Mindfulness is deliberately paying attention, non-judgmentally ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn
For many of us the state of being truly present is perhaps not such a familiar one – we spend parts of the day operating in some form of autopilot: arriving at a destination with no real memory of the journey; scrolling through Facebook while we’re eating, or thinking ahead about our reply instead of truly listening to someone. Our daily lives and our environment have helped foster some deeply ingrained habits that are not altogether healthy for us.
Mindfulness is a life skill which helps us to pay attention to what is happening in our lives in the present moment; with ourselves, with others and our surroundings. In this intuitive and accessible state of presence, we can feel more connected, more clarity, more alive.
Mindfulness is a life skill which helps us to pay attention to what is happening in our lives in the present moment; with ourselves, with others and our surroundings.
This skill of Mindfulness is something that can be practised and which we can cultivate more deeply in our lives. Through exercises and meditations, we learn to engage all of our senses to become fully present in our lives, work and relationships.
As we recognise some of our habitual, perhaps unconscious, emotional and psychological reactions we can choose to step away from them and respond to events, thoughts and feelings in a more beneficial way.
To truly understand what Mindfulness is you need to experience it rather than get too tied up in reading about it. Try one of these three exercises taken from the first weeks of our Mindfulness Training programme to get you started.
1. Mindful eating – the raisin exercise
One of the first exercises you will come across in any Mindfulness course is the raisin exercise. This exercise teaches us how to eat with mindful awareness. You take a raisin and pay deliberate attention to every step in the process of eating it, from holding it in your hand to finally swallowing it. The “homework” is then to practise the same technique with a mouthful of food or a whole meal.
How to do it
For one week choose one meal a day that you are going to eat with mindful awareness. Make sure that you are not going to be distracted and try to sit with your meal at a table, you might like to take extra time to decorate the table. Sit down with your food and observe what you are about to eat. Notice the colours, the textures and any smells coming from the food and any thoughts about eating it. Try not to get involved with or change these thoughts, simply observe any that are there.
Notice how you feel as you prepare to eat, paying attention to the process of lifting the food to your mouth, how does it taste? What does it feel like chewing and swallowing it? At what point does that mouthful disappear from your awareness? Notice how you respond to the food with all of your senses. Mouthful by mouthful keep your attention fully upon the activity of eating. Notice any sense of pleasure, hunger, dissatisfaction, contentment. Notice how these change as you complete your meal. Notice at what point you know that you have finished. When it is over, take a breath, notice how you feel, and then let go of the meal.
Keep practising this for one meal a day for a week. You might like to keep notes about how it feels for you. It is a simple exercise but can also be a confronting one. If this is not comfortable for you because of your relationship with food then you can change it for a different daily activity like getting dressed or cleaning your teeth, paying attention to thoughts, feelings and sensations throughout.
2. Full body scan
The body scan exercise teaches us awareness of our bodies, breath, sensations and thoughts. You may have practised something similar before in Savasana. In our online Mindfulness training programme, you are guided through a longer version of this body scan but the principle is the same. You deliberately bring your attention and awareness to each part of the body in turn not trying to make anything happen – just feeling what you are feeling. Read through the text a few times so are familiar with the process and then practice it once a day for one week. Make notes of your experiences.
How to do it
- Find a comfortable place to lie down using any cushions or support you need. Make sure that you will be warm enough and not disturbed. The intention is to be fully present during this exercise and not to drift off or sleep.
- Close your eyes and focus for a while on the rising and falling of the breath in your body. Feel the flowing of the entire breath throughout the body. Take a few moments to have a sense of your body as a whole, from head to toe and the outline of your skin. Notice the points where your body is in contact with the surfaces it rests upon.
- Bring your attention to the big toes on both of your feet and explore the sensations that you find here. Gradually broaden your awareness to include the rest of your feet, allow them to soften and relax. Imagine that your breath is moving down to your feet and that your awareness is like a warm light, allowing your feet to relax and be held in awareness.
- Gradually broaden this light of awareness up your legs, allowing the muscles to soften and become heavy. Imagine a sense of space in your joints and your muscles letting go of tension, falling away from the bones. Bring the breath awareness into your legs, as if you could breathe into your legs.
- In stages, allow the awareness to spread to your abdomen, lower and upper back, shoulders, rib-cage and chest. Breathe awareness into each of these body parts – feeling the motion of the breath through the body. Bring your awareness down your arms through to your fingertips. Notice the warmth and energy that is stored in the palms of your hands. Notice what the hands feel like at rest.
- Bring awareness to your head, neck, throat and face, noting any tension held in the muscles around the eyes, jaw and forehead. Allow your face to soften with your awareness.
- Next, bring your awareness back to your breathing. Pay attention to the breath as it is felt in the body and try to maintain this overall sense of your body – as if your whole body is breathing and held in awareness. Be aware of the quality of your experience and note any emotional tones present without judging them.
- To end start by slowly moving the body, making sure not to jar yourself back into ordinary awareness.
3. Three-minute breathing space
“The breath is a connection between the mind and the body. When you begin to breathe in and out mindfully, your body will come back to your mind, and your mind will go back to your body.“
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
The three-minute breathing space is a three-step exercise where we change the focus of attention from broad to narrow and back to broad again. Each step lasts around a minute. You can think of this a little like a camera – first of all, you are looking through the lens at a landscape noticing what is happening in the frame without changing it. Next, you zoom the camera lens into a specific spot like a branch of a tree, this then becomes your focus of attention and you notice how it moves in the wind, the shape of the leaves and so on. In the final step, you zoom the lens back out to take in the whole scene again.
For one week try to schedule one or two three-minute Breathing Spaces into your day. Keep a note of the experience, of the context and how you felt before and after it. When we become skilled with it, it becomes a useful tool in managing anxiety and anger or difficult situations in our everyday lives.
Step 1: becoming aware
Sit or stand up straight and if possible, close your eyes. Then, bring your awareness to your body and inwards, observe and acknowledge what you are thinking, feeling and any bodily sensations. Try not to avoid or block out uncomfortable thoughts or sensations, for the moment just acknowledge them without trying to change them in any way.
Step 2: gathering and focusing attention on the breath.
Next zoom in close to the physical sensations of the breath. You might focus on the sensations on your nostrils, or the belly expanding and drawing back or you might follow the breath all the way in and all the way out. Use each breath to anchor yourself into the present. If the mind wanders, gently guide the attention back to the breath.
Step 3: expanding attention
Now, from that focus point on the breath zoom out and expand the field of awareness so that it includes the body as a whole as if the whole body was breathing. If you become aware of any sensations of discomfort or tension, imagine that the breath could move into and around those sensations. Acknowledging and befriending them, rather than trying to change them in any way.