Like most mind/body therapies, mindfulness isn't exactly new. Its roots are old, but for decades, mainstream culture viewed it as alternative or plain weird. Then came a perfect storm. About a decade ago studies began proving that mindfulness could be a key to fighting disease and, in fact, change the very structure of the brain. The concept of mindfulness is both super simple to understand but not particularly easy to master. Mindfulness is a a present moment, non-reactive awareness. Most of the time, we all habitually rehearse past experiences (if only I'd _____) or anxiously planning/avoiding a particular future (what if____ happens? or how do I avoid ___ from happening?). Because we all are so habituated to agonize about what's already happened or what might happen, present moment awareness can be completely elusive.
But unlike some forms of meditation, mindfulness is not about stopping thought. Instead, mindfulness is the practice of learning to observe all of our mind's shenanigans, letting all of those wild thoughts come and go. Instead of getting preoccupied with understanding or making sense of the thoughts, we develop the knack for observing them, kind of like watching clouds passing across the sky. They move in and then they move out. Through this process of simply noticing, we strengthen an observing quality in the mind. We develop the knack for noticing the contents of our minds without being overly identified with them. They're just thoughts, after all, and they come in, stay for awhile, and then eventually pass away.
If that sounds a little mind-numbing, it is not. Long-term mindfulness practitioners aren't checked out. The practice does not stop us from caring or wanting to have impact. Rather, it heightens our awareness of the possibilities to do so, possibilities that are not necessarily accessible to us when we're dwelling on the past or future. When we're lost in this sort of "un-mindfulness", research shows that we're activating our sympathetic nervous systems, driving our bodies into fight-or-flight responses. Living this way for a sustained amount of time has all sorts of deleterious effects on the body and outlook on life.
Mindfulness not only counters this by stimulating the "feed, breed, rest, and digest" parasympathetic response, which means we have fewer stress hormones, like cortisol, coursing through our veins at any given time. Hence the links between mindfulness and reductions in blood pressure, heart rate, and inflammation. Not only can it alter our stress levels, but it also has been proven to change the very structure of our brains, a process called neuroplasticity. Mindfulness has been shown to thicken areas of the brain that control emotions and stress responses within just eight weeks of daily practice. That's why mindfulness can mean the difference between absolutely "losing it" and staying centered when a boss arbitrarily gives a raise to a peer and not to us.
Start Your Practice
Begin You can try it anytime, any place, in almost any situation. And once you get the hang of it, you'll automatically be more mindful, without much effort. It's a good idea to start with a timer. That way, you're committed to staying put for a particular period of time.
Posture It does not matter, though, whether you sit in a chair or on the floor. What does matter, however, is that your body is relatively comfortable, and you can remain in the same posture for a sustained period of time. The posture is like a tripod of a camera. The steadier it is, the more you’ll see.
Breath If posture is like the tripod of a camera, the awareness is like the lens: if it is clouded or agitated, you may see forms but no detail. That’s why you focus on the breath. The breath is an object the awareness can steady on for a sustained period of time. The subtler the mind, the more detail you’ll see. Just observing the breath calms the thought patterns of the mind, brings you back into the present moment, awakens clear seeing, and brings the awareness toward the interior.
Sensations Once the attention is razor-sharp, you point it in the direction of the interior. This is where you train to be both sensitive and, at the same time, non-reactive. Move your attention throughout the body in what’s known as a body-scan, shifting the awareness from head-to-toe and toe-to-head, noticing sensations that crop up depending on where the attention is drawn to. Start the awareness at the top of the head, move down to the face, the neck, throat, shoulders, arms, hands, chest, upper back, belly, mid and lower back, pelvis, genitals, legs, and feet. And then return from the toes back up the same way you came down. Repeat this until your timer goes off.
Just Notice/ Don’t React Feeling sensation in the body like this can sometimes be overwhelming, boring, uncomfortable, and, at times, downright painful. Nobody likes to feel pain or discomfort, but mindfulness instruction is very clear: Don’t react. Just notice. In other words, if you feel discomfort, try not to move away from it. One way we try to move away from discomfort is by trying to understand or make sense of it. So if thoughts arise, notice them and label them, “Thinking.” And then come back to the sensations in the body.
Curiosity It can be immensely helpful to observe with a quality of curiosity. Curiosity tends to lower the risk associated with meeting our edge. It also opens us up to being surprised to find unexpected truths. Finally, it's child-like and exciting.
Distraction If you notice that you are distracted for good chunks of the time, don’t be too hard on yourself. There is no such thing as a good or bad meditation. A wandering mind does not mean failure. The fact that the mind wanders throughout is just data. In all likelihood, if you stay with the process, you'll also notice moments when the mind is very still and clear. We are not attempting to achieve a state of no-thinking. Instead, we are observing the various states of mind.
One method of tracking our progress on the path is to consider the amount of time we were able to stay present. This can be very difficult and to do so can be extremely frustrating. The place to start, instead, is to consider the amount of times we were able to come back to the present moment. As we keep applauding our return, we slowly encourage our awareness to keep returning.