Significant lifestyle change can be very difficult to initiate and even more difficult to maintain over the long haul. The mental, psychological and emotional barriers that must be overcome are often subtle yet powerful enough to overwhelm the best short-term intervention. These internal, personal barriers must be identified and addressed head-on to realize the goal of a long-term healthy lifestyle change. A key to success in this effort is mental discipline. The term mental discipline refers to the ability to recognize and respond wisely to thoughts and feelings occurring within the mind and body. Without the skill of mindful observation, or "Mindfulness" automatic reactive patterns of thinking and perceiving, along with their associated emotional charge capture the mind's attention. One's internal experience flows from where the attention is directed and old habits of behavior, perhaps the very ones that have led to current health problems, are unwittingly encouraged and supported. Mindfulness can break the hold of these destructive patterns, and the freed energy can then be used to firmly establish any recently learned and still fragile health promoting habits.
Mindfulness is a skill that is easily learned and strengthened over time. It is utilized by a host of performing artists and sports figures, and has proven itself useful in overcoming the difficult challenges of alcoholism, chronic pain and major depression. Developing the habit of mindfulness will be helpful both in integrating the material offered in this lifestyle modification program and in putting this information to work in everyday life.
So, what is mindfulness? In the most straight forward terms, mindfulness is being present with whatever is occurring to us or within us at any given moment. It is being present with what is in the now, not our perceptions, our judgments or our comments about what is happening; just what is happening with no elaborations, no overlay of judgment or commentary. It is being present with the endless flow of change in our life without becoming lost in reactivity. After only a few minutes of silent, motionless sitting, we can see clearly that mindfulness is not our ordinary state of mind.
As we continue to sit quietly, we can observe the mind chase after this thought, that sensation, then on to the next bit of stimulation or feeling that arises. Reacting endlessly to the pleasant or unpleasant feelings associated with what is occurring in the moment, the mind grows more unmanageable and controlling of our attention. And along with our attention, we lose control of our inner experience (the only experience we have). We begin to see that what occurs in our mind is out of our control. It's as if the mind has a mind of its own! With this loss of control comes more anxiety and fear, which only fuels the mind's wildness and habits of behavior we've come to associate with it.
The good news is we can systematically tame the mind and as we do, we move into a seat of quiet, mindful observation. And with observation comes the ability to shift from reactivity to response; we can choose our next move rather than simply reacting in our old conditioned way. We must cultivate a strong intention if we are to make mindfulness our natural, habitual way of being in the world. The development of this powerful skill requires determination and a balance of strict discipline and gentle kindness toward ourselves.
The practice of meditation is a powerful tool for the development of mindfulness. Meditation is not a religion, although it is a practice found in some form among most of the world religions including Christianity and Buddhism. Meditation in its most simple form is focusing on any one thing while trying to exclude all others, working to still the mind's jumping from one thing to another. During sitting meditation, for example, we first make a commitment not to move for a stated period of time, 20 minutes let's say. Then we begin to settle the mind using a concentration exercise, such as counting the inhalation and exhalation of the breath by focusing on the touch sensation at the tip of the nostrils. We notice when the attention is with the breath and when it is not. When it drifts away, we bring our attention back to the touch sensation of the breath over and over again, without judgment or self criticism for having drifted. The mind begins to settle and with sustained effort becomes responsive to our direction.
As the mind continues to settle down, we begin to gain control over where we are placing our attention. With this focused attention, we can apply the tremendous power of the mind to the task of establishing and maintaining healthy and wise lifestyle choices.
You may ask, "Where am I supposed to find time to practice mindfulness?" In our hectic day-to-day lives, the last thing we want is one more thing on our "To-do" list. Being overbooked is likely a major contributor to our current health and lifestyle problems and not a habit to encourage. While taking 15 or 20 minutes a couple of times a day to sit quietly can be very helpful, it's not always reasonable given the other demands we face. We need to fit this practice into our lives so that it doesn't feel like a burden. We can do this by using some of our normal activities as the training ground for developing this skill. No expensive gym, fancy equipment or extra time is necessary, just an intention to focus more deeply, pay closer attention to some of the activities we're doing already. Pick one or two daily activities such as eating, walking or standing and make them activities for strengthening your mental muscle of mindfulness.
