What Is Mindfulness—

There are certainly many different ways to define what Mindfulness is, here are two of my favorites from teachers that have most influenced my path.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is an American professor emeritus of medicine and the creator of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, and the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program.  He says, “Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Tara Brach, American psychologist, author and meditation teacher says, “Mindfulness is a way of paying attention moment-to-moment to what’s happening within and around us without judgment.”

My preferred way to define something is the way in which it is alive in my own life.  My relationship with Mindfulness has been, like all relationships, one that is continually evolving.  I first began the practice of sitting with my breath, in relative stillness, listening to prompts to relax the body, and stay in the present moment, about 20 years ago.  At that time what I was learning was referred to as guided imagery and I was interested because I was trying to do something besides pop pain pills for the chronic physical pain I’d been living with for years.

My very first sessions, listening to audio recordings, were profound experiences, as I felt my pain levels decrease through my whole body.  Right away I felt certain I was onto something.  Perhaps a much better way forward coping with my debilitating pain.

Some months later I deepened my learning by attending a talk at a local yoga community on Meditation.  While the discussion focused on terms like, acceptance, loving-kindness, and awareness, all of which were new to me in this context, I decided to come to the monthly practices to see what it was all about. I was ready for more, beyond what my single track recording could offer me, and I wondered if being around others who were also curious, would be a support. It was after all the pre-Zoom era!

Real Life Benefits of Mindfulness Practice—

Mind-Body Relationship-

After several months, practicing both in the monthly group and on my own, I was continuing to recognize I could impact the pain in my body by focusing on my breath.  Here I experienced a clear link from my body’s pain to mental or emotional pain and vice versa.  Beyond the pain itself, I was also beginning to put together the larger “a-ha,” which was that my body and mind were intrinsically linked.  In a rhythm and relationship that I had never been aware of before.  When I would sit in the chair, close my eyes and follow the teachers guidance to bring my attention to my breath, to sensations in my body, and to my thoughts, just as they were— the end result was a deep sense of calm, and connectedness, not just as an emotional feeling but also in my bones and flesh.  This new experience was mind-blowing, as someone who on a daily basis fought with pain, depression and disordered eating.

Non-Judgment & Acceptance-

Let me pause here to say, it wasn’t simply show up, sit on a cushion, breath in the incense and find peace. It often felt like hard work!  Like learning to swim, play the piano or speak a foreign language— or virtually anything else one is new at.  The practice in and of itself has little to rebel against, with its straight forward, simple prompts, and no requirements for equipment or financial investments.

However, in a culture where we are ALWAYS, GO- GO- GO and DO- DO- DO, I often felt like I was failing.  Like maybe my busy, critical mind, that would never shut-up, was unusual.  It was during one of these community talks that I learned absolutely everybody feels this way, and it’s normal! This news was a relief indeed.

Turns out the point wasn’t to expect anything of myself or criticize my ability to find some stillness or peace, or anything else I desired in that moment, but to train the mind to observe what was happening—not to judge it. It was this non judgment and acceptance; of my inner dialogue, the sensations of pain in my body, the sounds around me, and absolutely anything else that was in my present moment experience, that WAS THE POINT.

So I had to practice letting go of my universal desire to succeed or change myself in some way.  I was beginning to see that I wasn’t doing this practice to get rid of my pain, but to learn to turn towards it, to feel it and not run away.  It was just this ‘not running from pain’ practice that I began trusting was the way to embrace my life more fully.

A Compassionate Heart-

I can’t be certain at what point I began to feel the stirrings of my heart opening, but it did happen.  I didn’t even know it was closed, or cut-off, but what we don’t know, we just don’t know!  The turning towards practice of Mindfulness naturally cultivated a softening around all things that I had been resistant to feel or face previously.  Things from the past, the present, and worries of the future. And it was just this soft opening, over time, that began to show me the path to my own heart.  A place of kindness, understanding, compassion, and love.  A place that could hold all the pains in my life and not be demolished.

Stress Redefined-

Mindfulness also brought a whole new relationship to the word and the experience of stress in my life.  Stress like pain, in all its shapes and sizes, is an undeniable part of the human experience.  I used to think stress happened to me, but now I am aware that it is my response to events in life that matter.  Because the hard stuff will always keep showing up, and the mindfulness gift has been understanding that it’s the way I react or respond to any of life’s stressors, that is key, and this choice is ALWAYS MINE!

Habit Change, Life Change-

When things got hard I used to binge.  Food and alcohol were my favorite “run & numb” drugs of choice.  But now, no more.  Mindfulness, in combination with many other healing modalities, including counseling, has brought me to a place where I no longer need to habitually drink, eat, or exercise my way through a hard day, job, relationship, or moment.  And no this doesn’t make me or anyone else who practices mindfulness better than anyone else.  It simply means there is a skill here that we can ALL learn that can broaden our perspective —on just about everything in our lives.

Life is still hard, grief still happens, the shit still hits the fan, people we love screw up and we get hurt.  Mindfulness does not protect us in a bubble where “everything’s cool.” The practice provides an opportunity for us to sharpen the tool of mental and physical awareness so that we can ride the waves of pain and stress in our lives with greater and greater ease and well-being.  Because as Tara Brach likes to say, even in moments of pain and darkness we can always find our true refuge within.

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