Mindfulness: A Gentle Approach to Healing
There’s an interesting story about a woman being chased by a tiger. She is running for her life and comes to the edge of a cliff. Here, she notices a sturdy vine, and climbs down the vine to escape her tormentor, only to realize there is another tiger down at the bottom of the mountain waiting for her.
She then sees two mice scurry out and start gnawing on the vine. At this moment, she notices a luscious, wild strawberry growing from an outcrop inches away. She looks up. She looks down. She looks at the mice.
Then, she eats the strawberry.
Succulent juices burst in her mouth, and she feels the seeds crunch between her teeth. She notices a gentle breeze flow across her skin and through her hair, as she gazes out at the expansive vista.
Stories such at this, as often taught by eastern practitioners, offer an experience for the listener, not advice. This old and well-know buddhist story surely has several interpretations. But if this story is anything, it is most certainly a story about mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a “moment-to-moment awareness of one's experience without judgment.” Our protagonist in the story pulled her attention from the tiger above (the past?) and from the tiger below (the future?) and from the mice on the vine (time?) and simply gave the strawberry her full, undivided attention.
Mindfulness is a 2,600 year old buddhist concept that is only recently being used in many clinical settings, to many positive outcomes. In spiritual practice, it is said to be the antidote to delusion. It turns out that when we are paying attention to “what is” in this moment and not judging it, we are not obsessing on all the bad things that could happen to us in our current situation (rumination) or worrying about the future potential disasters.
We are simply here, now, noticing what is and not judging it. It’s effects have many implications. (*You can read the list at the finish of the blog.)
Our minds tend to obsess on problems, and at times its almost comforting to fall into old ruts—at least it’s familiar. But as we awaken through our practice, we gently nudge ourselves out of the ruts because even though it is familiar, we want more out of life. Our natural state is to expand, to explore, to open up to the new.
With a distracted mind, we miss much of what is right in front of us, and can stay stuck in a suffering pattern. With a mind in the present, we finally find our true power—that of our awareness. We learn contentment with the present—called in yoga Santosha. In this space of mindfulness, something magical happens: the ordinary comes alive for us. Our senses come alive and life becomes richer—right now, and we lessen our desire to grasp at life.
There may be days we don’t want to “focus” on mindfulness. We’re too busy. There’s way too much to do. But the good news is, that the more one practices simple acts of mindfulness, the more embedded it gets into one’s psyche. It may help to think of it as putting pennies into a spiritual bank account.
Then, as life heats up and we get busy, we still contain the elements of mindfulness in our flurry of activities. We have fundamentally shifted, even if we can’t see it. A sailing vessel that has changed it’s course by 1 degree will surely reach a different port. Likewise, when we shift our awareness, however subtly, just as surely we shall attain a different outcome for our lives.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of mindfulness training, introduced a wonderful practice as part of a healing regime. He has students (people suffering from severe stress, cancer, etc) eat one raisin very slowly, very mindfully. Well, if you don’t happen to have a raisin with you right now, then I have the perfect way to start your mindfulness personal program.
Curious about turning the ordinary into the extraordinary? Try this mindfulness focus-builder for the next 30 seconds - assuming you are in some space where you can be relatively undisturbed (but even a coffee house or office can be great for this exercise!):
Plant your feet on the ground, and feel the earth. Sit up straight, hands on your lap. Close your eyes. Begin to inhale and exhale, slowly and deeply, through the nostrils. Pay attention to the feeling this makes at the area around your nostrils and the top of your upper lip. Also notice how if feels at your belly. With each consecutive exhale, soften your muscles, and allow yourself to go deeper and deeper within. (Cliff notes: Breathe. Relax. Pay attention.)
Take at least 5 steady breaths (if you are in a distracting environment) or practice this for 5 minutes as a mindfulness meditation at home. Voila! You have started a mindfulness personal program!
May we all learn to not require more than we have to achieve contentment. The renowned vietnamese buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh has said “When our mindfulness embraces those we love, they bloom like flowers.”
May you become mindful to your own current reality, and may you watch your life bloom like a flower.
Benefits of Mindfulness
- reduced rumination
- stress reduction
- boosts to working memory
- less emotional reactivity
- more cognitive flexibility
- relationship satisfaction
- increase immune function
- reduced psychological distress
- increase information processing speed
- counseling skills
- decreased stress and anxiety.
- better quality of life.