An astute reader read my post last week, and wrote to me, “Thank you for sharing the ‘why” of your mindfulness practice…but do you mind sharing the ‘how?!'” An oncologist, married with a toddler and a young baby, in the midst of a cross country move, and transitioning to a new position…she was no doubt ready for the cliff notes version of mindfulness.
Her words struck me as inspiration for this week’s post. How does one begin a mindfulness practice? What are the key elements? Strange as it sounds, I think a mindfulness practice is one of the simplest, most difficult things we can do. The good news is, practice is the operative word (which is why I will use that very word about a hundred times in this post).
We start over, we learn, we grow, we adapt, and start over again, in every moment.
So I will break it down as best I can here, with the caveat that no two practices look alike. The best practice for you is the one that works for you…and the one that you can do with consistency and joy.
Meditate: A consistent meditation ritual is the cornerstone of a mindfulness practice. Meditation allows us to still the mind, and become attuned to the internal states and fluctuations of our body, thoughts, and emotions. It is not possible to fail at meditation. For a few minutes per day, sit in a comfortable, relaxed, alert position, close your eyes, and focus on the feeling of your breath. Notice your thoughts, and let them go, without judging them, or judging yourself for having them. Meditation is not about having no thoughts at all–it is about noticing that there is something greater within us that can observe those thoughts, and not engaging in the stories and anxieties that come along with them.
Tune Into The Senses: As you move about your day, use your senses as a gateway to the present moment. We are often “in our head”, rather than in our lived experience. Activities such as washing the dishes, showering, or eating, are opportunities to tune into all five senses, to fully engage with what we are doing, rather than getting lost in thoughts about the past and future. Why is it important to be present while washing the dishes? It is practice for being present for all of the other moments of our lives–a walk with our children, or an important conversation at work. And beyond that, there is much joy to be found in those simple moments, if we can only be here for them.
Remember The Breath: After we have started meditating with some consistency, the breath will become another entry point to the here and now. Often when we are stressed or anxious, we hold our breath, triggering a fight or flight response within the body. The breath is always available to you as a way to connect to your body, create a sense of safety and ease, and as a connection to the stilling effects of your meditation practice. You don’t have to do anything to your breath, manipulate it in any way. Simply inhale and exhale, and connect to the actual experience of doing so.
There are many other associated features of a mindfulness practice, including other types of meditations, compassionate living and cultivating gratitude. And every practice deepens and evolves based on the individual and his or her unique needs and circumstances. But I think the above steps are a good place to start.
Perhaps the most important thing is not let this become yet another self improvement project, or another place in your life to come down on yourself for not doing it “right.” We practice in order to show up for our lives in a gentle, non judgmental manner. We practice in order to become intimate with our inner world and experiences, and the ebbs and flows that accompany this life. We practice in order to be kind to ourselves, and those around us. We practice in order to create pauses, and a certain slowing that allows time to expand.
As simple as these three steps sound, for me, they continue to be challenging. Every moment is an opportunity to wake up and begin again. I invite you to share with me your own experiences, what you have learned along the way. I firmly believe that with contemplative processes like these, there is no difference between teacher and student, and that in many ways, we are all beginning, always.
With gratitude, Monisha