It’s a few minutes before 10pm and all the parking spaces in front of my condo are taken. I drive around the block and park two blocks away. Getting out of the car, I dissolve into the quiet evening air. I smile at the stars above and begin walking home. No longer tired, not grumpy about my parking karma – actually, I feel happy. I am grateful that I get to have a short walk through my Rogers Park neighborhood at the end of a long, productive day. I pause and smile. Mindfulness practice has transformed an earlier state of burnout into a state of wonder and quiet joy.
What happened? What created this complete change of outlook? I had gone to my evening meditation group tired, grumpy, burned out, and wondering if I really had time for it, time to relax. It had been one of those days when the new problems outnumbered the solved old ones. I had felt defeated and unproductive. What was worse, I had begun to cycle into worry about my work. I was at a personal low point, mugged by self-doubt, worry, and anxiety – my old enemies! By the time it was time to go meditate, I had wondered if I shouldn’t stay in, “admit defeat,” and go to bed early? Then, miraculously, my practice had “saved my life.” It was if I had hit a hidden reset & reboot button. I emerged from the sixty minute practice period restored, content, grateful to be alive.
I’m sure we all have lived through our own version of this scenario many times. In this culture, pushing ourselves to the point of exhaustion is the norm. But a powerful practice can literally change how we think and feel about everything. Exactly which practice works best is something we each have to discover for ourselves. For some, it’s mindfulness meditation, but many of us don’t have a formal practice. Instead, an informal practice like gardening or sitting by the lakeshore might be our way to regain our sanity and balance. Others find their reset button in jogging or yoga or a long talk with a dear friend. It’s definitely not the same for everyone, but as I teach mindfulness to more and more people, I see that almost everyone has a favorite informal mindfulness practice that they already rely upon.
What is mindfulness? How can it turn a lousy mindset into a great one? Ron Siegel, Harvard professor and author of “The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems,” defines mindfulness as “awareness of present experience with acceptance.” So it’s about awareness, about cultivating awareness of what is. And it’s about being in the present moment. We’re not planning the future or rehashing the past, but in the present moment: here, now, present, attentive. And it’s being in an inner stance or attitude of acceptance. I like to say it’s being in a state of mind in which we are open to see and feel what is really happening, what is really so. When we are able to fully take in what is happening, pausing to take it all in, we can then respond appropriately. We are all mindful to a degree. And when we’re at our best, our mindfulness may seem inexhaustible. But, sooner or later, we find the limits of our ability to greet the day’s moments mindfully. What then? Practice is the answer and there are many ways to practice mindfulness.
Generally speaking, mindfulness practices fall into two categories, formal and informal. Most people are more familiar with informal practices, though they may not consider them practices at all. They are usually daily tasks like cooking, cleaning, walking, and talking – the things we do all day. We can make one of these into an informal practice by changing the attitude that we bring to the task. In washing dishes mindfully, for example, we might practice being aware of our breath and of all the temperatures of water our hands sense as we wash the dishes. We bring our mind into the present moment and engage fully with washing the dishes just for the sake of washing them. It might mean that it takes a little longer to do them, if done mindfully, but you might find you enjoy doing them more and even lose track of the time. When we lose track of time that often means that we’re entering the present moment. As you experience the benefit of doing one thing mindfully, you may find ways to bring your full attention to other tasks. By bringing mindfulness to our daily tasks, we can enjoy more of our day and spend less of it in the frame of mind that just wants to “get these things done and over with.”
Informal practice is great, but most people find it is even better if they can make time for some formal mindfulness meditation practices. There are many formal practices and they may be done in any of the traditional meditation postures (walking, standing, sitting, or lying down). Among the most popular formal practices are sitting and walking meditation. Though you cannot get the dishes washed while doing a formal practice, you can get your “emotional and mental” laundry done! And with a little practice, you might find that you can pretty reliably emerge from your meditation time feeling de-stressed and renewed.
Here are a few guidelines to help you step into formal mindfulness practice.
Practicing Sitting Mindfulness Meditation
Whole books have been written on how to practice. You might start by following these guidelines:
- Sit upright in a comfortable chair, feet flat on the floor, back straight, eyes mostly or fully closed, hands resting on your thighs or clasped loosely in your lap
- With your mouth closed, breathe through your nose in a natural breath cycle – no need to breathe especially slowly or deeply, just breathe as you naturally do
- Breathe into the low belly or tan tien (also known as the hara), a point about 2 inches below the belly button. With a little practice, you should be able to feel the tan tien rise and fall on each breath cycle. (sometimes, it’s easiest to get the hang of tan tien breathing by meditating lying down)
- Sit quietly, sensing the rise and fall of your lower belly with each breath cycle.
- If you get engaged with your thoughts (engaged, here, means thinking about them), then gently return to watching your breath
- The goal is not to make your mind blank, but to be in the present moment, aware of your breathing, aware of everything that’s arising (sensations, feelings, thoughts). Practice noticing what you’re aware of without any judgment of it as good or bad.
- Some people find it helpful to count exhalations, 1 to 5, while meditating
Practicing Walking Mindfulness Meditation
As with sitting meditation, much could be said about walking meditation. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Breathe through the nose and clasp your hands gently, letting them cover the solar plexus or tan tien
- Have your eyes half closed and cast downward – aware of what’s immediately ahead of you, rather than looking around
- Walk with full awareness on every aspect of each step. Put your “mind into your feet” and feel the floor under you. If inside, you might walk barefoot or in socks.
- Try different speeds of walking. Try alternating a step with a pause, then try lengthening the pause. Try to find your natural walking style.
- Synchronize your breathing with your stepping, as seems natural to you.
- Bring your full attention to your stepping. When you find that you’ve become engaged with your thoughts, note this, then gently return to your practice (this step, this step, this step, this step).
- Practice with non-judgmental awareness of all that’s happening as you walk.
And here’s a great one-minute practice you can do most anytime during the day:
- Stop what you’re doing, drop your train of thought and activity
- Rest for sixty seconds, breathing into the lower belly and relaxing the upper chest
- Drop into the moment, relax, be here now, be fully present to everything in your awareness, not judging anything good or bad, just noticing it all
- Return to your activity, refreshed and re-centered
I hope you enjoy these musings on mindfulness practice and tips for taking up practice. I’ve been doing some of these practices, like walking and sitting, for almost 30 years now. They are dear friends and companions of mine. They have helped me through the completion of my doctorate, my arduous zen days in the early 90’s and many, many moments of my life. If you have a favorite story or anecdote you’d like to share, I hope you’ll write to share it with me or share it in the comments section of this blog post. I’m always interested to hear how people practice, both formally and informally.
Here’s to our continuing awakening into greater life!