Mindfulness: A Foundation for Personal Transformation

June 20th, 2014 by

More and more people want to know about mindfulness as the scientific evidence for its benefits grows stronger. Mindfulness is a process of bringing attention to moment-by-moment experience. It’s a combination of “the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance toward one’s experiences.” Through a regular mindfulness meditation practice, the mind gradually becomes quiet and shifts away from the thinking process into a state of restful awareness. Over time you can begin to shift from “automatic pilot” to present moment awareness during whatever you may be doing or experiencing. Mindfulness during your daily activities leads to an expanded perspective and understanding of oneself. As you practice, you’ll begin to observe thoughts and feelings with the same quality you observe any sensory experience, without habitually reacting to them, as many of us do. As we know, most of us spend our lives not present and habitually reactive! This is important because the mind tends to take on the qualities of the things we (habitually) pay attention to. One of my teachers describes this phenomenon by saying, “we are always practicing something,” and “whatever we practice we get good at.” For example, if we habitually rehash things that make us angry, we unconsciously get very good at being angry and unhappy. If we unconsciously pay attention and react to worrisome thoughts, we become very, very good worriers.  However, if we intentionally cultivate the quality of patience (as we do toward the fluctuating nature of our own mind in mindfulness practice) we get good at being patient with ourselves and others. If we practice cultivating qualities of non-judgment and kindness (especially toward ourselves) we become kind and less judgmental. By learning and practicing being “present” in the  “moment” (rather than on “automatic pilot”) we can wisely influence what unfolds in this moment, and the next, and thus the rest of our lives.  This is a foundation for transformation and the development of our human potential.

Scientific research demonstrates the numerous health and quality of life benefits associated with having a personal mindfulness practice: less stress, reduced anxiety, improved sleep, benefits for people with high blood pressure, chronic pain, diabetes, fibromyalgia, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and depression. But mindfulness doesn’t stop there. Regular practice can also propel you on a journey of personal growth and transformation. In my work with people who come to study mindfulness to reduce stress, as well as in my own life, I’ve seen how a difficult life situation, even what some might call a physical or emotional “breakdown”, typically signals a transformation – the emergence of something new.  For example, several years ago my own cancer, insomnia, unhealthy weight loss, chronic pain, anxiety and depression signaled the serious need for change in my life. There were things I needed to pay attention to, feel, and release to make room for the new me that was emerging. It was only through a regular meditation practice that I came to understand the underlying origins of my physical and emotional stress. It was a time for undeniable truth with myself. This was a difficult but healing process. By practicing being open to my inner turmoil with compassion, without judging it as good or bad, but simply the truth that was emerging through me at the time, and allowing that pain to be fully felt, I discovered I already had everything I needed – inside –  to face the scary monster within. The anxiety, depression, insomnia, and chronic pain were telling me to look within and to pay attention. The emotions at the root of these symptoms were demanding to be known and felt. Only then did these symptoms and emotions stop running my life. In their place came spaciousness and the possibility for something new to enter. This is transformation and it’s available to you too!  Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a course in which you’ll learn how to practice mindfulness skills and make them a natural part of your life. You’ll begin to respond rather than react to the difficulties of life. This new way of being opens you to the possibility of transformation.

Paying attention to the breath is one of the primary ways to draw the mind back into the present when you notice you’re running on automatic pilot or habitual thinking and behavior.  Try associating several objects you encounter in your everyday life with mindfulness. Make them “mindfulness reminders”.  One of my reminders is the emblem on the steering wheel of my car. When I notice it as I’m driving, I take a few conscious breaths and shift from thinking to being. I note the sensations in my body, sense into the experience of moving through space, and look at the sky and surroundings. Identify several mindfulness reminders in your home and office. Try to make this a new habit and notice how it makes you feel.

Mindful Eating and Self Compassion

June 6th, 2014 by

Mindful eating is as common a practice at many monasteries, meditation retreats, and Zen centers as walking or sitting meditation. Like the more formal mindfulness meditations, mindful eating is a practice of presence, noticing sensations, and observing one’s surroundings. In the monastic setting, practitioners enter dining halls silently, bow to their food to acknowledge the farmers who grew it and the chefs who prepared it, then eat slowly and silently, bringing awareness to each mouthful of food. While we may not have the luxury to eat every meal in silence, we can incorporate some simple mindfulness practices into mealtime and move a more enjoyable relationship with food and more compassionate relationship with ourselves.

Many of us have made it a practice to inhale our breakfast in the car on the way to work or distractedly eat dinner standing up while watching the news. Our attempts at a better relationship with food usually involve strict, unpleasant dieting that feels more like punishment than health. Contrary to dieting, eating mindfully is not about restriction but about listening to our bodies, cultivating awareness of the present moment, and appreciating our meals. For those of us who eat as a stress release or coping mechanism, the practice of mindful eating provides us with the opportunity to face the normally unconscious, uncomfortable feelings that drive us to eat when we do not need or want to eat. We discover that what we are truly hungering for is not food, but a way to satisfy some other kind of hunger: emotional hunger, for example. The reason we are typically unsatisfied after eating and seem to experience endless hunger is that we have not given ourselves the opportunity to fully taste and enjoy our meals, have not made ourselves available to the body’s cues of satisfaction or hunger, and most importantly have not addressed the discomfort that we are compelled to suppress by eating. Instead of ignoring our feelings, punishing our bodies, and squelching the opportunity to enjoy our meals multiple times a day, we can bring awareness and healing to the experience of eating.

By practicing mindful eating, we do not need to binge because we are choosing to consciously address our feelings instead of stuffing them down with food. We no longer need to diet because by fine-tuning our relationship with the body and mind we automatically make healthier choices. Slowing down to fully experience our meals also invites us to become aware of the beauty and richness of the food we eat, where it comes from, and the time and care it takes to grow, harvest, transport, and prepare before it reaches our mouths. We bring awareness to our connectedness to the earth, the plants, animals, and people, and we can abide in our open-heartedness towards all of life, including ourselves.

Simple Mindful Eating Practices to Incorporate Each Day

  1. Sit, Breathe, Eat
    As much as possible, get in the habit of sitting down to eat. When you sit, feel the weight of your body on the chair. Check in with yourself: what sensations are happening in the body? Before lifting your fork, take several deep breaths. Notice the feeling of the breath entering and leaving your body. Say a little blessing or grace before beginning your meal; thank the earth and elements, the farmers that grew your food, and yourself for taking the time to nourish your body and spirit.
  2. Chew Your Food
    It’s incredible how quickly we can gulp down food after hardly chewing. As difficult as it may be at first, commit to taking one bite at a time putting down your fork in between bites, and fully chewing your food. Doing this will allow you to fully taste and enjoy your food and will also give your body time to cue your brain that it’s time to stop when you are full.
  3. Eat Until You are Satisfied
    Even if you do not do this with every meal, as a practice once daily commit to eating only until you feel moderately (or two-thirds) full. What happens when you do this? Notice the feelings that arise when you stop yourself from automatically reaching for another mouthful of food. Observe how your body feels five, twenty, sixty minutes after this practice.

photo credit Andy Newson via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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