Taking a mindful pause

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Here’s five ways to practise mindfulness throughout your day.

Integrating our mindfulness practice into daily life is crucial. We don’t practise to become Olympic gold meditators, we practise so that we can get rid of harmful habits of thought and behaviour and live in the present moment with greater awareness, calm, clarity and contentment.

While the ‘formal’ practice of sitting for 10 or 15 minutes of meditation everyday is crucial to training the mind, ‘informal’ mini-practices throughout our day can bring us huge benefits, and integrate the qualities we are cultivating.

Meditating with the eyes open, looking down, is a great preparation for integration. Some schools of mindfulness teach this from the beginning. Some don’t. If you’re meditating with your eyes closed, try opening them for a few minutes halfway through your practice or when you feel settled. Over time, you can learn to sit, undistracted, with eyes open. This skill helps us to integrate mindfulness into everyday life.

1. Remember to pause. Remembering to actually pause and check in with oneself regularly is also a habit to be trained. When we forget to remember, and get caught up in work or being busy, we can lose touch, and then we don’t even know how we are. Some people like to set an alarm on their phone or have a ‘mindfulness bell’ remind them. Some apps that can help here are Insight Timer and Mindfulness Bell. Another technique I find very useful is counting how many times I remember to pay attention to my body, my breath, my mind. On the days when my count is higher, I feel more self-aware and more calm and connected. I wear a little finger counter to help me do this.

Purple Case Resettable 5 Digit LCD Electronic Finger Counter Hand Tally DT

2. Check in with Body-Breath-Being. ‘The Three B’s’ is a useful three-step process for checking in. Whatever we are feeling, we can turn our attention to our bodies. If there’s an emotion, we can investigate how that feels in the body. Where does it feel tense or warm? What thoughts are arising? If there’s no overriding mood, we can spend a moment noticing the sensations in our feet, how they feel as they make contact with the floor. Then we can turn our attention to the breath, tuning into the sensations of breathing. Then we can drop all focus and rest, simply being, present and aware of whatever arises.

3. Take a three-minute stretch break. Working at a computer all day is proven to be bad for our bodies and minds. Every hour, why not take a three-minute stretch break? You can stay sitting if you like, but take your gaze away from the screen. You can use stretches you’ve learned from yoga or exercise, or why not just tune into how your body feels and stretch in the way you need to? Notice the sensations in the muscles as your stretch. What happens to your breath? Here’s a great three minute desk stretch routine.

4. Pay attention to the world around you. Being able to focus mindfully is one thing, but if we get over-absorbed we don’t pay attention to what is happening around us. Notice when this happens, when you get stuck in a little bubble. Take a few seconds to open up your awareness to the world around: the sights, sensations, sounds. We can be nosey! We can investigate what our colleagues are doing, without judgement. Enjoy the taste of our coffee while we gaze at the sky outside. Stay with the direct sensations we perceive from the world around us. If a colleague comes to talk, we can turn away from the screen and give them our full attention.

5. Balance periods of high-intensity and low-intensity. This is great tip, well-researched by Emma Seppala from Stanford in her book The Happiness Track. In a nutshell, the advice is to balance activities you find restorative and calming with activities you find exciting or stressful. So if you’ve had a busy morning, why not take a ten minute stroll around the local park at lunchtime? Or pop to the toilet for a five-minute mindfulness practice? I used to do this at lunchtime when I worked in schools and I found it a great way to de-stress and refresh during my day.

Why not pick one of the above and give it a try? It might make a refreshing difference to your mind, your body and your day.

 

We are naturally mindful

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If mindfulness means paying attention to something on purpose, it’s an ability we naturally all have.

Like me, you have probably carried a full cup of tea across a crowded room at one time or another. We were certainly paying attention in that moment.

We are all mindful to a greater or lesser extent, at different times, depending on our mood, the situation, what is tempting us into distraction…

And it’s distraction that can cause us trouble and unhappiness. According to Harvard research, when we are distracted we feel unhappy and we are distracted about half of the time. That’s unhappy half of the time! Simply because of mind wandering.

Now this is also natural. Our minds wander; we have imagination! Which is wonderful when we need to plan our next holiday. But not so wonderful when our mind is wandering needlessly into rumination and worry. And scientists tell us that when our minds wander, they go to mostly unhappy places.

So how can mindfulness help?

Well, the good news is, our capacity to be mindful is not fixed.

Theravada Buddhism is one of the most ancient traditions of mindfulness training. In Pali, mindfulness meditation is called ‘satipatthana vipassana’. ‘Sati’ means awareness, keeping in mind, attention or memory. ‘Patthana’ means keeping present and foundation or source.

So satipatthana means coming home, coming back to our source or remembering to pay attention to what is happening right now. We could also call this presence.

‘Vipassana’ translates as insight, where ‘vi’ denotes clear and ‘passana’ means seeing. Clear seeing, vipassana, results from practicing satipatthana.

When we are calm, we see clearly. We see things as they really are.

Just take a moment to check that with your own experience. Do you find that to be true? Are you more likely to see clearly when you are calm?

Think about carrying that cup of tea across that crowded room. Wasn’t there a natural sense of mindfulness or concentration coupled with an awareness of the environment?

Now imagine carrying that tea while distracted. Imagine your mind full of worries. Imagine the people in the room cursing you, or trying to seduce you. Wouldn’t it be harder to concentrate? Wouldn’t it be harder to keep the tea from spilling? Wouldn’t you feel more distressed, more under pressure?

The mind is just like this.

When mind is lost in distractions or preoccupied with negative or tempting thoughts, we don’t feel so well. We don’t perform so well.

Applying mindfulness can help us to let go of distractions and return our attention to a happier, calmer, present awareness.