Our eating habits are a natural choice for the development of mindfulness given that we are encouraged to eat more slowly and to pay attention to the food choices we make anyway. In what can be thought of as "eating meditation" we take the process of eating as our object of mindful observation (as we take the breath in sitting meditation). Watch the unfolding process: moving the hand to the fork, moving the fork to the plate, lifting the bite of food to the mouth, beginning to chew, experiencing the tastes and the textures that arise as you eat. There's a lot going on with just that first bite, and we try to observe it all. As in the sitting meditation, we keep coming back to the process on which we are focusing, we keep bringing the awareness back to the eating process whenever the attention drifts.
As we become more mindful of the process of eating, we come to notice flavors, textures and colors we may have missed before. As we focus our attention to observe our eating more closely, we naturally chew more thoroughly, promoting better digestion. Also, the sensation of being full is noticed after eating less food. Because we are paying attention, looking out for this very important signal arising in our body, we're less likely to overeat. The food choices we are making begin to stand out more clearly and we're also less likely to "slip" and eat something we're trying to avoid.
Eating in silence especially with others who understand the value of this activity, is a powerful exercise which allows much deeper penetration into the experience of eating. Of course, if the intention is to connect strongly with our food, we must resist the urge to watch TV, listen to music, read the newspaper, or carry on a conversation (especially about disturbing topics) during meals. This is a tall order given that many of our meals tend to be business or social functions that "require" conversation. We can only do the best we can in a given situation. Deepening our skill of mindful observation does not mean being rude or offensive. Whenever there's an opportunity to eat silently, we can take it. Ask your partner, family and friends to join you from time to time in a silent meal; they might enjoy this experience too.
Our intention to eat in a more healthy manner is supported by observing ourselves doing just that, slowly eating, focused on one bite at a time. As we keep our promises to our self, we have less guilt and self-blame to fuel the old habits of emotionally-reactive eating. We begin to enjoy more feelings of empowerment, confidence and self-love which further integrate healthy eating habits into our lives.
Mindfulness can also be applied to everyday walking as well. We can practice "walking meditation" as we observe the subtle movements of the legs and body which accompany walking. Our awareness naturally turns inward and our concentration deepens as our attention is taken off of stressful thoughts and feelings and placed on the relaxing process of moving the body along at a comfortable pace. We can take a break from our worries and the demands of the day and enjoy a few peaceful moments as we move from car to office, meeting to meeting, or from one task to another. All that's required is that we keep the attention focused and resist the urge to plan or worry our brief walk away.
Standing, another activity which can fill much of our day, can also become an exercise in mindfulness. As in walking meditation, standing meditation simply requires us to focus inward on the sensations associated with standing upright. If you haven't observed closely what happens when we try to stand still, you're in for a surprise. The body is never actually still while standing; its moving around with a host of muscles tightening and loosening in the endless dance of maintaining balance. Our attention to this dance deepens concentration and strengthens the skill of mindful observation. We keep bringing the awareness back to the subtle movements of the body whenever the awareness is captured by something else arising in our experience. So the next time you find yourself caught in a long line, use it as an opportunity to deepen your skill of mindfulness. It may transform the way you look at standing in line from a bother to an opportunity for a few moments of awareness.
In addition to practicing mindfulness while eating, standing and walking, we can bring this habit of being more focused into all aspects of our lives. Our social, family and intimate relationships can be enhanced through the practice of mindful observation. As we become less trapped by old habits of thought and behavior, we allow new possibilities for intimacy to open up. We are better able to sit with the emotions that before would have lead to an argument. Our exercise, recreation and sports activities are another area where the development of mindfulness can bear fruit. Professional sports teams such as the Chicago Bulls report significant benefits from this practice.
