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The Art of Mindfulness


The Art of Mindfulness

How to live in the present – and change your world for the better.

We spend so much of our life doing things without actually paying attention. How often have you driven somewhere and not noticed the area you’re driving through? Or bumped into something and reprimanded yourself for being clumsy? Or been so busy making plan A, plan B and plan C that you lose sight of the joy in the now?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts and credited as being the ‘father’ of mindfulness, describes it as ‘much ado about almost nothing’.

‘All of us want to live more fully, more happily and more meaningfully,’ says Dr Simon Whitesman, chairman of the Institute for Mindfulness South Africa, ‘but if we’re lost in thought and are reactive and perennially running after something in the future, then becoming vivid in one’s experience is virtually impossible.’ Finding joy in the little things sounds simple in principle, but in our fast-paced, success-driven world, it requires focus. It requires a little bit of that discipline we use to schedule our lives as much as we do – to simply take a moment to breathe and be truly in the present without judgement or expectation.

‘Developing mindfulness is like developing fitness,’ says Dr Whitesman, ‘we need to put in the effort to develop the muscle.’ But we know how to do it, instinctively:

‘We all have moments of mindfulness even though we might not call it as such,’ he says. ‘We are all, at times, more present.’

Think about it. When last did you enjoy a moment of deep attention? How about when you watched a Highveld sunset or when you walked underneath that frangipani tree and really smelt it? ‘Deeper levels of attention [occur] at times or in spaces of great beauty, poignance (such as at the birth of a child) or times of heightened vigilance or danger.’

When people who are victims of crime report having been ‘unusually calm’ or ‘rational’ during the incident, this may be an unusual, but self-protective, sign of mindfulness.

With the global economic climate wreaking havoc on us, Dr Whitesman believes that there’s never been a better time for us to learn to be more mindful – within ourselves, but also of each other. ‘The fundamental principles of cultivating awareness, kindness and non-judgement will deepen our connection to ourselves… The deeper you connect to yourself, the less selfish you become.’

Mindfulness also allows you the time and space to understand and connect with others more. It’s a good, good thing.

How to Do It

‘One of the guiding principles of teaching and practising mindfulness is to develop what we call embodied awareness, so you’re not out of yourself, you’re in yourself,’ says Dr Whitesman. So instead of being lost in thought, we need to tap into the sensations, feelings, emotions and – most importantly – the intuition we are feeling in the present.

Start at a red traffic light – or while standing a queue, he says. Stop and take a conscious breath, recognise your breathing, become aware of your body, how you are standing and where your breath is coming from. ‘Or when you’re with your children, really listen deeply to them,’ he says. Make eye contact, and be there with them without expectation or intention. ‘While eating a mouthful of food, slow down, bring attention to the sensations of tasting, texture, aroma. Reel your mind back in as it gets into its usual pattern of discursive thought and commentary, and come back to the sensory experience,’ he adds.

One of the most effective techniques for cultivating mindfulness is meditation. ‘It’s a form of mind training in which we … reorientate attention to the here and now, using various “doorways”…’ adds Dr Whitesman. These include paying attention to breathing, bodily sensations and sounds. The more you meditate, the more disciplined your mind becomes in the moment.

Dr Whitesman’s pointers to meditation – anywhere, anytime…

When you meditate, the carriage of your body should be dignified and awake – sit comfortably with your back straight.

• Become aware that you are already breathing.

• Notice where you feel the breath in the body; in the nostrils, in the movement of the chest or in the belly, and pay attention to the simple feeling of breath.

• When you notice your attention is no longer on the breath, choose to return your attention of feeling your breathing without reprimanding yourself.

• Practice this a few billion times, wherever and whenever you can.

Lisa Baxter – business system manager

‘At the end of 2001 I found myself with three toddlers under the age of two, a demanding IT career and a husband who was establishing a new business. On returning home each day I was met with screaming children and felt anxious, tired and overwhelmed.

‘Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go, There You Are introduced me to mindfulness. It presented the concept of living a life “awake” rather than “asleep”. Being mindful has been integral in helping me deal with the “busyness” of life. It’s all too easy to become overwhelmed with what we have to do daily, and we forget that sometimes we only have to be. I don’t get it right all of the time, but it helps to continually ask myself: “am I here?”.

‘Being mindful has made me realise that the only important moment is the present one.

‘It has also helped me listen to my children more intentionally. Previously I found myself thinking of all my daily chores while hugging them goodbye at school. Now I try to concentrate on just hugging them. If I really listen to my children, they tell me when I am out of balance. They also know when they do not have my full attention. Children can really be our best indicators of when we are not being mindful.’

Pam Bishop – therapist and mindfulness advocate

‘South Africa is a very busy society: we’re always planning and filling in our time. If we are not planning our holidays, businesses and the future, then we’re planning how we’re going to act.

‘Being mindful brings us into the present. Generally, our behaviour is a reaction. When we are present we start to watch all these conditioned reactions coming up. It takes a while, but being mindful can help us actually see an emotion bubbling up and recognise it so we can do something about it. Anger is a good example. Each time that anger comes up, you give it less energy because you realise that it’s coming from something in the past, and not in the now.

‘If I catch myself not being mindful – I may have slipped down some stairs, lost my keys – and I think “hey, be mindful” and for the next two minutes I am. It takes discipline, and as we always say, “it’s not just on your mat”. We think we go to a yoga class and we do our hour and then it’s done. But if you’re mindful all the time, your life can change amazingly.’

Val Aronson – jeweler store owner

‘Four years ago I became very ill, and nobody could find the root of what was going on in my body. The pain I experienced was phenomenal and I worked out that it was linked to my menstrual cycle. It got to the stage where I could predict my life: I would ovulate, and then for 10 days after that I would be ill, even hospitalised. I had a hysterectomy last year. People said, “you should have had it in the beginning”, but I don’t believe the medical healing could have taken place without the emotional healing. I think 80% of my illness was caused by a total disconnection between my mind and my body. It was being destroyed from within because of the abuse and trauma I’d suffered in childhood, which only came out in therapy. I came out of hospital weighing only 43kg. Everyone was convinced I was anorexic.

‘Now I weigh 59kg and I’m as healthy as can be. I used to be the type of person who could never say “no”, but now I’m aware of how much I can do and that refusing to take on too much is not selfish, it’s being kind to yourself.

‘Mindfulness changed the way I looked at my life and the way I lived it. It taught me to accept what is going on now. I am much more in touch with my body, and it has become my most amazing ally. I can feel when I need to slow down and take some time out to just breathe, pause and be.’

For more information on mindfulness courses and reading, go to www.mindfulnesas.org.za or www.mbsr.co.za.

FAIRLADY December 2008

Practicing mindfulness has been discovery of an inner security blanket - only sometimes accessible but always there... a consequence of stopping, experiencing the prickle of adrenalin, choosing a different response. Life is richer, not easier.
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