At the start of our Mindfulness Based Symptom Management (MBSM) program, I ask the participants what they think mindfulness is. They usually say some version of “Being in the Now” or “The Present Moment”. I ask again at the end of the eight weeks and typically they say, “It’s being aware” or “It’s knowing that everything changes – and that’s ok” or “It’s seeing what’s going on and letting it teach you.”
An academic, scholarly definition of mindfulness is a practice of attention that makes us more aware of our inner and outer experiences so that we can make wise choices and learn from the results. That may seem a lot to try to fit into two hours a week for eight weeks but somehow it does get across. Mindfulness is a practice of developing a discerning mind. And while it sounds simple, it isn’t easy.
Here are five essentials about mindfulness you may find helpful in your practice.
You’re always practicing something; it may as well be something healthy. There’s no getting around this; your brain is constantly taking information in from your inner and outer contact with the environment. When you get angry at every car that cuts you off on the highway, you’re pulling together an inner and outer set of experiences that ends with a reaction. That pattern, reinforced everyday, becomes your go-to action when you feel unfairly treated or threatened. How about building a different set of endpoint responses to those triggers?
The mind is shameless. Beginning practitioners get really upset when they first sit down and try to still the mind. It gets quite overwhelming: breathe, pay attention to the breath, come back when you wander, treat thoughts like clouds. That’s a lot of doing for a non-doing practice. It helps to see that the nature of the mind is to be active. And that it’s quite indiscriminate in where it lands or flits to next. The difficulty is not that the mind is like a drunk monkey that’s been stung by a bee. It’s that we get upset at that poor monkey and try to wrestle it to the ground. Like the nursery rhyme says: Leave it alone and it will come home.
It’s all about the BEST – that’s Body-Emotions-Sensations-Thinking. In other words, it’s not just about thoughts. We tend to give our thinking brain a place of honour and trust every thought we have. Sometimes you may hear “Thoughts are not facts” as a way of unhooking from that belief in the supremacy of cognitions. In fact, the body takes the lead in how we become aware of an experience. Sensations inform the brain. Our past experiences with clusters of sensations provide us with a language that we call emotions. Thinking is a latecomer to the scene, trying to make some sense out of the clusters, looking for causes that explain their presence. Essentially, it’s easier to calm the body than to talk yourself out of a feeling you’re caught in (try yelling at someone to calm down). Practice paying attention to your body, listen closely to see if you can catch the early signals of an arising sensation that builds to a label (emotion). Use the breath to soothe the sensation in the body.
Give up hope. That sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it? Hope keeps us going so why give it up? Sometimes, as T.S. Elliot wrote, we “hope for the wrong thing.” Because we suffer, we want to stop suffering. But when we think in this all-or-nothing way, we’re setting up expectations that can only disappoint us. So, it’s not that we should be pessimistic or inhabit an Eeyore mind. It’s about taking small steps and assessing how it’s working. Don’t expect to sit rock-solid still; that’s not the point anyway. See what minimal shift is necessary to bring some ease or relief. Stay with just this breath; don’t worry about the remaining thousand to get done before the meditation ends. Take just this step, eat just this mouthful, stay just here.
Be kind and cultivate skillful laziness. It’s good investment when you’re kind to yourself. The biggest fear is that if we cut ourselves some slack, we will become lazy, useless lumps on the sofa. Mindfulness is really skillfully being lazy. When we practice, we’re attending to the right and minimum dose required to see a change. It’s called a Just Noticeable Difference or JND. What’s the least intervention needed to see a shift in mood, behaviour, thinking pattern? Now listen to your inner critic. It’s likely going on a rant about how risky this laziness thing is! How are you ever going to get things done, get ahead, be successful? The inner critic is thinking in extreme terms: you must always be going at full tilt and success must come now. Skillful laziness is really skillful investment of our resources for the best outcome. What is possible in this moment, given these conditions?