Whatever you decide will be your focus for deepening the skill of mindfulness, you will likely benefit from regular practice. And for practice to become regular, it helps if it's enjoyable and easy to do. Allow yourself to play with the ideas I offered here. If you allow your imagination a bit of space to run, you can come up with many activities in your life which can become "meditations." Perhaps simple tasks such as brushing your teeth, shaving, putting a key into a lock, moving through a doorway, reaching for the telephone, stopping at a traffic light can become "bells of mindfulness." These events remind you to turn your focus inward, relax a little bit and connect solidly with the breath. Watch the breath flow in and out if only for a moment. Many times a day bring yourself back to the present and watch the moments unfold. Let the thoughts and judgments about whatÕs happening drop away and move your mind into that state of peaceful, focused awareness. In this state of self observation, we have control over what the mind is doing with the many sensations and thoughts flowing through it. We can move from reactivity to responsiveness, from the confinement of our habits into the spaciousness of freedom and health.
I. Counting the IN and OUT breaths can deepen our concentration
especially when a rather challenging method is used. Such as:
with the first in breath, say silently to yourself "1," with the first out breath, say "2" then in 3, out 4, in 5, then back to out 1, in 2 ... up to 6, then up to 7, then up to 8, then up to 9, then up to 10, then back to 1 to 5 again ... continue until the mind is settled and focused. The process of will go like this:
12345 123456 1234567 12345678 123456789 12345678910 12345 ...
II. We can also use phrases with the IN and OUT breaths, if we prefer.
For example, say to yourself on alternating in and out breaths the following
which is taken from the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh:
"In" - "Out"
"Deep" - "Slow"
"Calm" - "Ease"
"Smile" - "Release"
"Pres" - "ent"
"Mo" - "ment"
"Wonder" - "ful"
"Mo" - "ment"
Here's a suggestion for preparing the mind for the process of mindful observation of eating. Please modify this any way that makes it more useful for you, create your own or use a favorite family blessing. We want to develop and deepen the habit of starting every meal with the intention to be mindful. We settle and quiet the mind and connect with the body that's about to be nourished. We turn inward so that we are present with the sensations arising in the body, not lost in thought or emotional reactivity. This meditation is adapted from the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh
Preparation for Eating Meditation
This food is the gift of the whole universe -
the earth, the sky and much hard work.
May we live in a way that is worthy of this food.
May we cultivate skillful states of mind, especially
those of love, compassion and generosity.
May we eat only to nourish the body in ways
that honor and preserve the earth.
May we accept this food for the realization
of the way of understanding and love.
You are sitting or standing comfortably with your eyes closed.
You are breathing comfortably through your nose.
Feel the sensation of your breath as it flows in and out of your nostrils at the tip of your nose. Some people feel the sensation more strongly within the nostrils, while others feel it more on the upper lip.
To help you locate where you feel the touch sensation of the breath most distinctly, inhale deeply and force the air out through your nostrils.Wherever you feel the sensation most clearly and precisely is the place to focus your attention for the balance of the meditation period. If you can't stay with this small target, shift to feeling the rise and fall of your abdomen or chest.
Feel the beginning, the middle, and the end of every in-breath, and the beginning, the middle, and the end of every out-breath and be present with the pauses in between.
Sometimes the breath will be short; there is no need to make it longer. Sometimes the breath will be long; there is no need to make it shorter. Sometimes the breath will be erratic; there is no need to make it even or smooth.
Just become aware of the breath as it goes in and out of the nostrils at the tip of the nose.
Let the breath breathe itself.
Every time your attention moves away from the breath and shifts to another physical sensation, sound, smell or thought, gently but firmly bring your attention back to the touch sensation of your breath. Do this over and over again, resisting the urge to judge or be critical of yourself. Be content to start over as many times as you need to. Each time you catch the awareness drifting is an opportunity to strengthen the skill of mindful observation, a time to strengthen your mental discipline. It is not a "bad" thing, it's just what the undisciplined mind does.
Continue practicing in this manner until the end of the time you set aside for this period of mindfulness practice.
(Modified from a teaching developed by Matthew Flickstein)