Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Basics II: Getting Started

Mindfulness is a skill which is cultivated through practice. Our unhelpful patterns of thinking and reacting have been formed over years of repetition in an effort to cope with stress and the difficulties of living. Fortunately, the human brain is capable of making remarkable changes throughout life, something research has shown only relatively recently. Practicing mindfulness breaks the old habitual patterns and creates the possibility of new and creative approaches to our problems, our life.

The skill of mindfulness is cultivated through the concentrated and repeated practice of mindfulness, which is called mindfulness meditation. There are other types of practices which support the development of mindfulness, such as yoga, qi gong, centered prayer, and other types of meditation such as use of mantras. These are wonderful and beneficial practices that I recommend to anyone who feels drawn to them. However, my personal opinion is that these are most beneficial as complements to mindfulness meditation, rather than substitutes for it. All of these practices develop the skill of being aware in the present moment, but only mindfulness meditation also cultivates the ability to observe all the aspects of our own experience.

To get started, eliminate any distractions in the room and create a quiet space. Arrange not to be interrupted. Now find a comfortable sitting position, in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. What's important about our position is that it is not rigid, allows the spine to be straight, and the head to rest on top of the spine. If you're in a chair, it is best not to lean back, and to have both feet flat on the floor. Sitting 'just so' may seem silly, but the proper position makes meditation much easier and promotes an alert state of mind and the concentration needed to focus our attention.

Next, relax the muscles of your face and body, without slouching. See if you can generate the qualities of curiosity, openness, willingness, and alertness in your mind. Bring these qualities to bear on whatever is present during your meditation.

Diane Winston, at UCLA's Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, has a set of wonderful guided meditations on their web site, which can be played directly or downloaded onto your computer. Since I can't improve on these (and can't figure out how to save audio files to a blog), I'll give you the link to the page: I strongly recommend starting with the "5 minute breathing meditation." Practice this until you can do it on your own (without listening) for 10-15 minutes a day. Meditation on the breath is the foundation of mindfulness meditation, so it is important to be really familiar with these instructions. After you've done this for a couple of weeks, try moving on to the "19 minute complete meditation instructions." This meditation is what I recommend learning and staying with.

Other things to keep in mind as you get started:

1) The first thing you will probably find is that your mind will wander. This is normal. Wandering is what the mind is used to doing. The important thing is to keep bringing the attention back, over and over again. Just notice what the mind does, and keep coming back to the breath. If you practice long enough, it will probably wander less (but not always).

2) Be kind, to yourself, your mind, and your body. Don't judge anything that happens as you meditate. This is your time to be with yourself.

3) You may be tempted to "use" the meditation time to ponder a problem or do some planning. If you find yourself doing this, say to yourself, "not now" and come back to the breath. During this time, there is nothing else you have to do, nothing more important than just being here, with all your attention.

4) Be curious. Be open. What is this like, to just be present with this experience, in this moment?

If you have a question, click on the "comments" link at the bottom of this post and leave it there.

Note: I will discuss more of the meditations on the UCLA marc site in later posts.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Basics I: What is Mindfulness?

Fundamentally, mindfulness is conscious awareness of what is happening in the present moment. It is experiential awareness: what is the sensation, sight, sound, taste, smell, or mental formation (thought, emotion) that is happening right now? This is the bare observation aspect of mindfulness; simply placing our complete attention on what is happening in the present, without comment or evaluation.

In addition, there is a certain quality of attention that we use to practice mindfulness. When focusing attention on our experience, we try to do so with a sense of openness and acceptance. We observe what is happening without making any judgements about it (good, bad, right, wrong, should, shouldn't) and without either grabbing on to it (trying to get more) or pushing it away (avoiding, escaping). Whatever is going on in this moment, just is.

This sounds pretty simple, and really, it is. But it is not always easy (okay, it's just plain difficult, especially when we are just starting, or when extreme difficulties arise). The reasons it is difficult also point to why it is so beneficial and to its potential for promoting well-being.

