The Foundations of Mindfulness (From Striving to Thriving - Part 2)
Updated: Mar 10, 2020
This is a continuation of my previous post in which I reflected on my experience attempting a 90 minute meditation. The experiment resulted in a significant realization that I decided to share with the hope that others could learn from the experience too.
As a result of the experiment, I decided to return to the foundations of mindfulness practice. I write this post both as a reminder to myself and as a guide for those who may want to begin or reinforce their own practice.
As you may know, my philosophy on living a great life comes down to 3 things: movement, mindfulness, and experience. In this post I’ll be discussing 3 things about the practice of mindfulness:
What is mindfulness?
How do we practice it?
How does it help us live a better life?
1) So... what is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is essentially what makes us human: our ability to be aware of our selves and our thoughts. To practice mindfulness is to practice observing our selves and thoughts with a particular set of attitudes. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book Full Catastrophe Living, the 7 attitudes of mindfulness are as follows:
NON-JUDGING: To be aware of the constant stream of judging and reacting to inner and outer experiences that we are normally caught up in, observe it, and step back from it.
PATIENCE: To understand the fact that things must unfold in their own time.
BEGINNER’S MIND: To see uniqueness even in familiar situations and environments. To recognize that no moment is the same as any other - each one is unique and contains unique possibilities.
TRUST: To develop a basic trust in yourself, your feelings, and your intuition. It is impossible to be like somebody else. Your only hope is to become more fully yourself.
ACCEPTANCE: To see things as they actually are in the present. Not trying to change them or label them in any way, simply observing.
LETTING GO: To let things be, without grasping or pushing them away. To recognize and be okay with the impermanence of everything in life, including life itself.
NON-STRIVING: To try less and be more. To be yourself, exactly as you are, in this moment.
This last attitude of mindfulness is the one I struggle with the most and what I have come to see as the reason why my 90 minute meditation was rather unpleasant. If you’re like me (as I suspect many of my readers are); someone who sets a lot of goals for themselves, constantly pushes their limits, and is always trying to grow and learn as fast as possible, then you’ll likely struggle with this attitude too.
We often push ourselves too hard due to unrealistic expectations. Creating unrealistic goals in mindfulness practice contradicts the attitude of Non-Striving. If a goal is set, we may then beat ourselves up for not reaching it, forming a pattern of self-hatred and self-destructive behaviour, despite our best efforts. The problem lies with the goal itself, not us.
Instead of focusing on a goal, we only need to try our best, and accept whatever result comes with it. Naturally our best efforts grow with practice.
We can’t be upset with ourselves if we know we did our best. Focusing on that, instead of aiming for a specific outcome, ensures we will always be happy with our selves and not cause unnecessary suffering in our lives. This is the greatest lesson I’ve learned from my mindfulness practice to date.
Though, mindfulness extends far beyond observing our thoughts and progressing in a patient manner. As we become well practiced it’s effects penetrate into almost every aspect of our daily lives, from our eating habits, to relationships, to productivity, and so much more. This could become an entire post in and of itself, so I will stick to the basics for now.
With an understanding of what mindfulness is, we can practice it and eventually solidify these attitudes as a mindset. This begs the question...
2) How do we practice mindfulness?
You may have guessed it... the simplest answer is meditation. Though, meditation in itself is complicated for most people. The simplest way to explain meditation is this:
Meditation is an extended period of unbroken concentration on a single object/subject, usually the breath. This is only possible when we are relaxed, sit with an erect posture (straight spine), and maintain the 7 attitudes of mindfulness.
I recommend beginners to sit for 5-10 minute guided sessions to start. You can find plenty of guided meditations on YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music. Try a variety of different kinds of meditation (breath awareness, body scanning, seated, walking etc.) and find which kinds work best for you. As you become more comfortable, you can experiment with longer sessions. Learning more about the philosophies of mindfulness and different techniques is also a great way to encourage growth and continued interest in your practice.
To practice meditation is to practice the purest form of mindfulness. But even if we sit for practice every day, meditation will bring few benefits to our lives if we are only mindful during our seated practice. We must also practice bringing these attitudes and level of focus into our daily lives.
Imagine sitting for meditation first thing after waking up, going about your morning routine, and then on the way to work you get frustrated in traffic and give another driver the finger for cutting you off. This is similar to hitting the gym for a workout and then picking up fast food for dinner on the way home. Our practice needs to carry through the whole day. We must do our best to be conscious, to aware of our choices, our words, and our actions, in order for mindfulness to penetrate into our minds and life.
Now that we know what mindfulness is and how we can practice it... why should we?
2) How does mindfulness help us live a better life?
I could site plenty of scientific journals on the benefits of meditation, quote the Buddha or the Dalai Lama to convince you that mindfulness and meditation will help you... but I’m not going to.
The benefits are plenty, but it is best you feel them for yourself than have someone else try to explain them to you. The truth is, no one can force this practice upon you. When the time is right, when you need it most, you will seek out the practice of mindfulness on your own, or it will find you. Just remember this harsh, but honest truth:
If you are in times of struggle, suffering, grief, confusion, or loss and are looking for a way out, there isn’t one. There is only a way through, a way in. That way is mindfulness... and it is here for you whenever you want to try it.
I came to mindfulness during a period of great anxiety. I was struggling with occasional panic attacks and a constant barrage of negative thoughts and emotions, despite having everything I needed to live a good life. One of my early teachers offered mindfulness practice as a tool to calm my mind and body, not to escape my anxiety, but face my fears and address the root cause. The practice found me when I needed it most.
“I’m trying to free your mind, Neo, but I can only show you the door. You’re the one who has to walk through it.”
Mindfulness is our ability to be self aware. To practice is simple: sit calmly, with an erect posture, and focus on your breathing while maintaining the 7 attitudes of mindfulness. With patience and consistency, the benefits reach far into our minds, our Self, and our daily life. The practice cannot be forced upon you, it will find you when you need it most.
If you feel it is the right time for you, if you’re curious about the practice, or you’ve already began your practice and want some additional guidance, you can always contact me via email or direct message using my email address below.
Thanks for reading. Wishing you well,