Mindfulness in Practice: Where to Start, and a Few Words of Caution
I have written on mindfulness for the mover here. I strongly recommend that you start there, and then come back to this.
Mindfulness is an exercise in awareness. You are not trying to bring about any particular state or emotion, or to visualise anything. If you are trying to clear your head of all thinking, good luck with that. Mindfulness is the beginning of training the mind to focus - to be present and aware. Mindfulness is observation, and simply observation. You observe and whatever arises, let it arise and notice it without reacting. If there is an automatic reaction, you just notice that.
This is a fundamentally easy concept to grasp intellectually, but experientially it is incredibly difficult to do. Like movement, mindfulness and meditation are experiential. No amount of study will give you an understanding of it if you do not actually practice.
When just starting with mindfulness, to make things easier, we choose a focus point for our attention. This can be various things, but the easiest thing to use is breath. So we sit, and we start to notice our breath. Like a muscle is trained through the repetitive concentration of force, the mind is trained through repetitive concentration of focus. Time and again, the mind will wander away from its focus on the breath. You may not even realise that your thoughts have wandered until you are mid-way through your to-do list for the next day. When you become aware that your thoughts have drifted, simply bring your focus back to your breath. Do this again, and again
Think of your mind as an ocean. As much as you may wish for the waves atop the ocean to become still, using force or trying to will it to be still, will never work. It's natural state is to ebb and flow. It is the natural state of the mind to fluctuate. To find the stillness, you must go beneath the waves, into the deeper water. You don't try to stop the ebb and flow of the mind, you simply become still enough to allow yourself to sink in below the surface.
This is not to say that the process does not require effort - it does. However, the effort is not directed at trying to quiet the mind, but rather toward the discipline of the practice: repetition of focus.
As discussed previously, mindfulness can be incredibly beneficial for those who experience pain or fatigue with movement, but it can be difficult to start, so here are a few things to try:
- Begin simply by bringing your attention to your day to day tasks; brushing your teeth, making a cup of tea, walking to the shop. Begin to notice just being. You will find this easier with tasks that do not require mental effort, i.e. do this whilst performing an automatic task such as brushing teeth, and not whilst doing Calculus!
- When you first wake up in the morning, take a few minutes to just notice the physical sensations in your body. Notice your mood. Notice if your thoughts immediately start to race, or if you immediately want to reach for your smart phone.
- Go for a walk, and make your intention to notice everything in the moment. The feeling of the breeze on your skin, the sound of your feet on the pavement, the smells and sounds around you. Notice if your mind wanders, and bring it back to the present moment. Extend your awareness to your physical sensations; how does your body feel. This can be thought of as a type of walking meditation, but from a movement perspective I like to frame it as Wayfaring.
- Try a simple sitting practice. Starting with 10-30mins, find a comfortable place to sit. You do not need to sit in any specific posture, or on the floor. However, do try to keep your spine as straight as possible. You may use back support if needed. Do not lie down to do this - you will fall asleep, and no that doesn’t count as Yoga Nidra! Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath. Notice the inhale and the exhale, feel the sensation of the air in your nostrils, and listen to the sound of your breath. Don’t try to manipulate your breath cycle, just breathe as normally as you can. Your mind will wander. The aim is not to force yourself to "control" your mind, but simply to observe it. If you notice that your mind has wandered, bring it back to your breath. Try to keep any movement to a minimum, but obviously if you need to move to alleviate pain, do so.
It is important to treat the practice with respect. Start small and don’t rush into a full on multiple-hour sitting practice as a novice (looking at you S. N Goenka people). Be aware that despite the fact that mindfulness is sold as a nice way to relax (and relaxation can be a side-effect), the reality of the practice is more complex.
Some people may start a mindfulness practice and then give up because instead of the relaxation and bliss they were told to expect in the mindfulness brochure, they experience what is actually there: discomfort, pain, anxiety etc. The practice may exacerbate some pre-existing physical and mental health symptoms. Ideally, you should seek out a teacher who can guide you, especially if you have a history of psychosis. I will do a seperate piece on negative experiences in mindfulness.
Finally, If you are a practitioner using, or considering using, mindfulness in your clinical practice, you must have an established practice yourself, and you need to be aware that possible crises and negative experiences may result for your patients. Seek out a teacher who can guide you before you try to teach others.