by Christopher Joseph
With so many words written about mindfulness these days it’s easy to become confused about what mindfulness is and how we can apply it to our everyday lives. How can we live a mindful life?
A definition of mindfulness which I very much like is one used by Bangor University’s centre for mindfulness research and practice:
“Mindfulness is cultivating the quality of being awake, present and accepting of this moment’s experience. This has a transforming potential on how we are with ourselves, how we are with others and how we are with stressful, difficult and challenging situations”.
The first part of this definition is about allowing ourselves to become aware and to connect with our present moment experience. The second part points to the transformational benefits such as calmness, centredness and confidence that we can feel from being in acceptance of our experience in this moment.
So, is this how we are in our everyday life – fully present, connected and accepting of our experience in each and every moment?
The honest answer for myself is no! Sometimes I’m able to live in this way for brief periods but there is definitely a gap to be bridged, a skill to be developed, and this is why I practice mindfulness.
But, how can we practice mindful awareness and acceptance in a simple, practical and everyday way?
The simplest answer to this question is based on one technique and two words: ‘In and Out’. I’m not talking about the hokey cokey! I’m of course talking about our breath. Yes, that’s right – the one that’s going in and out of you right now!
The breath is a wonderful thing. As well as being nourishing and life affirming at a physiological level it’s also a constant companion for us. It’s a ‘friend’ that we can connect with in any moment and use to anchor and ground ourselves in the present. If you’re unsure if this is the case then it’s worth reflecting on the fact that the calming effect that many people get when they smoke comes as much from the three minutes of deep connected breathing that they do than the chemicals inside the cigarette!
The breath also has two distinct phases to its cycle – an ‘in’ phase and an ‘out’ phase. We can use these two phases when practicing mindful awareness and acceptance. We can ‘breathe in’ an awareness of our experience on the in-breath and ‘breathe out’ a kindly acceptance of our experience on the out-breath.
Go on… try it now! As you breathe in right now take in an awareness of your experience, and then breathe out an acceptance and acknowledgement that this is your present moment experience right now.
When we begin this practice it’s good to start by focusing on our felt sensory experience and by concentrating on one element of it with each breath cycle. e.g. we could breathe in an awareness of the sense of the contact between our body and the chair, and then breathe out a deepening acknowledgement and a sense of sinking into this experience more fully.
We could play with doing this for a few breaths and then move onto another aspect of our experience – maybe the rise and fall of our stomach. Breathing in a fresh awareness of how this feels with every in-breath and then breathing out and dropping down into the richness of the experience with each out-breath. Again, play with this for a few breaths before moving on to focus on another aspect of your experience, maybe the sense of the air as it comes into the nostrils or the mouth and becomes the breath inside, before returning back out into the world on our out breath.
In this practice we use the in-breath to welcome in the experience with awareness and the out-breath to settle-into and touch our experience before finally letting it go. Through breathing in awareness and breathing out kindly acceptance in this way we are learning to become containers for our experience. Just as air can flow into a container and can be held by the container momentarily before flowing out again, so we to can also become containers for our experience – welcoming the experience, holding the experience and when appropriate letting the experience go before moving onto the next experience.
This of course becomes more challenging when our present moment experience is not as we would like it to be! As part of the rich tapestry of being a human being we experience strong thoughts, feelings and emotions that instinctively we don’t want to feel. Our open containers suddenly develop a narrow neck and we find it difficult to take in new experiences, and let go of old ones. This lack of flow and circulation of experience can result in stagnation which often manifests in unhelpful spiral thinking and sometimes catastophising.
So, how do we deal with this tendency to ‘block’ or ‘drown’ in our experience when it becomes difficult?
By recognising that the difficult thoughts, feelings and emotions that we experience in stressful and challenging situations are firstly, natural to have, and secondly, are not us – just as the air inside the container is not the container!
The ‘In/Out’ approach to everyday mindfulness as outlined above is still the same even when we have difficult and challenging experiences. The quality of the out breath, however, requires a far greater softness, warmth and kindness so that we can be open to accepting that in this moment this is how my experience currently is, whether I like it or not! It’s worth noting that since there is only one moment – this moment, we can only ever accept our experience in this moment. The Latin root of acceptance is Capere, which means to touch, to feel, to be with our experience in this moment. It doesn’t mean some downbeat resignation to things always being this way.
Through this practice of kindly acceptance we can open up the neck on our container of awareness so that we become more receptive to new experiences and are more able to let old ones go. This is a very liberating and transforming way of working with stressful, difficult and challenging thoughts, feelings and sensations.
To summarise… every breath we take we have the opportunity to breathe in awareness and to breathe out kindness and acceptance of this moment’s experience. This may be through breathing into tension in the body and breathing out – letting go of resistance to it. It may be through breathing in an awareness of challenging thoughts and strong emotions and breathing out a kindly acceptance of them and acknowledging that they too will pass. Or, it may be through breathing in an awareness of other peoples challenging behaviours and breathing out kindness and well wishing towards them!
We can also breathe in awareness of pleasant experiences and breathe out gratitude for having them…. the warmth of the sun, the kind words of a friend or a sudden release of tension in our body.
That’s it! – That’s as simple as everyday mindfulness gets! Breathing in awareness of our experience, breathing out kindness, acceptance and gratitude for that experience… and the beauty is that we have about 23,000 opportunities each and every day to practice it!.. Let me know how you get on?
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