What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is about being present. Living as close to the moment as we can.
The focus is on developing a healthy mind and more balanced sense of wellbeing. As a practice, mindfulness uses the flow of our breath as a bridge between body and mind. Awakening a deeper connection to ourselves. Alert from within. In contact with the outside world. Breathing in-and-out. Using the simple flow of the breath as a way of taking sensations in and letting them go.
When we breathe more fully in the moment, we bring clarity to the mind and space to our thoughts. Slowing down enough to observe our sensations, feelings and inner being. We accept the ever-evolving nature of existence as it is. Open to change; not clinging to false hopes or certainty. Nor the illusion of a perfect outcome. We we focus instead on the process, not the outcome. Training our conscious mind to be curious, to be self-aware and conscious of what we are doing. This means observing what we are doing, while we are doing it, rather than dirfting on auto-pilot.
And to learn by trial and error. Not set our expectations so high, we are doomed to fail. Or judge ourselves harshly with our inner critic, feeling angry and disappointed that we haven't reached our goal.
When we focus on the process rather than the outcome, we realise we cannot stand still, but have to move with the ebb-and-flow of life, as it happens, moment by moment.
That is what we learn - how to observe our most difficult experiences and make sense of them. How to validate our emotional resposnes, rather than blame ourselves or find constant fault with others. We become more tolerant of change and emotionally resilient. We look at our strengths and weaknesses.And get a more balanced perspective of our positive and negative experiences, not just remembering the mistakes. We apporach people, tasks and situations with renewed vigour, rather than avoiding them. And we stop imagining the worst case scenarios, by freeing up the space in our minds for something new to happen.
We all experience pain and life can be a struggle at times, overwhelming even. But it can be deeply rewarding and pleasurable as well. Through mindfulness we come to understand the essence of life is change. We learn to be more ourselves. More self-aware and to pay attention to our inner being. Filtering out the thoughts and memories that hold us back; or the anxieties and preoccupations that blight our future. We learn to accept the moment as it is and adapt to change. We become more flexible, while remaining open, curious and responsive to the opportunties that life brings.
We do not fear what we cannot control. We do not become rigid or stifled. We realise the endless permutations and variables of life are obstacles that cannot be avoided. Confronting whatever life throws in our way. And surviving.
Mindfulness allows us to use our bodies as a resource. To use our breath as a way of letting go of fear and anger. To slow down and calm the flow of the mind to its optimum state of relaxed concentration.
While anxiety and anger disrupt our equilbrium, stress hormones such as adernalin, cortisol and noradrenalin put our whole bodies into a state of metabolic tension - triggering a faster heartrate, shallower breathing, higher blood sugar levels, muscular or skeletal pain and a sense of panic. It makes our thoughts race and fills the mind with excessive worry and catastrophic thinking. It even triggers the negative screenplays we have in 'anticipation mode' before we act. In this 'fight-and-flight' response, every organ in the body is put on a state of high-alert, with hair-trigger reactions, sensitive to the slightest sign of threat. It sets off a cascade of chain reactions in the body, we cannot control voluntarily.
Once we are primed for survival, the only way we have of discharging stress is to breathe - deeply, slowly and spaciously. Breathing activates the vagus nerve to restore us to equilinbrium. Once triggered with anxiety, our lungs are the only organs we have voulntarily control over. A neurobiological mechanism that helps us restore homeostasis and balance to the body and mind. It can be a place of healing and rest. Or a place of turmoil, if overlooked and disregarded.
"Silence is in the gap..."
There is a space between our thoughts – pristine and empty. A moment of profound silence, like the pause between one thought and another. It is a place of pure sensation and awakening.
If we pay attention long enough, we might notice something emerging from the gap that silence creates – an opportunity. Enough space for something new - there is a choice to be made. It is up to us whether we fill this gap with our memories, fears and expectations. Or whether we remain silent, still and immersed in the present moment. Nourishing our wellbeing.
Sometimes silence brings on anxiety and anticipation, but we don’t need to get caught up in it. We don’t need to get stuck in our thoughts and preoocupations. Silence has a fluid quality. It can be an opportunity for us to transform our experience, from one moment to the next. All we have to do is sit back and observe, without doing anything. Simply happy to be.
Far from being nothing; silence is full of happening. A place where we can pause to witness things we so often miss in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The things we ignore, because the modern world is filled with sensory overload and all-consuming noise.
Quietness is its own reward. A place of healing and restoration.
