The Practice of Mindfulness
Between the stimulus and the response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. ~Viktor Frankl
Think of the possibilities if you were able to create just a little space between something happening and responding to it. What if you could act from your deepest sense of integrity and not only from old habits, conditioning and socialization? How about having the choice to be fully in the present moment rather than worrying about the past or future? If these are not good enough, how about ending suffering? These are some of what the practice of mindfulness is about.
Mindfulness is a practice and way of being that come to us from Buddhism and has been discussed and written about for centuries. Obviously this little piece will only touch on the subject. Still, for all that can be said about mindfulness, the practice of it could hardly be simpler. Really, it is just being consciously aware. If there is a sensation in your body, for example, mindfulness means noticing it and being aware that you are noticing it.
The foundational practice of mindfulness is to bring our attention to our breath. We notice it but are not trying to change it in any way. When our attention wanders (as it tends to do), we notice that it has wandered and where it has gone and then we bring it back to the breath. We just keep paying attention to the present moment of our breath. In later parts of this practice, we bring that same process and attention to our body sensations, to sounds, and even to our thoughts. Eventually we bring it to everything.
New Choices and Insights
What could be simpler? And yet from this very simple practice comes some very powerful possibilities. If you have practiced sitting with your feelings and not reacting to them and just letting them happen, then when some intense emotion arises, such as fear or anger, you can be with this feeling and decide how you will respond rather than react.
For instance, maybe you tend to feel hurt and withdrawn if someone makes a joke about you or something you’ve done. Next time this happens, however, imagine noticing the feelings of hurt arising and your inclination to withdraw, but you do not mindlessly act on them. Instead, you bring some curiosity to the situation. Was the joke really at your expense? Maybe the joke tellers intent was really to build connection with you through humor, not to hurt you. Maybe it really is a hostile situation and the best way to be kind to yourself is to withdraw. For some of us, these kind of inquiries and the new choices they bring are a game changer in life.
With mindfulness, we practice stepping out of the habitual patterns of our life. The fear, anger, pleasure and all the rest of it may still be happening, but we no longer identify with these processes. We can get some distance and observe and gain understanding about how we actually function in the world, and that gives us even more options.
The truth is that most of our suffering comes from resisting what is actually happening, not from what is really happening. Hard feelings are made so much harder because we fight against them instead of letting them follow their own process of arising in us and then changing. Suffering mostly happens when our attention is on the past or future. Mindfulness is the practice of bringing our attention to the here and now. For some of us, years can go by and we hardly notice because we are so caught up in the past and future. The only place where we actually live, though, is in the present moment. Wouldn’t it be nice to fully inhabit our lives?
And if you need any more motivation to give it a try, there is now a large body of evidence showing that a mindfulness practice has a great number of other benefits including significant stress reduction, pain reduction, increased working memory, greater focus, more cognitive flexibility, and increased relationship satisfaction. Also, clients who see a therapist who has their own mindfulness practice (such as myself) show increased benefits from therapy.
How to Begin
Take a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class offered at many hospitals. Here is a link to classes in the Santa Cruz and San Jose areas, but they are offered in many places: http://www.mindfulnessprograms.com/. Or go to the source and study at your local Vipassana Buddhist center.