FOUNDATIONS OF MINDFULNESS PRACTICE
The practice of mindfulness is like cultivating a garden. A garden flourishes when certain conditions are present. Holding the following 7 qualities in mind, reflecting upon them, cultivating them according to our best understanding--this effort will nourish, support and strengthen our practice. Keeping these attitudes in mind is part of the training, a way of channeling our energies in the process of healing and growth. Remember too that they are interdependent. Each influences the others; and working on one, enhances them all.
Every day we judge the things, people, and events that come into our lives. We label some as “good” because they make us feel good for some reason. Others are quickly condemned as “bad” because they make us feel bad. The rest is categorized as “neutral” because we don’t think it has much relevance. These “neutral” events are kicked out of our consciousness; we hardly even recognize them. When we do, we find them boring. When we make these quick judgments, we enter autopilot. We stop experiencing our lives fully and coast through our days. We get so caught up in the things we like and dislike, it is hard for us to find peace. It is important to recognize this judging quality of mind when we practice mindfulness. The next time you find yourself thinking, “This is boring,” “This isn’t working,” or “I can’t do this,” realize that it is your mind judging the experience. You don’t have to stop the judging, but recognize it and try to turn off autopilot and experience the moment. Observe the full catastrophe of life and your reactions to it.
Patience is a form of wisdom. It demonstrates that we understand and accept that sometimes things must unfold in their own time. We cultivate patience towards our minds and bodies when we practice mindfulness. We intentionally remind ourselves that there is no need to be impatient with ourselves because we find the mind judging all the time, or because we are agitated or frightened or anxious, or because we have been practicing for a while and nothing seems to be happening. We give ourselves room to have these experiences. Why? Because we are having them anyway! Why rush to a “better” one? Each moment in life is special and unique.
3. Beginner's Mind
We tend to take the ordinary for granted and fail to grasp the extraordinariness of the ordinary. The see the richness of the present moment, we need to create what has been called the “beginner’s mind,” a mind that is willing to see everything as if for the first time. An open, “beginner’s” mind allows us to be receptive to new possibilities and prevents us from getting stuck in the rut of our own expertise, which often thinks it knows more than it does. The next time you see somebody at work or who is familiar to you, ask yourself if you are seeing this person with fresh eyes, as he or she really is, or if you are only seeing the reflection of your own thoughts about this person, and your feelings as well. Try it with problems as they arise. Try it the next time you are walking around your neighborhood or the park. Are you able to see the sky, the stars, the trees, the water, and the rocks as they are right now, with a clear and uncluttered mind? Or are you only seeing them through the cloudiness of your own emotions, feelings, thoughts, and opinions?
In practicing mindfulness, you are practicing taking responsibility for being yourself and learning to listen to and trust your own being. The more you cultivate this trust in yourself, the easier you will find it will be to trust other people more and to see their basic goodness as well. It is far better to trust your own intuition than to look outside yourself for guidance, even if you make some “mistakes” along the way.
Almost everything we do, we do for a purpose. We have somewhere to go or thing errand to run. In meditation, this can be a real hurdle. Meditation is ultimately a non-doing. There is no goal but to be who you are right now, in the moment of your meditation. For example, if you sit down and say, “I’m going to get relaxed, or get enlightened, or become a better person,” then you have already introduced an idea into your meditation. Instead, just be with yourself. If you are in pain, feel the pain. If you are tense, feel the tension. Feel all of the criticisms, praise, joy, and sorrow and hold it in awareness. Then let it go. Continue allowing your mind to be blank, acknowledge the feelings and thoughts as they come up, and then let them go with your breath and allow your mind to return to peace.
Acceptance means seeing things as they actually are in the present. If you have a headache, accept that you have a headache. Sooner or later we have to come to terms with things as they are and accept, whether it is a diagnosis of cancer or learning of someone’s death. Often, acceptance is reached only after we have gone through emotion-filled periods of denial, pain, and anger. These stages are a natural progression of acceptance, of coming to terms with things the way they are. Instead of avoiding truth, embrace it. Look for opportunities of growth rather than seeing only the negative and painful. Acceptance does not mean you have to like everything, or that you have to take a passive attitude toward everything and abandon your principles and values. Instead, we accept the present as it is- nothing more and nothing less. We appreciate the moment we are given and make it special and positive. The only thing we can be sure of is that this moment will change, and by focusing on being alive in the present we can practice accepting whatever it is that will emerge in the next moment.
7. Letting Be
When we start paying attention to our inner experience we rapidly discover that there are certain thoughts, feelings, and situations that the mind seems to want to hold on to. If they are pleasant, we try to prolong these thoughts or feelings or situations, stretch them out, and conjure them up over and over. Similarly, there are many thoughts and feelings and experiences that we try to get rid of or prevent ourselves from having because they are unpleasant, painful, or frightening in one way or another and we want to protect ourselves from them. In the meditation practice, we intentionally put aside the tendency to elevate some aspects of our experience and reject others. Instead, we just let our experience be what it is, and practice observing it from moment to moment. Letting go is a way of letting things be, of accepting things as they are. Letting go is not such a foreign experience. We do it every single night when we go to sleep. We lie down on a padded surface, with the lights out, in a quiet place, and we let go of our mind and body. If you can’t let go, you can’t go to sleep. Most of us have experience times when the mind just would not shut down when we got into bed. This is one of the first signs of elevated stress. At these times, we may be unable to free ourselves from certain thoughts because our involvement in them is just too powerful. If we try to force ourselves to sleep, it only makes things worse. So, if you can go to sleep, you are already an expert at letting go. Now, you just need to practice applying this skill in waking situations as well.
-Adapted from Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New York. Bantam Books, 2013.