Cultivate Mindfulness

Practice of the Week
Cultivate Mindfulness

Category: Key Supporting Practices: Some particularly key practices/observances that will support your developing spirituality.

From the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA website (marc.ucla.edu):
Contemporary culture in the United States is marked by extraordinary advances in science and technology, yet coupled with these advances is an increasing sense of pressure, complexity and information overload. Individuals across the lifespan are feeling tremendous stress, which is contributing to a variety of mental and physical health problems and diseases.

Mindful awareness can be defined as paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is. It is an excellent antidote to the stresses of modern times. It invites us to stop, breathe, observe, and connect with one's inner experience. There are many ways to bring mindfulness into one's life, such as meditation, yoga, art, or time in nature. Mindfulness can be trained systematically, and can be implemented in daily life, by people of any age, profession or background.

In the last ten years, significant research has shown mindfulness to address health issues such as lower blood pressure and boost the immune system; increase attention and focus, including aid those suffering from ADHD; help with difficult mental states such as anxiety and depression, fostering well-being and less emotional reactivity; and thicken the brain in areas in charge of decision making, emotional flexibility, and empathy.
In this video, Susan Smalley of the Mindful Awareness Research Center, and co-author of Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness, explains:

From Karen Kissel Wegela, "Practicing Mindfulness Without Meditating," Psychology Today (HERE):
While the most direct way to cultivate mindfulness is the sitting practice of mindfulness-awareness meditation, not everyone is ready for, or interested in, doing that....

Principles of good mindfulness practice:
1. Paying attention to the moment-to-moment details of experience
2. Paying particular attention to the body and one's experience of it
3. Recognizing the experience of mind and not getting caught in memories of the past or plans for the future
4. Trying neither too much nor too little
5. Letting go of distractions and paying attention to the present moment
6. Noticing one's experience without judging it

I work with my clients to identify the activities that they already engage in that can become occasions for practicing mindfulness. Most people have a number of possibilities. Practically all sports can work: basketball, baseball, soccer, volleyball, and so on. What's it like to stand at the foul line before you try to make a free throw?

Other physical activities can be used, too: biking to work in traffic, walking the dog, going for a jog, shoveling the driveway, buying groceries, picking out what to wear, putting on make-up, driving the car. What these activities have in common is the opportunity to pay attention to sense perceptions in the present moment: what one can see, hear, smell, taste or touch.

When we engage in these activities, especially if we are willing to let go of distractions like listening to an iPod or playing the car radio, they give us the chance to tune into what is happening right now. We can pay attention to our sense perceptions, our emotions, and our thoughts.

I often walk our dogs in the morning. When I am using my walk time as a mindfulness practice, I pay attention to all my senses. This time of year the branches are bare, and the ground is often icy in patches. I pay attention to where I place my feet. This takes even more awareness when I have to dogs with me, running one way and another in their eagerness to check out all the smells. I guess they are doing their own sniffing practice! I pay attention to the movement of the dogs, the sloshy sounds of the traffic nearby on the wet street, the crows that caw from dumpster behind the market. I notice smells -- sometimes the moist earth, other times the smell of dog poop as I pick it up in a newspaper bag. I feel the cold air on my face and the thoughts about wishing I'd worn my warmer hat. As we move along, the sights, smells, sounds and feelings change. My emotions how my irritation with Sadie, as she pulls on the leash and barks as she tries to get to the neighbor's dog, changes to delight as she bounces happily along soon afterward. I notice tenderness as Sunny starts to limp, and I remove the burr she's picked up on her paw. I note the sharp pinch as I get stuck by the burr myself. When I find my mind wandering to the meeting I have later at school, I simply come back to the present moment with the dogs.

Other activities that lend themselves to cultivating mindfulness are cleaning the house, cooking dinner, working on the car, paying attention to people as we speak with them at work, filing papers, typing. We can also pay attention to body experiences when we feel well or when we feel ill. Bringing mindfulness to physical pain is particularly illuminating. We may find that we have added tension to what might otherwise be a tolerable experience and made it worse.

We can attend to our emotions when we feel uneasy, happy, sad, scared. There's a whole range of emotions we can attend to. In fact, in therapy, this is often our work together: bringing mindfulness to the experience of emotions as they are arising. Some experiences are more difficult to do this with, and it's best to practice bringing mindfulness to easier ones first. For example, it's quite difficult to bring mindfulness to intense experiences of anger. Still, the more we attend to our present experience, the more we cultivate the courage to be present with whatever experience we are having.

With all of these activities, we begin by setting an intention to be mindful of our experience. It's best to pick a particular activity as your mindfulness practice. Getting too ambitious and thinking we can bring mindfulness to everything right away is, for most people, trying too hard.

As always, it is important to be gentle but also steady. So pick a particular activity and set a particular amount of time when you're going to use it as a practice. Then, gently pay attention to the sensations in your body; note your sense perceptions, your emotions, and your thoughts as they come and go. Notice when you hang on to a feeling or thought. Let it go when you can. If you forget that you're practicing mindfulness, just start again without giving yourself a hard time.

There's really no limit to the different activities that can become opportunities to practice and cultivate mindfulness. Happy practicing!
See also "Practice of the Week: Be Mindful" and "Practice of the Week: Mindfulness"

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