There are untold benefits to practising relaxation regularly. The relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response and can be prompted by deep relaxation. Not only does relaxation allow the body a chance to re-charge and repair, but it calms the mind so that we are more resourceful in how we handle situations, relate to others and make decisions. It is a foundation stone for well-being on all levels.
Mindfulness meditation is a relaxation approach that gently focuses the mind on moment-by-moment experience, for example, on the breath entering and leaving the nostrils, on each part of the body in turn, or on sounds as they occur in our surroundings. If you can create one aspect of this relaxation response, for example, slowing and deepening your breathing, then the chain of other reactions will follow. You can harness the mind to lead the body into deep relaxation, and many activities in this book are designed to help you do this.
Training your attention to focus in this way, without trying to change anything, brings your focus into the present, away from worries about the past and future. This is at the heart of Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)*, an internationally accepted therapeutic approach developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2) at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the USA, and which has clinically proven benefits for people with depression, anxiety disorders and chronic pain (3).
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE RELAXATION RESPONSE
Breathing slows and deepens
Blood flow increases to hands and feet
Metabolism slows and normalises
Hormonal activity balances
HOW TO BE MINDFUL
The good news is that mindfulness is something you are already familiar with and experience frequently; it’s just you may not call it ‘mindfulness’ when you experience it. Everyone naturally experiences moments of mindfulness throughout their waking lives. Typical mindful moments include:
Noticing the feel of the water when you wash or shower. Feeling the warmth of someone sitting close to you. Tasting a drink as you sip it.
Mindful moments are moments when you are simply aware of what is present right now. Noticing the sound of a letter being delivered and the flare of thoughts this triggers. So, mindfulness is very ordinary and familiar that we all know how to do. It’s a cliché, but mindfulness is just being in the moment.
We all have moments when we are aware of what we see, hear, smell, taste, or feel with our bodies—moments where we are noticing what is here right now. However, without practise, we experience these mindful moments only fleetingly. Typically, our conscious awareness of what is present right now gets interrupted by our attention wandering off and getting caught up in what is going on in our mind.
Rather than noticing what is physically present right now, your attention slips away and focuses on whatever your mind is busy with: thinking, imagining, remembering, daydreaming etc. When this happens, what you are physically experiencing fades into the background and what your mind is busy with dominates in the forefront of your awareness. A common experience of this is when you are driving and get lost in your thoughts — you are going while lost in autopilot mode. At some point, you suddenly ‘come to your senses’ and notice what is physically present, perhaps after miles have gone by. When you reconnect to your physical senses in this way, it is a moment of mindfulness.
Mindful awareness is like a broad torch beam, illuminating everything present. This means that we are aware of what is physically present here and now and the thoughts, images, memories, and feelings present internally. When you have gone into autopilot with most of your attention narrowed into just what is present in mind, you can lose your mindful awareness.
Sometimes what your mind is busy with is essential for living your life to the full. Sometimes, however, it gets busy in a less helpful way and gets in the way of you living a full life, such as when the mind gets stuck in loops of worrying, brooding or fretting. These unhelpful loops can escalate and generate strong emotional feelings such as anxiety, frustration, or depression.
Cultivating the ability to be mindful helps you recognise when the attention is caught up in the mind and can help us direct the attention to where we want it to be. In this respect, a better word for the experience we call ‘mindfulness’ would be ‘choicefulness’.
So the question is not “can you be mindful?” – you already are at times. It’s more about whether you can CHOOSE to be mindful and whether you can SUSTAIN mindful awareness even if the mind is busy with less helpful thoughts, images and memories. ‘Mindfulness Practice’ is the name given to how we can cultivate our existing ability to be mindfully aware. There are many kinds of mindfulness practice, so most people can find one that works for them.
In summary, you are mindfully aware when you notice, with open awareness, whatever is going on.
Choosing where and how you pay attention is the first step to training the mind to be present and less ‘scattered’. Try any mindfulness activities below, beginning with five minutes and slowly building up the time you spend in these ways. You will probably notice that the mind tends to skip about all over the place, from thought to thought and away from the present into the past and future. The mind seems to have a mind of its own! Each time you realise your mind has gone, bring it back to your mindful activity gently.
Get in touch with your breath by sitting or lying and placing one hand over your navel area. Notice how the belly rises with the in-breath and drops back with the out-breath. Focus on these physical sensations with and then without the hand in place. There is no need to control or change the way you breathe in any way; just allow it to come and go. Rest in the awareness of the physical sensations of the breath in and out of the body. There is also a free audio download on www.stepbeachpress.co.uk.
This can be done indoors or outdoors. Focus on the pathway of about ten steps ahead. Stand with your feet parallel, your knees relaxed, arms held loosely by your sides, and your gaze focused softly ahead. Feel the soles of your feet making contact with the ground, then bring your attention to your first step. Slow it right down so that you are aware of every single movement as the heel rises, the relaxed muscles engage, and the foot gradually leaves the ground and is placed on the ground ahead. Be aware of how the balance of the body shifts and how the back foot starts to lift from the heel to make the next step. When you complete your ten mindful steps, turn around, and take ten mindful steps back to your starting point.
Sit comfortably and bring your attention to the ears. Be aware of any sounds as they arise and wherever they arise, without searching for them. Allow awareness to open to sounds near and far away, in front, behind and inside you, obvious sounds and more subtle sounds, the spaces of silence between sounds.
Make yourself comfortable and take your attention to your left foot. Invite your focus onto the sensations in your toes. If your attention wanders, bring it gently back as soon as you notice it has. Gradually focus on each part of the foot in turn, then the lower leg and upper leg, before taking your attention to your right foot and repeating the procedure. You may need to bring your focus back many, many times, or if you are exhausted, you may even fall asleep. It doesn’t matter. The critical point is to accept things as they are. Move your focus onto each part of the body, moving slowly upwards, then down each arm into the hands and fingers, followed by the neck, face and head.
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