Mindfulness can be a powerful tool as one of natural anxiety remedies. Many of us are in the middle of the busyness of summer vacation, and stress can certainly mount during this time. Also, we live in a very fast-paced era with a steady stream of technological stimulation and resultant stressors. It is common knowledge that stress is one of the leading causes of health problems and even death. A regular mindfulness practice can bring the mind and heart back to a place of peace and well being.
While visiting my sister last week, she introduced me to some lectures by Professor Ronald D. Siegel of the Harvard Medical School on Mindfulness and Mindfulness Practices. I would like to share some of his wisdom today. But first, a quote from Jack Cornfield:
“If you can sit quietly after difficult news, if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm, if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy, if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate, and fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or pill, if you can always find contentment just where you are, you are probably a dog.”
Well, since we are human, being mindful and present in the moment can be more challenging. Professor Siegel’s definition of mindfulness is:
Awake, Alert, Relaxed Attention.
The following are some of the wonderful benefits he explains of practicing mindfulness:
1) Loosens the Repression Barrier—previously unnoticed thoughts and feelings become evident, impulses become clearer, our defensive strategies show up. The things we don’t want to think, feel, or remember come to our awareness, and this is good.
2) Treats the Thinking Disease—constant judgments cause us to live in a world of alienation. In mindfulness we do not need to replace thoughts, we just notice thoughts and then watch them dissipate. In mindfulness thoughts arise and we watch them pass. Nothing is labeling the thoughts as they come so as to keep them as objects. This gives the mind a wide pasture in which to operate instead of tying it up.
3) A Form of Exposure Therapy—whatever comes to mind, just comes to mind, and we can learn to be with whatever arises, being with experience and noticing its impersonal nature.
4) Holding—taking refuge in the present moment, knowing we are in a community of like-minded people (others who also practice mindfulness). We use traditional teachings, physical posture and other people’s experience as an example.
He discussed three forms of mindfulness practice. They are:
Informal Mindfulness Practice—things we do during the day.
Formal Meditation Practice—stopping your day to practice.
Intensive Retreat Practice—going away to practice day after day.
While most of us probably cannot stop life and travel to a retreat for several days, his suggestions for informal and formal practice can be done by anyone, anytime and can do a great deal to provide natural anxiety relief.
Informal practices can be done while you are doing the things you ordinarily do during a day. Some suggestions for informal mindfulness practice are:
- Telephone practice. The next time your phone rings, listen to it and bring yourself to the moment, notice who is calling and notice what emotions come up.
- Taillight meditation. Use the form and lights of the car ahead of you to bring you to the moment and notice the visual experience. Listen to the sounds around you. Bring attention out to the environment of the moment.
- Shower meditation. Make your shower a very sensual experience. Notice the temperature of the water, the smell and feel of the soap, etc.
- Eating meditation. Use all of our senses to be mindful as we eat. Look at the food, touch it, hear it, and smell it before opening the mouth to put it on the tongue. Let it set on the tongue for a few moments before slowly chewing and swallowing.
- Walking and Waiting. Use moments of walking and waiting to be present in the moment and focus on the single task of moving or standing still.
Formal practice requires setting time aside to do nothing but be mindful. Ideally we should find a place to sit tall, lengthening the spine and relaxing the shoulders and neck. Imagine there is a string attached to the top of your head gently pulling the spine long and tall. Imagine a heavy cape draped across your shoulders to help them relax gently down. Now, clear the mind of anything dealing with the past or the future and be in the moment completely. Thoughts will come. Notice them and let them go. This involves restraint and not doing what comes naturally, not acting on our impulses.
When first trying a mindfulness practice, you may experience some obstacles. if you feel bored when you try to be mindful, notice why that is. If you fall asleep, pretend you are on the edge of a cliff. If you feel anxious, let that anxiety be the object of the meditative attention. Physical discomfort can be addressed by bringing mindfulness to those sensations.
Professor Siegel states that during our daily lives “sensations, images, and narrative take over our minds, and we cannot see the whole. Practicing mindfulness allows us to see the integration of things in the world.” He goes on to state that regular mindfulness practice changes both brain structure and brain function. More robust brain structures are developed, and there is less deterioration of the brain. What’s not to love about that?
He does warn that mindfulness treatments often can cause things to get worse before they get better. We need to stay with whatever feelings are instead of trying to feel better. Be open to our moment to moment felt experience, whatever that might be. Use it as an energy pool. This is the path to wholeness.
“The boundary of what we can accept in ourselves is the boundary of our freedom.” —Zen Patriarch
As with most improvements, regular practice is essential. He used the example of the man who was running through the New York subway asking, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” A street musician answered him, “Practice, practice, practice.” He suggests that we pick a couple practices and practice them regularly. It is a good idea to create rituals so we practice mindfulness the same time each day. He promises that if we will practice mindfulness 45 minutes a day, 6 days a week, we will notice a big difference.
Have any of you established regular mindfulness practices? If so, what suggestions can you give about how to establish the ritual? What benefits have you noticed? What have been some of your experiences?