What mindfulness is (and what it is not...)
In Part 1 I threw around terms like "mindfulness", "yoga", and "meditation" as if they were all the same thing. But they're not. I'll devote this post to describing what mindfulness is as well as dispelling some common myths about mindfulness.
In a nutshell, mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention. It is the capacity to purposefully bring your awareness to your present moment experience with an attitude of openness, curiosity, and non-judgement. Let's break that down a bit:
First, there is an intentionality or "on-purposeness" to mindful attention: We decide to put our attention somewhere – our breath, the sounds around us, the feel of the toothbrush on our teeth, etc. – and keep it there. It is not the same as, say, daydreaming during which your attention might involuntarily be caught and held by something.
Second, with mindfulness, we are concerned with what is going on in the present moment – not last week, not 10 minutes from now, and not what we wish was going on. We focus on this moment…then this one…and so on.
Finally – and for many of us this is the hardest part – we practice mindfulness with an attitude of curiosity and non-judgement. That means that if you decide to pay attention to your breath and find that, at this moment, your mind wants to be anywhere BUT your breath, you don’t judge yourself. You just calmly bring your attention back to your breath…again, and again, and again. Mindfulness isn't about controlling what's going on in the present moment. Rather, it is about observing -- again, without judgement...I can't stress this enough...which perhaps provides a bit of insight into my own mental habits... -- your moment-to-moment experience.
Mindfulness can be practiced in every moment of every day, and it can be cultivated through formal practices such as meditation and yoga. (And, I would argue, practicing music...) Is that distinction clear? Once more: Mindfulness is a mode of awareness or way of paying attention while practices such as meditation and yoga are tools for cultivating that type of awareness. You can also cultivate mindfulness in your daily activities (but, many people find that establishing a formal practice provides a good starting point for bringing mindfulness into "real life").
Mindfulness is much better understood experientially than conceptually, so let's take a little practice break.
Below are some very basic meditation instructions that you can use to get a bit of a feel for mindfulness or to start your own meditation practice. I suggest starting out with 4 or 5 minutes. You can gradually increase the time over a period of weeks...or not. The little bit that you do is much better than the big bit you don't do. You might want to use a timer so you aren't constantly looking at the clock. There are lots of great meditation timer apps available for your phone, but I'd recommend choosing one that works even when your ringer is turned off. I have been using a free app called Meditation Timer for several years. It's not fancy, but it gets the job done.
ANYWAY (see how easy it is to get distracted???), this is very common type of mindfulness meditation known as Mindfulness of Breath. In this practice, we use the feeling of the breath as a kind of "home base" for our attention. It works like this:
Find a quiet place away from distractions and where you won't be disturbed for the duration of your meditation. Decide how long you want to meditate for and set a timer. Turn off the ringer on your phone. Sit comfortably, either in a chair with your back away from the back of the chair, or cross-legged on the floor. If you choose to sit on the floor, you might find it helpful to sit on a cushion so your hips are higher than your knees. Find a posture that is neither too relaxed nor too strained.
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths to settle in. As best you can, let go of the rest of your day and release any tension you notice in your body. Now, bring your attention to your breath. Notice where you feel the sensation of your breathing most clearly -- perhaps in your belly or chest or nostrils -- and allow your attention to rest on that spot. You don't need to try to control or change your breath. Just feel it moving in and out of your body.
If you notice that your attention has moved away from your breath -- which it will...repeatedly -- very gently and non-judgementally escort it back to the breath. Continue like this until the end of your meditation period.
That's it! Easy right?
If you're like most people, you probably found that your attention wanted to focus on anything BUT the breath. That's just fine and, in fact, perfectly normal. Over time you may find that you are able to focus on the breath for longer stretches. Or you may not. Which brings me to some common misconceptions about mindfulness:
1) Mindfulness is about emptying your mind. Nope. Mindfulness is not about getting rid of thoughts but about changing our relationship to thoughts. A lot of the time, we believe that we are our thoughts. For example, you may experience anger and immediately think, "I am angry." As you gain experience letting go of your thoughts and returning to the breath (or another object of focus) again and again, you begin to see that thoughts are just thoughts, like weather passing through the sky. In this way, we get a bit of distance from our thoughts and we can choose our actions more wisely. Returning the attention to the breath over and over again IS the practice. As one of my favourite meditation teachers, Sharon Salzberg says,
Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome so that one day we can get to the "real" meditation.
2) Mindfulness is a stress-reduction or relaxation technique. Sorry, but no. Mindfulness is much more about examining our relationship to stress -- its causes, its effects on our bodies and our relationships, etc. -- than getting rid of stress. Many people find that the practice of mindfulness helps them handle stress more effectively and that this reduces the perceived impact of stress, but this is not guaranteed. Same goes for relaxation. As you learn to observe your breath with fewer interruptions, you may find that your experience a sense of calm. But becoming aware of the content of our thoughts is not always pleasant or relaxing. And, we are far more habituated to constant distraction than to quiet stillness. Likely, you will experience periods during which meditation is very pleasant and relaxing, and periods during which it is more intense and even unpleasant. If you are trying to meditate and you find that you are experiencing mental or emotional distress, I suggest finding an experienced meditation teacher to help you.
3) Mindfulness is a religion. Wrong again. Many conceptions of mindfulness (but not all) have roots in spiritual traditions, particularly Eastern contemplative traditions. But the practice of mindfulness -- the training of attention and awareness -- can be done without adhering to any particular belief system. Except perhaps the belief that your mind can be trained!
4) Being mindful means not caring. I think the idea that mindfulness leads to complacency creeps in on the heels of non-judgement. But there is a huge gap between being non-judgemental and not caring. When we learn to observe our thoughts without reacting in a habitual or knee-jerk way, we are able to choose responses to what life throws at us with much more wisdom and discernment. In fact, I'd argue that mindfulness actually means caring MORE -- caring enough to practice working with our minds so that our actions can be both compassionate and effective.
Whew. So, that's it: Mindfulness 101 with Dr. Bulmer.
In the next post, we can look at some of the benefits of mindfulness and, in particular, explore why I think it can be so helpful for musicians.
Thanks for reading. Happy practicing!