By Jeffrey Brantley, MD
If you want to know how an apple tastes, it doesn’t help much to read or think about apples, even if you read or think a lot about apples! If you want to know how an apple tastes, you have to bite the apple and experience the taste of the apple. To really know apples well, you will probably have to bite and experience the taste of many bites of a lot of apples!
Knowing — through repeated, direct experience — is required for true understanding of many things in our life’s journey, and truly understanding mindfulness is like that, too. And, like so many other things, if you really want to understand a thing, you have to be prepared to stick with it, and to work at it. Practicing being mindful is like that! It will take intention and commitment enacted over time.
Mindfulness is a critical human capacity for knowing, for becoming aware, of what is happening — in our inner lives and in the changing context of life around us — in each moment. You experience a mindful moment in the instant you become aware of the sensation of a cool breeze on your face, or notice the feeling of warmth in the touch of a child’s hand. It is a moment of being mindful when you notice you are having thoughts that are racing with worry or anger and are no longer so lost in those thoughts.
Mindfulness notices. It does not judge or interfere. Mindfulness accurately reflects — like a good mirror — what is happening now. It is not thinking more about things, but knows what the thoughts (and the bodily reactions accompanying those thoughts) are saying. From accurate, mindful noticing and reflection, and the understanding that follows, different choices and wiser responses become possible in the next moment.
Mindfulness is present, at least potentially, in everyone, but realizing its true possibilities and greatest benefits comes through actually practicing being mindful. Practicing mindfulness is often described simply as paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment. So, you might think of mindfulness practice as having elements of intention to practice, cultivating attention that is sustained and flexible, and observing mindfully (being watchful) with a nonjudgmental, welcoming, and curious attitude.
Mindfulness teachers often say, “if you want to understand your mind, sit down and observe it.” Mindfulness is, at its heart, a journey of increasingly wise understanding. It is not just about being present, or only about knowing what is here (like noticing tension in your body, or repeating patterns of thinking or feeling). Mindfulness, when developed through commitment to practice is, perhaps most importantly, about acting wisely based upon an understanding on increasingly deeper levels, of what it means to be a human being with a mind and body, in significant relationships with the always changing world of people and things around us.
Contemporary neuroscience, psychology, and genomic science have reported fascinating research findings pointing to the power of mindfulness practice to alter in desirable ways the function of mind, brain, and bodily systems in order to help us be happier, healthier, wiser, and more effective human beings.
Here is a brief mindfulness practice you could try to explore mindfulness for yourself. It could be done in a few breaths, or longer. You may want to experiment with this practice in different moments and situations of your day and night. Being playful and curious, let yourself be open to whatever you notice. Trust that you already have all that you need to be mindful!
Set your intention to be mindful by pausing and deciding to hold this moment in awareness. It may help to place attention on a sensory experience like sounds, or sensations in your body, or the sensations of your body breathing naturally. Relax in the noticing and knowing with the focus of attention resting lightly upon one of these sense anchors. If you notice thoughts, you don’t have to control them or add to them. Just notice the thoughts, how they change, letting them go, or letting them be. If you feel yourself getting lost in thoughts or feelings like impatience, doubt, or boredom, simply pay closer attention to what is happening, relaxing and gently bringing attention back to your focus on the direct experience — noticing thoughts, hearing sounds, or feeling bodily or breathing sensations. You don’t have to make anything happen or feel a certain way. Let yourself be open to whatever you notice, allowing the experience to be just as it is, remaining watchful and receptive. Practicing for as long as you like, what do you discover?
Jeffrey Brantley, MD, DLFAPA, is a physician, psychiatrist, mindfulness and meditation teacher, and author. He is a founding faculty member of Duke Integrative Medicine, where he started and directed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) for fifteen years. He continues as a consultant to Duke Integrative Medicine, where he leads or co-leads programs in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness Training for Professionals, and mindfulness based programming. His most recent book is “Calming your angry mind: How mindfulness & compassion can free you from anger & bring peace to your life” New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, California, 2014. http://www.calmingyourangrymind.com
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