Mindfulness: Practice Makes Peacefulness
I have taken a rather irreverent route into mindfulness and into my own practice of it. I recognise that I have bent the rules and, to a purist, may not be reaping the full benefits of practicing mindfulness in the tradition of Buddhism. Yet even through my imperfect practice, I have found rich rewards.
The four foundations of mindfulness are four practices set out in the Satipatthana Sutta (The Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness) for attaining and maintaining moment-by-moment mindfulness and are fundamental techniques in Buddhist meditation. The four foundations of mindfulness are:
• mindfulness of the body;
• mindfulness of feelings or sensations (vedanā);
• mindfulness of heart/mind or consciousness (citta);
• mindfulness of the state of nature and natural law (dhammā).
The Buddha referred to the four foundations for establishing mindfulness as a “direct” or “one-way path” to the realisation of nirvana. I interpret this as a realisation of a state of peace, gratefulness, wellbeing and egoless-ness.
Whilst not a Buddhist, I practice mindfulness in order to become a healthier, more balanced and contented person. Living in the present has helped me to overcome problems with stress, it has helped me to review my expectations of myself and others, and not judge myself or judge others so readily. Mindfulness has opened the door for joy and love to fill the spaces that worry and regret have left, with their departure.
Meditation takes time and energy but it is worth the investment!
A good place to begin is to find a space for peaceful meditation, outdoors is ideal weather permitting; sit comfortably with the upper body upright, good deportment is important in order to avoid distraction caused by discomfort (so the lotus isn’t a must for beginners) and for the flow of energy to be free within the body. Closing or soft focus our eyes helps with concentration, a candle flame may be used as a focal point if you are indoors.
Breath is the first area of focus for mindfulness of the body: Begin by taking a deep breath in through your nose and releasing it in a controlled manner through your slightly open mouth. Several deep breaths at the beginning of your session will oxygenate your blood and stretch your diaphragm helping to relax you. Allowing ourselves to breath as a baby would; by letting our stomach rather than our chest, expand with each intake of breath. This will allow our bodies to connect with previously forgotten root actions: We are often unconscious that we have unlearnt our most natural way to breathe and we are ever told to ‘suck in’ our stomachs in order to appear slimmer! Now we allow our breathing to take on its own natural rhythm and depth. Counting may be used as an anchor for our thoughts but we should not turn our attention to the counting but stay focussed on our natural breath rhythm, keeping our minds focussed on our bodies. This will become easier with practice over time.
Establishing a ritual for becoming aware of ones body, ones breath, is the first step in mindfulness of the body. When we focus on the body, we concentrate on four postures; walking, standing, sitting and lying down. Mindfulness is acquired through practice and is with us throughout our life, not only in our meditative life. Awareness of posture, movement through space, how we feel within our bodies and what we feel with our bodies, through the senses, all become a natural part of being ‘in the present’. Peoplesay they are often on auto pilot, regretting /hankering after the past or worrying about the future and many people like to ‘switch off’ in front of the TV; but bringing the now into focus instils a sense of calm and belonging that is essential to our wellbeing and happiness and instead of a means of escape, we find fulfilment in the moment.
We neglect our senses; we have five physical senses which are often underused. Accessing and utilising all of our senses as we go about our days is liberating and enlightening. Begin to bring your physical senses more into use. To start with you may need to do this in a very deliberate way, focussing on each sense in turn in order to ‘switch them on’. Concentrate on your body;
• Think ‘sight’ and notice what is around you; not just the environment, the objects to be unconsciously named but the colours, textures, condition of the things you see.
• Think ‘smell’ and notice the scents in the place you are. Try not to judge them as good or bad smells but experience them and react to them in a natural way.
• Think ‘sound’ and notice the sounds which surround you, both near and far. We naturally filter out a lot of the sounds around us, so focussing on them can bring a wealth of texture to any given experience.
• Think ‘taste’ and notice the taste of the air you are breathing and flavours which may have lingered in your mouth.
• Think ‘touch’ and notice the things you can feel against your skin; textures, temperatures, sensations. The breeze; the suns warmth; the rain; all add to the experience of the here and now.
Remaining in the present as you do this is important but embrace remembered emotions: smell and taste will often be evocative and I believe that the sum of ones experience adds to the experience of the present in a valuable way. We come alive through the intent to establish full use of our senses. The rich tapestry of the world unfolds before our eyes. This is all part of developing a mindfulness of the body.