Mindfulness is hard because it is not what we are used to doing. Most of us spend nearly all our waking moments engaged in some kind of thinking about this or that, commenting, judging, ruminating about the past, worrying about or anticipating the future. We spend a great deal of time telling ourselves stories of one kind or another about what this person said or what our friend/ boss/ wife/ boyfriend/ mother/etc. thinks about how we look, our job, what kind of car we drive, the comment we made last week. We speculate about our kids, our future, money, relationships. Accompanying these stories and thoughts are our feelings about them: anger, desire, jealousy, rejection, anxiety, worry, hope, guilt, resentment, etc. These thoughts, stories, and feelings aren't just random, but are based on habitual patterns formed in response to our life experiences, especially the painful ones. As a result, we tend to react to life situations out of our habitual patterns instead of acting in a conscious way with full freedom of choice. This is a profound source of suffering.

Mindfulness is about waking up from the unhelpful ways we think and feel about ourselves and others to what is actually happening. It's about listening deeply to ourselves in an open, caring, non-judgmental way that engenders understanding and compassion. Mindfulness lets us see how we undermine our own peace and happiness, and provides us the means to reclaim it. It gives us a window into the richness that exists in our lives, the richness we've been missing.

Next - The Basics II: Getting Started

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

How do I accept This?

The first time I ask a client to allow and be with his or her difficult feelings, I usually get 'the look' that says, "You've got to be nuts." People are too polite to actually say the words, but the eyes say it just as plainly. After a lifetime of avoiding discomfort, the idea of actually embracing it is radical.

This has been a challenging Christmas holiday at my house. Christmas Eve, my husband noticed some unusual pain; by the evening of the next day, we knew he had shingles, an excruciatingly painful recurrence of the chickenpox virus he had as a kid. On Saturday we made the 50 minute trip to the nearest small town hospital ER to get him the anti-viral medication necessary to reduce the chance of long-term complications. By Saturday night, he was in unrelenting agony.

Anyone who has sat with a loved one experiencing intense suffering knows it's hard. When you've done all you can do and it isn't enough to make it better. The helplessness, frustration, anger, sadness, and finally, exhaustion. I remember saying to myself over and over, "be with the feeling, don't push it away." It's times like this when I can totally relate to 'the look.' I don't want to feel this. In addition, I'm too tired. This is a huge issue for me. After seven years with chronic fatigue, I know one of my biggest obstacles to being present is that it takes energy. In this situation, with the stress, driving, care-taking, and little sleep, it's a given that my body and brain are going to shut down. And I don't want to shut down, because there's this person that I love that I want to be here for and who needs me to take care of him. Add fear to that list of unwanted feelings - fear that I won't be able to do what is needed.

How can I accept this situation? How can I be with it in an open and embracing way? I really tried to push it away, at least for a little while. Predictably, this just made me feel worse. Finally, I gave in, imagining a great space within which all those feelings could reside, foremost my own exhaustion, helplessness and fear. Sitting with my own suffering, holding it with care and compassion. At first glance, this might seem selfish. But really, it is just the opposite.

As long as we fight against the difficulty, it creates a tension in us, in our mind and heart. We become disconnected from ourselves and inevitably, from the one we love. When we open to and accept the situation and our feelings about it, the tension eases and we reconnect. From this openness, there is a free flow of caring and compassion, from which we can act consciously, not re-act out of our own emotions. I can better care for the one I love and myself, and know that the difference between the two isn't as far as I thought.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Mindful Holiday

I think this time of year is really a challenge for us working to remain mindful moment to moment. It is filled with distractions: bad weather, travelling, family visits, events, shopping. Our stress level goes up as the days to Christmas shrink. On one hand, it is filled with demands and pressures, memories (good and bad), warring and shifting emotions; it is our normal life plus a bunch of other stuff added on. On the other hand, because this time presents us with so many circumstances that aren't part of our every day life, it also presents an incredible opportunity to tune in to what is happening, just now.

One of the major obstacles to remaining mindful is habit. We all have our daily routine, and go about our life for the most part on autopilot. This time of year, our autopilot just can't keep up; that's why we get stressed out. So, there are incredible opportunities to embrace our life, rather than unconsciously check out, push it away.

For myself, I love lights. I can just stop and breathe and look at the lights and appreciate the color, pattern, background, setting, and know the joy of that moment. At our house, we have just one string of lights over the front porch, but in our forest setting away from other houses, it is marvelous. If I remember to stop and just enjoy.

So find things to stop and notice; look for the little things that you might otherwise pass by in all the busy-ness of the season. Take a breath and really observe; look, listen, taste, smell, and feel. Just this, just now.