image from plumvillage.org
"Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”
When I included this quote from Thich Nhat Hahn's book The Miracle of Mindfulness in my Daily Bell, it got a wide welcome on social media.
I think that's because it's an example of how we can use the simplest of mindfulness practices to bring calm and focus to the mind.
When your thoughts are "all over the place" you can focus your awareness again by bringing your attention to your breath, for instance at the entrance to your nostrils.
What could be simpler? If you try this a number of times every day it will quickly establish it as a way to focus yourself, to gain some balance and perspective even in busy situations.
Try it and see what happens.
By the way, if you don't like focussing on your breath, bring mindfulness instead to the feeling of your feet against the soles of your shoes, to what your hands are doing, the sensation of walking etc.
You don't have to close your eyes to do mindful breathing, nor do you have to adopt any strange positions! So you can use it in numerous situations - it's a portable de-stressor.
Here's more from Thich Nhat Hahn on mindful breathing.
Self-compassion is becoming a key aspect of mindfulness in the West. What is it? It involves looking at your failings with kindness and understanding and accepting that you share your painful experiences with many millions of others.
"Self-compassion, therefore, involves being touched by and open to one’s own suffering, not avoiding or disconnecting from it, and generating the desire to alleviate one’s suffering and to heal oneself with kindness," writes Dr Kristin Neff in her contribution to the book Mindfulness in Positive Psychology.
"Self-compassion also involves offering nonjudgmental understanding to one’s pain, inadequacies, and failures, so that one’s experience is seen as part of the larger human experience," she adds.
Dr Neff is probably the major writer and research on self-compassion today.
Some more points from that chapter:
As I said at the start, self-compassion involves:
- Kindness towards the person you now are, with your mixture of faults and virtues.
- An awareness that you share your faults and virtues with many millions of people.
- Practising mindfulness so that you can spot self-hating patterns of thinking and cultivate a kinder approach to yourself.
The quotes at the start are from Mindfulness in Positive Psychology: The Science of Meditation and Wellbeing edited by Itai Ivtzan and Tim Lomasmeans
Do you get something wrong every day? That's "bombu" nature. This Buddhist concept means we never get things completely right: instead we often make a mess of things because we're human.
Bombu nature means we need to accept we can never achieve the highest levels of excellence, we can never be those shiny perfect beings that we often pretend to be.
Stumble and croak
We walk but we stumble, we sing but we croak, we are virtuous but we are also sinners.
Accept and laugh
When you accept that you have bombu nature you can stop judging yourself against a standard of excellence that is almost impossible to meet. You can learn to laugh at yourself instead of condemning yourself. You even learn to laugh at other people’s failings instead of condemning them.
So an awareness of our bombu nature can be very liberating. And it doesn't have to be an excuse for being slovenly, lazy, irresponsible and so on: it’s about being an accepting and understanding friend to yourself.
When you accept you're never going to be up and running in the part at six am you might allow yourself to get up at eight and take a walk in the park at lunchtime.
Remember that acceptance really needs to include acceptance of ourselves as well as others or it is an incomplete acceptance. Recognising the bombu nature in ourselves and in others can help us to cultivate that acceptance.
“At some point during the day, taste the coffee,” she explains. “Notice it and that’s already disciplining your mind. Your mind wanders? It’s supposed to. Just bring it back to tasting the coffee, over and over again, and that’s like doing a sit-up.”
So says Ruby Wax in an interview in the I newspaper with Chloe Hamilton about her book Frazzled.
I like her approach. For people who are never going to do 20 minutes mindfulness of breathing in the morning, 'opportunistic mindfulness' is the way to go: be aware of the sensations when you're having a shower and then of the coffee later, and so on.
Link to the I
Mindfulness means deliberately returning your awareness to the moments of your day while cultivating acceptance in your life.
How can you cultivate these qualities in 2017? Use these seven tips to make your year mindful:
1. Remind yourself every morning that you intend to be mindful during the day. Intention can make all the difference by creating a mindful attitude. As you get out of bed, or immediately after you wake up, tell yourself that "I intend to be mindful today."
2. Find your anchor point and use it. Your "anchor point" is whatever most easily returns you to the moment. For me it's the sensation of my breath at my nostrils. For others it can be the feeling of their feet against the soles of their shoes, awareness of their posture or the use of a silent word such as "returning." Let the anchor point return you to the moment many times a day.
3. Do a body scan if you wake up during the night. Instead of drifting into worries or other negativity when you wake up at night, bring your attention to your body from your toes to the top of your head, in stages (for instance toes, feet, calves etc). Rest your attention on each area for the length of three in-breaths and out-breaths. Whenever your mind drifts, bring it back to whatever part of your body you are at.
4. Eat and drink with awareness. Notice the taste and texture of food and drink. This doesn't mean you have to eat ridiculously slowly or in silence. It's really a matter of knowing you're eating while you're eating. It's a great opportunity to practise mindfulness and you'll even enjoy your food more. If being mindful for the entire meal is too much, try being mindful for the first minute of the meal.