We next consider the mindfulness of feeling or sensation: We concentrate our focus on the feelings inside the body and our experienced sensations outside of the body. To begin with focus on the body in its entirety, working up from its contact with the earth (whether the soles of the feet or the seat) and working up to the crown of the head. The seven charkas may be useful here as they guide ones focus through the body, leading from external to internal sensations in an established format.
Focus on each area of the body in turn. We have already established our breathing and are able to turn our full attention to our bodies’ sensations. Experience them and accept them in turn, becoming more and more aware of inner feelings and outer sensations at each stage.
Our feelings or sensations range from pleasant, through indifferent to unpleasant and we react to them constantly throughout our days. It is important to develop an awareness of what is being felt and why and to choose our reactions rather than collapse ourselves into habitual behaviours: Are we actually hungry, or has the smell of a cake baking made us crave a cake? Did that person knock into us intentionally; do we need to feel angry? With mindfulness the path to right action or reaction becomes clearer. We can see that there is a choice to be made rather than a habit to slavishly follow. Mindfulness frees us from learned reactions which have led us to believe that we cannot change our ways, that that our ‘personality’ is set, as through some immutable process.
Developing our understanding of the triggers, of our reactions, and analysing the causes, frees us from the constraining bundle of learned behaviours we have come to accept as ‘ourselves’. We often judge ourselves for our reactions: We go from heightened expectations to self condemnation without ever pausing in the middle to evaluate. The power of the ego means that every time we fail to meet our own goals and expectations, we give ourselves permission to collapse ourselves into old learned habits, cravings and addictions. Freeing ourselves from this pattern through increased awareness and continued reflective practice is part of our transformation.
This naturally links with our mindfulness of heart and mind, our consciousness: The seventh charka is a convenient point at which to bring our focussed concentration to our mindfulness of heart and mind. We often judge others, just as we judge ourselves and we have high expectations of other just as we do of ourselves. When they fail to meet our expectations we are disappointed, hurt or angered and with ourselves we are often disgusted. We must learn to look into our hearts, as we look into our bodies, and cultivate not just an understanding and acceptance, but love. Love of ourselves and of others is what allows us to move forward without ego in a non judgmental way.
With mindfulness of the heart and mind we need strength and steadfastness of purpose in order to concentrate our focus on what, for many, can be a deeply upsetting and transformative area of mindfulness based living. An intuitive understanding that our lives are on a wrong path, a feeling of wrongness, is often what leads us to bring mindfulness into our lives. When the Buddha said mindfulness is a “one-way path” it was an insightful statement into the nature of this transformative practice. We may be opening a Pandora’s Box and there might be difficult choices to be made, or we may perceive them as difficult because of learned expectations and because of the expectations of others. We may wish to alter the path of our lives in very practical ways, not just spiritual ones. By giving ourselves’ time to adjust and to establish everyday mindfulness as a central precept for our lives, we will move our lives onto the right tack naturally. This part of the meditative mindfulness journey is a personal one where we question our motives, actions and paths. We begin to notice how we can become better each day.
Finally we come to mindfulness of the state of nature, or natural law: Contemplation of how we fit into the ‘bigger picture’ is something which human beings constantly do throughout our lives. As the poet Rumi says “You were born with wings. Why prefer to crawl through life?” Mindfulness of the heart and mind helps us to fly.
Recognising ones place in the universe allows us to see things from a healthier perspective. We can forgive the failings in others, become more compassionate and cease to judge ourselves and others more easily. Experiencing the flow of energy in the universe and knowing how we fit into and effect the world, is a form of enlightenment. Every action, every choice we make matters and the cumulative effect is seen throughout the world. We are experiencing a time of great change as climate change takes hold as a direct result of our cumulative actions, so here we are faced with an undeniable truth that what we do matters.
This last stage in the meditative process is the one where our greatest transformation might take place. Recognising that our actions count for something in the universe but that the choices we make should not be about the “I”, the ego, is empowering and humbling at the same time. It gives us the confidence to take right action and delivers multiple benefits for the practitioner. It can often lead to changes in our life path as we recognise that material possessions are of little real worth and we move our lives into an arena for spiritual growth.
My personal incorporation of the chakras into my mindfulness practice has enabled me to use an already familiar pathway to lead me through part of the foundations. I believe that using the tools at hand is the same as accepting help from a friend: In my own experience this has not detracted from my practicing mindfulness but made it easier for me to bring this important practice more readily into my life.