5 Steps to Mindfulness
by Christopher Joseph
In 1976 Vidyamala Burch suffered a severe spinal injury when she was just 16 years old. In 2001, after many years of exploring mindfulness and meditation as a way to manage her condition, she founded Breathworks. Breathworks is now an internationally recognised and highly respected organisation that delivers mindfulness training in the areas of pain management and stress reduction. One of the cornerstones of the Breathworks approach to mindfulness has been the ‘5 Step Process’. In this article I’ll explore these ‘5 Steps’ and give examples of how we can practice them in our daily lives.
The ‘5 Steps’ are simply a framework for mindfulness which we can use to better understand our experience and get to know ourselves a little better. Whilst there is a general element of progression through the stages we will also find ourselves revisiting stages time and time again as our practice develops.
Step 1: Awareness
Developing a ‘bare awareness’ of our present moment felt experience is an essential starting point for the cultivation of mindfulness. Without awareness we are blind to how we are in the moment, we are on autopilot, and we inevitably react to life events in old habitual ways.
When I first began practicing mindfulness the development of bare awareness was a revelation to me. Being able to tune in to my moment by moment felt experiences within my body, to watch thoughts and feeling arise and then dissipate, and to observe situations when my buttons were pressed without reacting in old habitual ‘knee-jerk’ ways felt very liberating, even if at first I was only able to catch glimpses of this state of being. Without realising it, for many years I had been a slave to my insecure thinking, but now through awareness, a space had begun to open up between my thoughts and my response to them. I was finally able to see that thoughts were not necessarily facts!
Awareness can be practiced in very simple and straight forward ways. In this very moment we can bring attention first of all to the points of contact between our body and the chair or the earth beneath us. We can then tune in to our breath and the movement of our body with our breath – maybe the expansion of our rib cage and the rise and fall of our stomach. We can then turn our awareness to our posture and the position of our spine, developing an overall sense for how it feels to sit here right now. We can then broaden our awareness to take in sounds around us whilst staying with the felt sense of our breath.
This process of developing awareness of the felt sensations in our body, moment by moment, is not complicated but it’s extremely challenging! The mind has other ideas about what we should be focusing on. Thoughts will inevitably come up and will constantly try and pull us out of our sensory experience of our body and into the world of problem solving, judging and evaluation. The process of coming back time and time again from this ‘doing mode’ into more of a ‘being mode’, and all of the insight that this brings, is the process of developing awareness. One of the benefits of this in respect to thoughts is the shift in perspective that this provides – we are more able to look at our thoughts rather than from our thoughts.
Step 2: Being With Unpleasant or Difficult Experiences
When we begin to develop more awareness we also become more aware of the habitual ways in which we have previously dealt with the unpleasant aspects of our lives. For example, we might notice a tendency to block our experience by turning for that extra drink or eating excessively due to difficulties at work or within a relationship. Alternatively, we might notice a tendency to drown in our experience by catastrophising, overanalysing or excessively talking at length about our problems with others.
The second step can of course be very challenging depending on the nature of the difficult experiences you’re working with. Deep down however we usually know that it’s work that needs doing since the alternative of trying to ignore or shut out our experience rarely works in the long run, and often makes the situation worse. In addition, when we shut off from the difficult aspects of our experience we also, almost by default, shut off from the pleasant aspects of our experience as well – our band of awareness can become very narrow and we can end up feeling isolated and a little numb to the world.
This second stage in about acceptance. Not acceptance in terms of putting up with, or resigning ourselves to a particular situation, but acceptance of our present moment experience, however that may be. Acceptance comes from the Latin capere, which means to touch. Acceptance can therefore be thought of as our willingness to have the experience, to touch it, to feel it, to be with it. As such it’s quite an active and positive activity although it can feel challenging if it’s not what we’re currently used to doing!
In this step, maintaining a positive, kind and light receptivity to our experience is absolutely essential. In my experience maintaining a sense of humour also helps immensely! One practical way in which we can practice this step is by gently bringing an unpleasant or difficult aspect of our lives into our consciousness and then practice being with the experience. We can watch our experience unfold in the felt physical response of our body. This is best done after some experience of meditation, when you’re in a relatively positive state of mind, and initially with something that you find only mildly difficult.
