What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a natural state of our mind. It is the experience of being awake, alive and present to whatever is happening right now. Awareness of the present moment involves observing thoughts, feelings and body sensations that are currently arising. While attending to the present moment, mindfulness also entails a stance of acceptance or willingness to experience an array of thoughts, emotions and body sensations without judgment.
When we are fully present with observing our thoughts, emotions and body sensations, they live out their natural life and pass away. The thoughts and emotions have less traction in our mind-heart when we hold them with non-judgmental awareness. As a result we become more available to whatever is happening internally and externally. In this internal spaciousness, nothing need be pushed away or held tightly. All sensations — including pleasure, pain, anxiety, fear and anger — are welcome to come and go.
Mindfulness is a radical practice where instead of turning away, we actually turn towards our difficult emotions (i.e. anger or fear) and hold them with compassion. As a result, these emotions self-liberate as they go through their natural cycle of arising and passing. The challenge is in staying present to the complete cycle of the emotion with an open, responsive and flexible mind-heart.
Benefits of Mindfulness:
Over time, mindfulness cultivates a feeling of internal stability and spaciousness and presence, which is useful when difficulties arise in our lives. Many mindfulness practitioners report that they are less irritated by daily-life frustrations, less distressed by their physical symptoms, and able to take difficult relationships in their stride. Some people report experiencing a greater sense of clarity, energy and self-confidence, even though their life circumstances have not changed. These benefits seem to arise naturally from the daily practice of mindfulness presence.
Perils of Mindfulness:
Many of us are drawn to a mindfulness practice hoping to feel more relaxed or stop the continuous cycle of our thoughts. But as we turn inwards, we may find our bodies are tight and contracted, our thoughts get louder, body aches and pains get more intense or old emotions which were buried away now start to surface. We are unable to relax during meditation and we feel more miserable as our physical symptoms and painful emotional patterns seem insurmountable.
In addition, while sitting in meditation we feel bored, sleepy, fidgety and unable to focus on being present to our experience. If we are meditating with a group, we may compare ourselves to these other calm “Buddha’s” sitting around us and feel like miserable failures as mediators. It is easy for our mindfulness practice to become yet another avenue for us to judge, compare or fix ourselves.
Revamping Mindfulness practice:
Mindfulness is in fact a very flexible meditation practice. If you are unable to maintain a perfect lotus in sitting meditation or following your breath makes you sleepy, then walking, standing or lying down meditations are good options. If your mind indulges in continuous thinking then turning towards the thoughts with mindful investigation or engaging your mind by reading commentary on mindfulness may be a way to continue your mindfulness practice. Mindful movement and mindful chanting are ways to engage other faculties of your whole self.
Mindfulness in Daily Life:
Bringing the practice of mindfulness to your work and with interactions with friends and family is a good way to help with relieving the stress of daily life. There are several mindfulness practices available for daily life, here are a few: mindful eating, mindful listening, practicing generosity by giving others their turn to speak, non-violent speech towards ourselves and others. If you are already a meditation practitioner, you may choose one of the 8-Fold Paths and make it a part of your life by practicing it and by engaging in inquiry.
Finally, some of the practices that are closest to my heart are the Brahmavihara (heavenly abodes) practices of Loving Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity. Though Gratitude and Generosity are not included among these four practices, I find them very beneficial for invoking a sense of calm and well-being in my daily life.