This month sees the highest number of google searches ever recorded for the term “Mindfulness.”
Mindfulness remains a big deal, with the flurry of media attention continuing to grow year on year.
Mindfulness: what does it mean?
To answer this question I’d like to introduce the two godfathers of mindfulness: Jon Kabut Zinn and Tich Naht Hahn. Incidentally despite their divergent paths, both men are friends and continue with their life long pursuit to bring mindfulness to us all.
Jon Kabut Zinn, founder of the renowned MBSR or Mindfulness Base Stress Reduction programme (University of Massachusetts), defines mindfulness as
“the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
In contrast, Tich Naht Hahn, a leading Zen Buddhist Monk, presents mindfulness as
“the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice
of touching life deeply in every moment of daily life.”
The feeling of being mindful
I’ve been fortunate enough to study twice with Tich Naht Hahn; once at his monastery in California and the other with his Sangha outside Bordeaux.
Both times I felt complete relief after my stay. Despite feeling I did not fully understand the textbook definitions and sensing mindfulness as an unobtainable ideal, after a few days of immersive practice I genuinely touched the essence of what I believe it is all about.
A feeling of complete alertness and peace, mentally and physically, to what was happening in that moment. There was no concern for the future, worries about the past or judgement of where I was. I felt free and accepting.
Taking mindfulness home
As I traveled home, I asked myself the inevitable question “how can I keep this feeling alive? how can I hold on to this new awareness and sip on it every morning on the way to work?”
My first realisation was that I needed to recognise that mindfulness is a practice. There is no quick win or laid out path to become an expert. Instead I needed to commit to continuously being mindful every day.
For me whilst my practice was still young, I chose to dedicate 10 minutes a day, just before bed, to Tich Naht Hahn’s mindfulness cycle below.
Step 1: Call it
As Tich Naht Hahn shares, in order to be present we first need to recognise where we are at within the moment. We need to learn to call out our emotions, honestly and openly, in order to begin to understand which emotions are holding us in the present or moving us away from it.
So I started a simple diary. Every night I write down a few dominant emotions that came up for me that day. Surprisingly this got easier relatively quickly.
Step 2: Embrace it
Self compassion is something many of us are not very good at. If we reflect on our inner dialogue, relatively few of us talk to ourselves kindly, without judgement and as if we are our own friend.
It is not unreasonable to assume that many of us, including me, feel an emotion such as sadness, judge ourselves for feeling it, and make ourselves feel even worse as a result.
Learning not to judge our emotions as “good” or “bad” is a challenging but crucial second step.
For me, this means writing an non judgmental phrase after each emotion. Regardless of if I felt happy, frustrated, fearful or angry I would simply state “isn’t that interesting.” This helped me to slowly retrain my reaction to the feelings that arose.
Step 3: Cool it
Sometimes, especially if the emotion is strong, we can feel very involved with it. We may begin to feel overwhelmed or consumed, even if we’ve already followed steps 1 & 2. It is at this point that we introduce the breathe; the single most powerful (& free) tool in our lives.
By taking a deep inhalation and exhalation we bring ourselves back to the moment by cooling our reaction. The breathe quite literally helps us to calm our fight or flight response, and enable us to access our cortex which opens us up to strategic, solution based thinking.
Again for me ten rounds of deep breathing with my eyes shut, lying on my bed helps me to re-balance.
Step 4: Release it
Let us not forget we are all human. Sometimes emotions still linger despite our previous efforts of following the mindfulness cycle. It is at this point we can to learn to consciously let things go. Even if they are not resolved or feel of great importance we can make a decision to move beyond them.
I often find running is a great way to do this; quite literally sweating things out, as I moved. However at night, I have discovered a gentler way to have the same effect. In my moment of calm I simply strike through the old emotion that no longer serves me and may even rip the page out and dispose of it.
Step 5: Replace it
I then replace the space I have now created with GRATITUDE. Writing 3 things I am most grateful for in the day.
Although there are days where this process feels more effortful than others, when I forget I notice a marked difference in my sleep, the way I relate to people and the kindness I have towards myself.
I’d highly recommend trying it and feel free to get in touch to share your story!
(P.S Steps 6 & 7 are deeper reflective work that comes through a deep meditation practice).