Mindfulness is very “in” right now. This practice of bringing attention to the present rather than the worries of yesterday and tomorrow is growing in popularity – police officers, office workers, even politicians are doing it. Congressman Tim Ryan even wrote a book about it. Titled, A Mindful Nation, his book purports to tell “How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit.” This is a good first step. Our book, Sustainable Wellness, expands upon his section on health care and delivers a proven sustainable approach for individuals to follow.
While mindfulness and mindfulness-based meditation can lead to healing, we must take care that it doesn’t merely become the latest fad or the next quick fix for whatever ails us. I discuss this concept in Sustainable Wellness, noting that quick fixes rarely work because, while it’s easy to adopt new practices, we must pay attention to the quality of the container for our work. Our practice of mindfulness must be grounded in surrender and safe space so that it can slowly mature over time.
A sustained practice of mindfulness can be highly powerful – even capable of addressing a number of health challenges. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a trained molecular biologist, is widely regarded as a founder of the mindfulness movement in North America. He began teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) back in 1979 at the Stress Reduction Clinic he founded at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. This model, which combines meditation and yoga to help patients cope with stress, pain, and illness by using moment-to-moment awareness, is now used at medical centers and clinics around the world.
So where to start? As I mentioned, I do address mindfulness in my book. However, if you want to start your own practice, I encourage you to follow these simple steps:
- Sit in a quiet place and take time to make yourself comfortable. Allow your body to settle and soften. If at all possible, explore this practice with your mouth closed, inhaling and exhaling through your nose.
- Gently close your eyes and sit down straight. Let your awareness—the part of you that is paying attention—flow through your body from head to toe, and notice how each part of your body feels right now. Observe any sensations of tension or tightness. Observe any sensations of lightness or openness. Let go of assumptions and judgments about what you notice. Simply witness the process as it unfolds without trying to change or fix anything.
- Bring your awareness to the physical sensations of breathing. Follow the breath as it flows into the nostrils and slips down the back of the throat. Feel how the rib cage expands with the inhale and the lungs fill with air. The shoulder blades slide farther apart and the belly softly rises. Every cell in the body is nourished by the breath. Observe the exhale. Notice how it feels as the ribs softly contract and the belly rests back. Exhaling, the body slowly releases what it no longer needs.
- The mind easily wanders. As this happens, gently bring your attention back to the breath. Be patient with yourself. When watching becomes thinking, smile and return to the breath. Even if that wandering happens a thousand times, gently bring your focus back to the breath a thousand and one times.
- Feel your breathing rhythm and note its texture. Observe the length of the inhale and the length of the exhale. Is it the same or different? When is the breath very smooth? Where is it uneven? Observe any slight pauses or hitches in the flow of breath. Are there sensations of expansive widening or shallow restriction? Allow your awareness to ride through the inhale and through the exhale. Note where you experience the most comfort.
- You may notice a subtle change in temperature—cool inhalation, warmer exhalation—or, possibly, hear the sound of the breath. Give the sound of the breath the same rapt attention you would give a beautiful, distant melody.
- Finally, let go of everything you know about how we breathe–and experience “being” breathed. Enjoy the breath. Allow it to draw you deeper inside yourself. Follow the breath into a space of stillness and peace.
- When you feel ready to complete the practice, deepen your inhalation slightly. Come back to the sensations of the body sitting in the chair and the feet resting on the floor. Very slowly and gradually begin to open the eyes. As they open, imagine looking through the eyes and seeing everything for the very first time.