Through training, we can develop our natural ability to be mindful to its fullest potential. We can develop our potential to see calmly and see clearly, and this can bring us a greater sense of well-being and confidence.

Want to practise mindfulness right now?

Loving kindness

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This practice dates back at least two and a half thousand years, and the principles of loving kindness seem to be found in all societies and spiritual traditions.

Loving kindness practice encourages us to be open-hearted and good-natured. We spend time evoking feelings of love in ourselves before offering that love to others. Sometimes in life, we’ve felt hurt or wounded, and our ability to love becomes guarded or even shut down. The practice of loving kindness helps us to go beyond these negative emotions and connect again with our soft spot, our natural empathy and kindness, opening up our hearts and enabling us to truly love others.

Scientists have measured the benefits of loving kindness and research suggests that this type of practice can lead to substantial boosts in our happiness and well-being and makes us feel closer to others, even strangers, and react more positively towards people in general.¹

Want to try it right now?

Here is a 15-minute practice of Loving Kindness.

If you’re in the Brisbane area, Loving Kindness Brisbane are offering a weekly class. More information here.

 

¹from research by Barbara Frederickson and Emma Seppälä

Mindful walking

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Mindful walking or walking meditation, is a relaxing way to slow down, breathe, come back to your senses and enjoy the present moment in nature.

The practice has been around for at least two and a half thousand years, and it is said that the Buddha taught this as a form of mindfulness-on-the-move.

These days, people from all cultures and backgrounds practise mindful walking.

This practice is not religious and is simply a way for us to notice our inner experience as we walk slowly and mindfully, allowing us to calm down from the stress and excitement of everyday life.

It also has many proven health benefits for both both and mind.

Scientists say that mindful walking slows down the heart rate, the breathing and calms the parasympathetic nervous system. It has been shown to reduce back pain and to reduce the symptoms of depression twice as effectively as recreational walking.

So why practise mindfulness while walking rather than sitting?

Seated mindfulness practices are a great way to find a natural stillness and sense of calm. One benefit of mindful walking is that we are less likely to fall asleep when we are physically moving.

Secondly, walking is an excellent way to release stress tension or restlessness while maintaining our mind-body connection.

Thirdly, practicing while walking helps us to integrate mindfulness into daily life.

If we can become more aware by walking mindfully, when physically moving with our eyes open, then we might find this same wakeful quality during other activities, such as eating, washing the dishes, speaking to a colleague or driving.

Want to try it right now?

Here is a 15-minute practice of Mindful Walking.

And if you’re in the Brisbane area, Mindful Walking Brisbane are offering two weekly classes, starting May 3rd. More information here.

The science of self-awareness

 

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What is self-awareness? And how does it help us?

Scientists disagree on their definitions of consciousness and self-awareness, but they agree that “to be conscious is to think; to be self-aware is to realise that you are a thinking being and to think about your thoughts.”¹

Newborn babies are conscious, they have thoughts and feelings, even if they do not yet have language. They feel hungry, they desire to be fed and we all know how upset they get if food doesn’t come quickly!

“In their first years of life, children develop a sense of self, learning to recognise themselves in the mirror and to distinguish between their own point of view and the perspectives of other people,” says Ferris Jabr of Scientific American.

Awareness is the gate of reason

So what does it mean to be self-aware? And can we enhance our own self-awareness?

Psychiatrists from the University of Washington² have drawn on Freud and Schiller’s model of the gates of consciousness to define different levels of self-awareness in the mind.

In the first stage of self-awareness, we think, but we cannot conceive that another is entitled to think differently. One might use phrases like,”I’m right, you’re wrong.”

In between stages one and two is what Freud and Schiller called “the gate of reason”. Here, one is able to accept the reality of both sides of the story. This is a fundamental turning point for awareness and our own well-being.

At the second stage of self-awareness, one respects different opinions on the same matter. Thoughts are metacognitive, mindful and meditative. One takes a parental and conditional view, using phrases like, “We should all be kind.”

The third stage goes even further. Here, one’s thoughts are engaged in contemplation and self-fulfillment. Conflicts are illuminated by the ability to recognise and transform one’s own impulses.

According to Freud and Schiller, this can progress all the way to a state of constant awareness and unconditional understanding. One is accepting of everything, using phrases like, “Life is like that.” One has no conflicts and is increasing humble, serene, wise, virtuous and well.

This seems to be the behaviour we see in great human beings like Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, but does scientific research hold this theory to be true?

In a 2003 study, four Buddhist adepts in a meditative state of “open awareness” had less activation in their orbital frontal cortex when hearing a baby cry than those without meditation training.

This part of the brain is associated with making judgements such as pleasant or unpleasant. Decreased activity here suggests that the meditators were able to let go of any negative impulses.

The University of Washington’s scale suggests that as a person becomes more self-aware, they become more mindful, and are able to let go of struggles and feel more compassionately about others.

The same four meditators in this study showed greater activation in their left superior pre-frontal cortex than others, when listening to emotionally-charged sounds. This area of the brain is thought to be responsible for empathy and forgiveness. The meditators were able to hear these sounds, recognise their reactions, and let them go.

Imagine how much less irritable we might be, if we could allow those annoying sounds like barking, construction work and crying to simply come and go, without judgement and with great empathy?

Science seems to say that self-awareness is linked to compassion, empathy, forgiveness and the ability to regulate our own impulses. These qualities can bring a greater sense of well-being and peace to oneself, as well as being extremely beneficial for others.

Practising mindfulness is one way we can cultivate self-awareness.

¹ Self Awareness With A Simple Brain, Scientific American 2012

² Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being, published by Washington University School of Medicine