But do not expect it to be there whenever you come looking. Silence is something we acquire through practice and effort. It is something paradoxically, we both struggle for and fight against. We are not used to sitting in silence. It scares us. Do not expect mindful meditation to come together in one moment. When you notice your mind wandering, or raging against you and your efforts to seek calm are futile, you haven’t failed. You haven’t done anything wrong. You’ve noticed something profound. It isn’t easy to be mindful.
It's something we learn incrementally, through relaxed concentration and focus, but it's never easy. Then one day it's there – something that comes to us in a stolen moment, full of surprise and wonder. It speaks with a small, quiet voice.
So if one day we were able to slow down and notice what is happening to us: we might realise, we too are changing.
For example, by paying attention to the sensation of our breathing. When we notice the movement of our breath, we realise our awareness is constantly shifting. From the in-breath to the out-breath we are always evolving. Our bodies and minds feel refreshed and aroused. Or they may struggle and seek to contradict one another, fighting for dominance. But there it is, sensation awakens within us - good or bad. Our experience is altered; becoming malleable, impermanent and open to change. Whilst also remaining fluid. To notice the silence between thoughts, therefore, is to give ourselves the gift of doing nothing. Just being…
When we are productive, working and frantically projecting ourselves into the future, it's not that we are doing anything wrong. We have to survive. We have to eat, work and live. It’s just that we notice less. But equally, when we are quiet and breathing deeply we are happy simply being. It is a necessary condition of existence that allows us to take care of our wellbeing. We must rest and put time aside to notice who we really are. Silence is necessary, but is it sufficient? The the question we need to ask ourselves is this – what is enough?
More often than not, we get caught up in what is too little, or too much. And we crave for more.
It is our acquisitive nature that causes us to desire and grasp onto things we cannot have, or hope to possess. Too much wealth. Too much food. Too many friends. Too much distraction and too many objects than we could ever wish to own in one lifetime. It causes us suffering, and yet none of these things can be taken with us into death. For that is where we are headed - the final letting go. And being afraid, we fight against it. We hope for certainty and permanence.
We wish to stay alive for longer.
Death is the great equaliser. No one can avoid it, or outlast their own existence. No matter how privileged they are. We are all fragile, vulnerable beings in the end. So why do we grasp onto so much? Why do we fight? And why do we let ourselves suffer in the process?
I ask these things, not because I come to you as an enlightened man, but because like you I am ordinary. An ordinary Joe, trying to find a way. And like me, you have probably suffered and felt frightened, or alone at one point in your life. Frightened of not having enough; of being alone; of being unloved. Or of not finding your purpose in life. Not being fulfilled, or not being good enough to others.
In the end we all have to accept the unpalatable truth: we are alone. We were born alone and go out alone. Death is the final outcome. So when you consider your worries and thoughts next time, realise this – your thoughts are merely the symbols we use to reflect on existence, no more than representations. They are not reality itself. We are.
A memory is a fleeting impression of the past, but just like a movie screen, we play it and replay it inside our heads until it hurts. It is the same with beliefs about the future. A belief is something we hope to fulfil. Something we hope to be, or not. But a belief is not the thing itself, or who we are as persons. And this causes us grief, because thoughts have no substance at all, they only feel as if they do. A thought is not reality.
We can grasp, desire, or hold onto our thoughts. We can cling to our ideas for dear life. Or we can acknowledge our thoughts, accept them as they are and let go, because nothing lasts forever, not even thoughts. And so however much they hold us back, or burden us with their weight, we also have the power to transform them. Thoughts do no harm by themselves. And we would do well to remember, nothing about them is permanent, nothing remains the same.
Our existence and our conscious awareness is tied to the present moment. All we can do is observe what we see, feel and act like while we are doing it. This requires us to notice our sensations as they come into being; not what we do with them, when they cease to be.
So we must learn to turn our attention, not to our thoughts but to the pure sensation of being and living. And let go of the thoughts that cause us suffering, as soon as they arise. We can do this by focussing on the present moment or by being mindful of breathing, each and every day. I do not say this is easy, but the practice is simple enough. As simple as turning your awareness to face a new direction, or follow a different path.
To let go of what is known, familiar and comforting is frightening, but to allow ourselves to experiment fully in the exploration of our own being is liberating. To practice the silence of breathing, is to allow the sensation of change to ebb and flow in our lives, without resistance or struggle.
It is restorative and healing…to surrender ourselves to existence as it is, and not as we would like it to be.