Mindfulness… What is it, really?

A rewarding and fulfilling life

Being mindful is not easy to sustain, really, even for one minute.  We have busy lives, running and running.  Sometimes or often times, we are so busy running we are actually missing our lives! The great poet Thoreau said, “When we die, we are concerned we missed our lives.” As we reflect back on our lives at any time, might it be rewarding to feel as if we did not, in fact, miss our lives during the precious time we we’ve been here thus far?  Another way to put it – if we feel we have become human-doings instead of human-beings, Mindfulness may be a game-changer in our lives. If practiced on a regular basis, it can reduce the frequency, intensity, and duration of stress in your life as well as allow for a more rewarding and fulfilling life.

Mindfulness Is Awareness

In a word, Mindfulness is Awareness.  According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor Emeritus and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, Mindfulness is about us noticing what things we hold in our awareness.  It is not about thinking… or thinking about what we think about… or even thinking about what we think we think about. It is not about “doing” either. So how do we hold things in our awareness without thinking or doing?  We allow ourselves to be present, noticing each moment as it is, without judgment. We all have the ability to hold ANYTHING in our awareness, such as thoughts, emotions, body sensations, relationships with other people, the color of the sky during sunrise or sunset, the sounds of the morning in our home, the temperature of the water we are drinking in any given moment, the feelings we are having in a busy rush hour traffic… you get the idea.  Mindfulness involves paying attention, showing up, noticing what’s happening around you in that moment, noticing what’s happening inside, asking ourselves, “What are we noticing right now?  And now?  And now?”  Jon Kabat-Zinn uses the phrase “dropping in on the body” in order to be mindful of our body sensations, feelings, emotions, thoughts, and more. He also calls mindfulness the process of “Awarenessing.”  We can practice our awarenessing at any time. http://youtu.be/EU7vKitN4Ro

Cultivating Mindfulness

Mindfulness is cultivated by practicing various forms of meditation or mental training.  It can be performed in formal meditation sessions or during day-to-day activities such as washing dishes simply by being present in the moment while allowing oneself to experience it in its fullness. For example, while washing dishes, one can notice the smell of the dish detergent, the amount of lathering occurring with the soap, the temperature of the water, the different textures of the variety of dishes…and on and on (and now and now) until dish-washing is finished. And if more formal meditation practices are desired, one can certainly incorporate them into the daily routine as well.  Many guided meditations are now available online via YouTube thanks to the very experienced teachers willing to share.

Beginning Practice

If you’d like to pursue a practice of meditation, you can begin by noticing your breathing. Does breathing really offer such great benefits, and if so, how? Donald Altman, a former Buddhist monk and now psychotherapist, has offered a very succinct explanation of how diaphragmatic breathing can be useful to your mind and body. First, it’s important to check to see if you are a chest breather or a belly breather.  Put one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen area, just under your rib cage.  Breathe normally.  If you find the hand over your chest moving most, you are most likely a chest breather.  If you find both hands are moving, you are most likely a chest breather with some belly breathing occurring.  If you find the hand under your rib cage moving most, you are most likely a belly breather.

Belly Breathing

Belly breathing is more formally called diaphragmatic breathing. Breathing into the bottom-most part of the lungs sets in motion a process that turns on the body’s relaxation system.

Here’s how it works:

“Breathing into the deepest part of the lungs, presses on the diaphragmatic wall, which in turn presses down on the abdominal cavity.  This causes your belly to expand outward.  It also pushes the abdomen out in the back or presses on the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that runs in front of the spine. Pressure on the vagus nerve is what turns on the body’s relaxation system.  This lower’s blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration.  It also reduces lactate, a chemical in the blood that increases feelings of anxiety.  It also releases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps improve mood. In other words, it drastically changes your body chemistry by turning down the stress response.  Donald Altman likes to think of it as the air conditioning system for the body and the brain.  When your emotional systems are over-heating, you can cool everything down with conscious breathing. By re-training your breath in this way, you are actually turning off the alert and alarm system of the body which gets activated when you breathe shallowly.” Donald Altman’s CD: Keys to Healing, Relaxation, and Stress Reduction, Part 1 Positions that open the rib cage and stretch a group of muscles called the intercostals that hinge the ribs and actually help them open and make it easier to belly breathe: 1) Hands behind head – take breaths (normal breathing). 2) Hands behind back – take breaths (normal breathing). See what one minute of this breathing each day can do for you.  And enjoy!

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