Step 3: Seeking Out the Pleasant
In conjunction to being with the unpleasant aspects of our experience we also need to seek out the pleasant – It isn’t all doom and gloom!
Recent research in neuro-psychology has shown that we, as a human race, do have a ‘negativity bias’. In our primeval days we needed to be alert to dangers to ensure survival. Real dangers to our lives are now rare but our brains still perform this function i.e. we look for potential threats, find faults and see the negative more readily than the positive. Research has also shown that negative experiences get almost immediately stored in the memory whereas positive experiences need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage. The neuro-psychologist Dr Rick Hanson says that the brain is “like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones!”.
‘Seeking’ is therefore an apt word in the title of this third step to mindfulness. It suggests the need to actively focus on the pleasant aspects of our experience in order to maintain a balanced awareness of our overall experience. The pleasant aspects of our experience are just as valid as the unpleasant aspects, although we may have to undo a lot of conditioning before we can fully realize this.
On a practical level we may notice a warmth, a release of tension or a sense of aliveness in the body during meditation as we practice this step. In our daily lives we might notice the flight of a bird, the smell of a flower or the sound of the wind in the trees.
Step 4: Becoming a Bigger Container
By learning to be with the unpleasant and to seek out the pleasant aspects of our experience we are continually broadening our present moment awareness – we are in effect ‘becoming bigger containers’.
This stage is about developing equanimity. Equanimity is the ability to hold pleasant and unpleasant experiences within our awareness with equal regard. We avoid the tendency to try and push away the unpleasant and to cling to the pleasant, but instead let ourselves be with the diverse aspects of each moment as they come into being and pass away, moment by moment.
If you imagine your mind as a container and the water inside as your awareness, then it becomes apparent that if a drop of red dye representing an unpleasant experience is dropped into the water and a drop of blue dye representing a pleasant experience is dropped in then our overall awareness is going to be far less ‘coloured’ by the dyes if our containers are large and full of water!
Through learning mindfulness and practicing it regularly we can become far bigger containers, and as such more balanced, equanimous and emotionally robust.
Step 5: Choice
If we follow the origins of mindfulness to its Buddhist roots then we find two dimensions of awareness that are referred to: ‘Sati’ which is the Pali word for ‘bare awareness, and; ‘Sampajanna’ which is often translated as ‘continuity of purpose’.
Mindfulness of the present moment through bare awareness of our experience is often talked about, but a lesser explored although equally important aspect of mindfulness is mindfulness of our path. The choices we make in each and every moment determine the direction we take in life. If we wish to stay on course then we need to maintain clear vision so that we can make the appropriate choices at the appropriate times. It is through developing awareness and becoming a ‘bigger container’ that we are more likely to be able to hold all of our experience and maintain clear vision so that we can make the right choices for us.
Choice is implicit is each of the first four steps given above, but it’s also a key step in itself. Practicing mindfulness can be extremely liberating since we can start to see that we have choices where previously we might have felt that we had none.
Choice is also a muscle that needs flexing. When we become stuck in routines then this muscle can begin to atrophy and weaken. We can strengthen this muscle by exercising our choice, firstly in small ways then moving on to bigger decisions. On a practical level this might be as simple as changing your route to work, taking a different filling in your sandwich or reading a book rather than watching the T.V. Then you can move onto the bigger decisions like signing up for a mindfulness course!
In its simplest form mindfulness can be thought of as the process of knowing yourself. It can be a very humbling process at times, since it can shine a light on habits that we were previously unaware of. Through practice, however, and following the five steps listed above both in meditation and in our daily lives, we can get to know ourselves at a level that we never thought possible. This is possibly the most precious gift of all, since with insight into our character and a deeper insight into our true nature and purpose comes the possibility of change. As the author Vajragupta puts it: “Mindfulness is the first crucial step to our inner freedom, to becoming more fully the ‘author’ of our own story”.