The four qualities of mindfulness, P.A.R.K.

What are we training, when we practise mindfulness?

There are four main qualities of mind:

  • presence,
  • awareness,
  • and relaxation
  • with an attitude of kindness¹

We could say P.A.R.K.

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Presence is sometimes referred to as mindfulness, by itself. It means paying attention, on purpose, to moment-to-moment experience. It is our ability to focus on the breath, the sensations, the sounds- whatever the object of our practice is. 

Biting into a juicy apple… feeling the gentle breeze on our skin… this quality of mindfulness can help us feel present and alive. With curiosity, we find our experience interesting, and this quality of attention can settle the mind and allow us to listen effectively and work skilfully and joyfully. 

Awareness is our ability to watch over, to check. The mind does not just think, it is aware that it is thinking. This helps us notice when we are distracted and choose what to do next.

With awareness, we can notice what is going on around us, as well as what we are focusing on.

Awareness is clear and open, like the sky, and is unclouded by thoughts and emotions. 

We are not our thoughts and emotions, we are the one who is aware of our thoughts and emotions.

Relaxation allows us ease of practice. To be, to rest and to let  go. Our attention should not be highly-strung or over-absorbed, but a balance between alert and relaxed. Here we are referring to relaxation of our mind —but equally important too, in our body.
We can also practise with kindness towards ourselves, accepting whatever thoughts and emotions arise. Thoughts are emotions are a normal occurrence, not something to banish. Neither do we want to get lost in a spiral of worry. So we train to notice, gently accept and come back to our focus.

This allows us to open to our experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant.

Not judging our experience, not striving towards some special state of mind as a goal. Judging and striving can cause more, rather than less noise in the mind.

As we learn to accept whatever arises in our practice, we find ourselves becoming less critical and more loving.

Presence and awareness make up 50% of our practice. Kindness and relaxation make up the other half. 

When these qualities are well-balanced, we feel balanced. And after we finish sitting, we can allow these qualities to come with us, into our everyday lives.

How to work with these four qualities? 

We can check on our P.A.R.K. as we practise. If we find ourselves easily distracted, we can ‘tweak up’ our presence and awareness by becoming more curious, perhaps paying more attention on the in-breath or to our object. 

If we find our mind busy or critical, we might like to try saying yes to our experience, and relaxing and releasing on the out-breath. 

Working with the eye-gaze can also help. With eyes open, we can drop the gaze if we feel agitated, or lift the gaze if we feel drowsy.

“Don’t concentrate too much on the breath… the masters always advise not to fixate when practising the concentration of Calm Abiding. While you are supposed to be watching the breath, after only one or two minutes you can find yourself playing in a football game or starring in your own film. So another 25 percent should be devoted to a continuous and watchful awareness, one that oversees and checks whether or not you are mindful of the breath. The remaining 50 percent of your attention is left abiding, spaciously.” ²

How not to work with these four qualities? 

Don’t let them become a distraction in themselves! It’s no good if these qualities stir up more thoughts in your mind, rather than allowing it settle. 

We are defining an experience quite beyond words. So if you find yourself nit-picking over whether openness is actually a feature of relaxation or kindness… or wondering whether you are only 47% present and aware, forget about it!

These qualities are naturally present, when we are undistracted.

So it’s rather a letting go of what hinders us, not so much adding anything.

Simply notice the thoughts, notice the feelings, and return to the breath, the sounds, the sensations or simply being.

As mind settles, like a jar of muddy water, these qualities will arise naturally. 

 

 

Sources:

¹ Mind With Heart, mindwithheart.org

² Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

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

Close up of pink frangipani

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.