Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What is Mindfulness Practice?

     by Tim Burnett, January 2013
     "Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, non-judgmentally." Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990)

     The practice of mindfulness encourages us to pay attention to the process of our experience – not just the content. We learn to study the feeling and flow of experience and be less caught on our opinions and desires around how we feel experience should be. In other words, mindfulness practices support us in taking a small but important step back – a “breathing space.” And this supports the arising of curiosity and a fresh perspective on our life. 
     When something happens, anything at all, the mind and our senses have a fast and complex interaction. The sum of all of these momentary experiences is our experience of living. You could even say that our mind’s ongoing narrative summary of everything that is happening, has happened, and is imagined to be coming soon, is our experience of self. Too often all we notice is the final result of this interaction and we miss the complex unfolding that just happened. 
     All of this doesn’t happen in mental isolation. Our engagement with experience is embodied. When events happen they happen through the body. And the body is hard-wired for vigilance; ready to respond to threats. When the threat protection mechanisms of the body are triggered by a rapid cascade of events, our systems (nervous, hormonal, digestive) rev us up quickly and ready us to fight, run, or freeze. Our higher level cognitive systems have been shown to go into a restricted mode during these times, lest we ruin our chances for survival by standing there trying to figure things out when we should be running for the hills! 
     Mindfulness practice is a way of exploring the processes that often run our lives. It is a way of bringing these semi-automatic processes into the open and working with them in a way that usually leads to:
          • less time spent in “automatic pilot”
          • more awareness of the details within experiences
          • less energy spent worrying about the future or ruminating about the past
          • greater resilience and an increased ability to moderate our reactivity
          • reduced risk of a long list of stress-related diseases
          • an increased sense of presence – really being there for ourselves and others
          • an increase in a “spacious” type of joy which is able to hold life’s ups and downs more fully and kindly, including experiences we do not like

     Fundamentally, mindfulness practice works by bringing attention back to the present moment. 
     We can think of attention as a theatrical spotlight. In the back of the darkened theater the spotlight is on, casting its circle of light somewhere on the stage. The part of the stage that’s lit up is what is accessible to our conscious awareness. The spotlight of attention is very compelling and when it’s focused in on something that is often all we are aware of. 
     The spotlight of attention might be focused on a sensory event, something we are seeing or hearing for example, but all too often the spotlight of attention is focused on a mental “event.” Our attention is caught by a memory, a worry, or an anxious vision of the future. Have you had the experience of the mind being so caught by this ruminative kind of thinking that you hardly notice your surroundings? Have you pulled up in the car at your destination not remembering how exactly you got there? This capacity of mind to have the spotlight of attention completely trapped – enraptured even – by the thinking is sometimes called being caught in “automatic pilot.” 
     We don’t have to be run by the thoughts and memories that happen to pop into our minds distracting us from our work and activities. We can move the spotlight of attention. We can choose in the place to which we aim. We can also choose how tightly to focus the spotlight. We can zoom in on a detail in our activity/work, or opening it up wide to take in a sunset or the experience of being relaxed and happy with a loved-one undefined not worrying about anything in particular. 
     And yet all too often we lose track of this possibility. Our attention veers off – out of control. A funny look from a colleague, a car veering in front of us on the road, a memory, a worry, - many different events can trigger us to forget all about our powerful ability to influence attention and we are lost to the present moment again.
     Mindfulness practice has two key elements: formal and informal. Formal mindfulness practice is a central element of our time together in mindfulness class. In formal practice we take up particular instructions for working with attention and train ourselves to attend to something steadily for a structured period of time. We set everything else aside and just practice. 
     In formal practice we also train ourselves in a positive way of relating to our habits of wandering attention. When our attention drifts away we work to bring it back gently and kindly, with a spirit of steadiness and persistence. With less blame and recrimination. And in the simplified circumstances we create during formal practice it’s more obvious when attention has drifted away. 
     You could say that the root of mindfulness is developing the ability to remember. To remember that attention is in operation. To remember that there’s more happening on stage than whatever the spotlight is currently illuminating. To remember that we are sitting behind the spotlight of our attention and able to direct it to some extent. To remember that in the darkness at the edges of the stage are many possibilities, some known, some not. We can touch into the many dimensions to our lives beyond our usual story line. 
     As we develop the ability to return attention to present-moment phenomena we are often surprised to see that whatever it is that happening is not the same as what we were worried about. Often actual experience is richer, more interesting, and less problematic than we imagined. What a relief this can be! 
     We can even notice a lack of reactivity, less stress, fewer times when we make assumptions that tie ourselves in knots. And when we do get tangled, with practice we can identify our “tangled-ness” and take it a little less personally and a little less seriously. We develop more patience with our conditioning and habit patterns.
     Where formal mindfulness practice is a kind of an intensive “lab of attention,” informal practices help us to bring this work out into the world. Into the middle of our day. Into those moments that can be so loaded for us. There are many ways to remember to practice mindfulness in daily life. Pausing to take a breath before entering a new room where something requires your full attention, for example. We will discuss others in class. And we will also discuss the ways in which this process is non-linear, organic, and often surprising. 
     Becoming more aware of the embodied nature of experience is profoundly helpful. We learn to listen more to our body. We feel the tightness in our shoulders; the pinch in our gut. Rather than soldiering on, we pause. We breathe into the experience. We listen to the “wisdom” of the body and appreciate it as a kind of early warning system. Often well before the mind catches on to what is happening, our body is lets us know that something is amiss. And responding sooner than later to this helps us right the ship well before it capsizes. 
     Mindfulness is a creative re-engagement with our actual experience. We put aside our sense of knowing exactly who were are and what is happening. We set all of that history and personality down, or at least hold is a little more lightly. We take a fresh look. “I wonder what is happening here?” We see with fresh eyes as we re-inhabit our life. And this freshness, this openness, brings us great gifts, even in the middle of our most challenging moments. 
     One way of thinking of this life is that it’s all happening in this moment. In this very moment. And if we are lost in some other moment we are very literally missing our life.

     “Make the moment vital and worth living… do not let it slip away unnoticed and unused.” Martha Graham

     What is Mindfulness Practice?
     by Tim Burnett, January 2013

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