To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
~ William Blake
Learning to listen to that still small voice inside your head; that prompting that tells you whether or not the decision you are about to make is the right choice for you is at the very core of living authentically, but learning to listen takes time and patience and, most of all, it requires that you are not only aware that it is speaking to you, but mindfulness of what it is that is being said. But what exactly is mindfulness?
“Mindfulness” says Jon Kabat-Zinn, “means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, In the present moment and non judgmentally.”
While these are simple enough words, putting them into practice in one’s everyday life can be another story altogether. Think about it – how often to you pay attention to something that is happening around you – right here and now – purposefully –and without judging it?
In order to understand mindfulness, let’s take the simple concept of eating. Everyone eats. But how many of us eat mindfully? That is to say, how many people pay complete and total attention to the food that they are putting into their mouths as they are putting it in? Are you noticing the flavor and texture of each mouthful? Or are you scarfing down your sandwich while you sit at the computer scrolling through your emails and simultaneously making a grocery list of things you need to pick up on your way home from work? Better yet, if you DO pay attention to the food that you are eating, chances are that you are judging it (this is wonderful/horrible/disgusting/too salty/too sweet/delicious etc.). It is not until you can purposefully sit down to a meal and focus entirely on your eating; every aspect of your eating (the look, the scent, the flavor, the chewing etc.) and not make any judgments on it (too hot, too cold, too sweet or sour) that you can say that you have experienced mindful eating. So too it is with every other aspect of our life.
It is as if we are continually going through life with those red correcting pens that teacher’s use and giving every experience a grade: A+ for great sex, D- for vindictive co-worker B- for interesting (if long) sermon etc. We can’t seem to keep our own opinions out of the mix and simply enjoy the things around us; the experiences, the people even, for whom and what they really are. Not only that, it is as if we feel that we can’t really be living unless we pack as much “doing” into any one time frame as is humanly possible.
Perhaps this is some sort of residual fallout from the corporate obsession with the increasing of productivity through time management, or maybe it has something to do with the old Puritanistic adage that ‘idle hands are the devil’s playground.’ But in western societies it is rare to find those who appreciate the wisdom in holding our minds still enough – long enough – to observe those things that are happening around us and to us for exactly who and what they are without attaching expectations to them, but mindfulness (as well as its sister meditation and it’s cousin awareness) are looked down on and even ridiculed throughout much of western civilization as being practices that are unproductive and without any real purpose.
The Purpose of Mindfulness
But there IS a purpose to mindfulness, and that is to bring your mind to a level where it can actually hear the voice of intuition; the guidance of that higher self/higher power that will help you to make the decisions that will bring your life into alignment with your soul purpose.
Think of mindfulness as a sort of practical meditation. Instead of sitting still in one place and attempting to quiet our minds we focus our attention on experiencing what is happening to us – and around us – in this exact moment in time; seeing it all, feeling it all, experiencing it all without attaching any sort of expectations, and in spite of what you might think, practicing mindfulness really isn’t as difficult to master as you might think.
Five Tips for Mastering Mindfulness
Like any other skill that you acquire, mastering mindfulness takes time and patience. But most of all, it takes patience with yourself; with realizing that you are not going to shed the conditioning of a lifetime in just a few days or weeks. But there are some tips that might help you to learn to focus.
- The One Minute Rule. When you are just starting to learn to be mindful, there is a great technique that can help you learn to focus, and that is called The One Minute Rule. If you have a cell phone alarm, set your alarm to go off hourly. If you work at your computer, have an alert message set to draw your attention on an hourly basis. When the alarm rings turn it off and spend one minute (sixty entire seconds) focusing on what you are doing right here and now. If you are sitting at your desk, bring your attention to your body. Can you feel the chair you are sitting in? Can you feel the cloth against your legs? Are you aware of your body posture? Try closing your eyes and doing a slow scan of your body from top to bottom taking note of how your body feels, then focus on the scents you are smelling, the sounds you are hearing, the piece of paper you are holding in your hand. Note all of it. Don’t judge it; don’t get caught up in it. Just take note of all of the sensory input that is coming in right here and now. Doing this one minute out of every hour will help steer you towards being able to practice every day mindfulness.
- The Rubber Band Reminder. Another great technique in learning mindfulness is to wear a rubber band on the wrist of your dominate. This can either be a plain old rubber band or a hair band, as long as it is elastic. Make sure that it’s not too tight (you don’t want to cut off circulation. Now, every time you see the rubber band, give it a snap; and every time you snap the rubber band let the snap bring you to the here and now. Take a deep breath and note what is happening right here and now. How you are feeling, what you are hearing etc. You can use this technique in addition to the One Minute Rule, because the goal is eventually to be entirely aware of where you are and what is going on around you at every moment in time.
- Food Focus. One of the best times of the day to practice mindfulness is (big surprise) when you are eating. It is a fact that most people in western society do not take the time to eat their food mindfully, so why not devote one meal a day to mindful eating? No matter which meal you choose, sit down at a table or desk or bench where you will not be interrupted either by a phone, people, incoming emails or anything else. Do not use this time to read or write or chat. Instead, focus entirely on the food that you are eating. See the food. Feel the food. Taste the food. Chew it thoroughly. Learn what it means to savor your meal.
- Full Body Focus. Once a day find a quiet place where you can stretch out full length on the floor. Not your bed – the floor. Settle yourself onto your back, close your eyes, then start at your feet and work your way up, consciously relaxing each muscle group as you come to it. First relax your toes, then your ankles, your calves, your thighs, pelvis, stomach, solar plexus, hands, arms shoulders, neck and head, working your way all the way up. Once you are completely relaxed, let yourself ‘melt’ into the floor and feel the carpeting or flooring beneath you. Feel the slight breeze in your hair as the cat walks by; hear the creak in the floorboards, the gurgle of the water in the pipes. Doing this once a day can really put you in touch with your body and teach you things about yourself then you could possibly imagine.
- Object Focus. If possible, once a day focus on a single object for a full five minutes. This works best if you use an object from nature as there tends to be more depth than the manmade (though there are, of course, exceptions). So pick your object. Let’s use William Blake’s wildflower. Make yourself comfortable, and then narrow your entire focus to the flower in front of you. See it, feel it, let your gaze fall into it. Note how the petals fold back, how the edges turn under, how the pollen has formed on the stamen, how the leaves curl around the blossom. Note everything about it. Try not to judge it. Try not to form an opinion about it. Simply experience it exactly as it is. Let it be.
While there are other techniques, these five can get you started on your way to mastering mindfulness. And remember, by practicing everyday mindfulness we can slow our minds down long enough to not only be able to appreciate the world around us, but to actually be able to hear our intuition; that still small voice whose guidance will bring our lives into alignment with our soul purpose and will set our feet on the road to true authentic living.