5. Try a little acceptance at the start of the day. Each morning, look over what you are going to have to do today and accept it. This could include an annoying task, an unpleasant meeting or any of the other challenges in our day. Just accept it. This need only take a minute or so, for instance before you get out of bed in the morning, having breakfast, waiting for a train or tram and so on.
6. Add a "no problem solving" period to your day. Our addiction to endlessly mulling over problems and possibilities takes us away from the moment. Some of this is necessary but we overdo it. Choose a short period every day during which you promise not to solve a single problem in your life! During that time you will find it much easier to be present and mindful. Try it at lunchtime or when you're walking, for instance.
7. Use a free mindfulness resource. Almost ten thousand people receive my free daily mindfulness reminder in their email. It's called The Daily Bell and you'll find a sign-up box here on my website at www.padraigomorain.com
"While this may sound passive to our action-oriented ears, the ability to rest comfortably in the present moment regardless of its imperfections is the foundation of all true happiness."
I really like this quote from Sharon Salzberg's book, Real Happiness at Work. It recognises the truth of the old Buddhist belief that dissatisfaction is an inevitable aspect of living. But it does so without resentment or even gloom. Instead it asserts that we can live with, and even be happy in, that dissatisfaction.
To do so we need to accept our moments of dissatisfaction as well as those we like. Acceptance here means not fighting with the inevitable reality of the moment. We normally fight reality through self-talk, those imaginary battles we have in our head when we don't like what's happened but can't (or won't!) do anything about it.
Actually, acceptance often leads to change - its seems to direct energy in useful and sometimes powerful ways. Think of someone who accepts they have a drink or drug problem and who ultimately goes into recovery because of this acceptance.
But there's a lot of dissatisfaction in life that we won't be able to do something about. Accepting this enables us to navigate through these dissatisfactions in good shape. That's an important aspect of mindfulness and one that is well worth cultivating.
We can cultivate it by watching out for negative self-talk and by recognising that most of life's dissatisfactions are quickly forgotten even though they may feel terribly important at the time. Mindfulness helps us to step away from that negative self-talk and into awareness of our breathing or what we are physically doing.
When practicing mindfulness we choose to be aware of our flow of experience or of one aspect of our experience (breathing, for instance) with acceptance. What does "with acceptance" mean?
It means that we note the impact of the experience on our senses and our thoughts without denial, without turning away and without engaging in a mental drama about it.
Suppose I have agreed to give a presentation to work colleagues next week. Suppose also that I notice a ball of tension in my stomach whenever I think about the presentation.
Acceptance means I choose to experience that ball of anxiety without getting into a drama (OMG what if my boss is there, what if I stumble over my words, what if everyone notices I'm blushing?), without denial and without turning away.
In acceptance I refuse to waste energy fighting with that ball of anxiety. Instead I allow myself to experience my anxiety while I do what needs to be done, namely to prepare my presentation.
Usually, the acceptance in itself reduces the anxiety. And when I go on to do the preparation, the anxiety will usually reduce further. Sometimes the anxiety stays - but acceptance means I am not adding to it through generating pointless fearful thoughts that make matters worse while achieving nothing.
The Buddhist magazine Lion's Roar has republished (from 2010) an article by Thich Nhat Hahn on mindfulness. Some quotes:
"Our true home is not in the past. Our true home is not in the future. Our true home is in the here and the now. Life is available only in the here and the now, and it is our true home."
"There are those of us who are alive but don’t know it. But when you breathe in, and you are aware of your in-breath, you touch the miracle of being alive. That is why mindfulness is a source of happiness and joy."
"Mindfulness practice should be enjoyable, not work or effort. Do you have to make an effort to breathe in? You don’t need to make an effort. To breathe in, you just breathe in. Suppose you are with a group of people contemplating a beautiful sunset. Do you have to make an effort to enjoy the beautiful sunset? No, you don’t have to make any effort. You just enjoy it."
You can read the full article at this link.
That line, I don't have to believe everything I think, jumped out at me from Elisha Goldstein's 2010 post on PsychCentral's Mindfulness & Psychotherapy blog, and it still holds true.
Goldstein writes about a correspondent who, in the past, used to slip (like all of us) "into negative self-speak, hurling slogans at myself that I’ve internalized over the years."
Now, the correspondent says, "I remember I don’t have to 'believe everything I think.' I consider that maybe what I am telling myself is merely conditioned thinking."
This and other mindfulness practices, such as the body scan (you'll find an audio of one here), helps Goldstein's correspondent to ward off depression and to make better choices in the moment. To read the full post, go here.
By the way, it may seem obvious that you don't have to believe everything you think - but we keep forgetting this and treat our thoughts with great seriousness as though they have never been mistaken or given us a wrong steer!
As I've said elsewhere, our thoughts are not necessarily true and they're not necessarily important. So remember: I don't have to believe everything I think.
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I have practised mindfulness for over 25 years. My aim is to make this valuable practice accessible and jargon-free.