your mind starts to wander, acknowledge the thoughts and sensations and gently bring yourself back. You can do this practice for as short as 3-5 minutes daily or longer if you wish.
Walking Meditation: This one is my favorite! Although not a requirement, I like to practice this while walking barefoot on the beach. Without feeling the need to change how you walk, become aware of all the subtle movements that are involved in keeping you balanced and moving forward. How your feet are placed on the sand or any other surface? Where on your feet do you apply more pressure as you take your steps? If your attention drifts away from the sensations of walking and how your feet experience the movement, gently bring yourself back. You can practice this for 5-10 minutes or longer if you wish.
Mindfulness — This is where we allow ourselves to observe what grabs our attention; sounds, thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. Once we become observers without the need to engage, we can then decide how we want to respond to those sensations. For example, lets take the sensation of hunger. How many of us take a few moments to actually feel our hunger before taking our first bite? To understand how we actually experience it! What does it bring up for us and inside of us? How is our sensation of true hunger different from the need and the urge to want to eat?
Mindful Eating: There are a few aspects that can help us implement the practice of mindful eating, one of which is the speed at which we eat our food. The speed at which we eat our food plays a direct role in how our bodies respond to the food, how much we eat and how good we are able to digest and absorb it. So, beginning the meal with taking a few deep breaths, while we allow ourselves to appreciate and enjoy the sight and smell of our food is a good way to start. Chewing each bite thoroughly is also another great practice with many benefits. Our digestion begins in the mouth, so chewing properly will allow our salivary digestive enzymes to be secreted and begin their work. Chewing also signals the rest of our digestive system (stomach, pancreas and small intestine) to prepare for the food that is coming. This simple practice could even help with some digestive complaints. Consequently, this practice will allow us to be able to hear and properly respond to the “full” and “hungry” signals that our bodies naturally send us. To make eating more enjoyable, we can employ simple strategies like using bowls, plates and cups that we like, we can decorate our meals, we can play music in the background and try to eat with good company as much as possible. Another aspect of mindful eating is using our awareness in making mindful choices about what we want to put into our bodies.
Loving Kindness and Compassion — Dr. Inna Z. Khazan expresses that “Awareness is placed on promoting good will and kindness toward oneself and others. Kristen Neff, one of the first to conduct scientific research on self-compassion, emphasizes the focus on changing your response to the present moment from self-criticism to self-kindness, from isolation to common humanity, and from emotional entanglement to mindfulness.” This technique can be very useful to soothe us when we are in distress and are suffering. The followings is an example of practicing loving kindness and compassion.
Metta Meditation: One way to practice this is through metta (loving-kindness) meditation where you direct love and compassion towards others as well as yourself. Sit comfortably and bring to mind a person or another living being that warms your heart. My favorites are children, because just being around them brings me so much joy. Allow yourself to experience these feelings of warmth, love, and compassion. And, while your heart warms up with these feelings begin to repeat to yourself the following words:
May you be well. May you be safe. May you be free from suffering. May you be peaceful.
Then you send the same intention of love, compassion and ease towards yourself.
May I be well. May I be safe. May I be free from suffering. May I be peaceful.
You can always change the words to better match your current experience. If your mind begins to drift during this process, gently bring yourself back to the feelings that you are experiencing and repeat the words. You can practice this for 5-10 minutes or longer if you wish.
One theme that you may notice is that there is not a single way of practicing mindfulness. We can practice by bringing our attention to the present moment and becoming non-judgemental observers at any moment.
As you begin to practice these techniques be gentle and patient with yourself. Remember, that there is no right or wrong way, so set aside whatever time you can and be kind to your wandering mind. I promise you that consistent practice of these techniques will begin to positively impact many areas of your life.
Thank you for your readership! If you have any questions I’d love to hear from you and let me know what you would like to hear more of.
Khazan, Inna, Z. The Clinical Handbook of Biofeedback: A Step-by-Step Guide for Training and Practice with Mindfulness. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Print.