The mind is like a river, always moving. There are times when the current of thoughts is moving fast and bumping into obstacles, crashing and foaming, there are other times when thoughts are like an eddy, swirling in one place stuck circulating over the same area, and other times when the thoughts gently glide along in a peaceful way. Oftentimes we can get so consumed by our thoughts that we are in the river, floating away, all wet and removed from the present moment. Mindfulness is the equivalent of standing on the banks of the river and taking in the scenery, observing what is floating by and what is getting stuck, taking note of the surrounding features of the river: the geography, the plants, the creatures, simply noticing it without judgment or analysis. To apply the metaphor to your life, when you are observing the present moment you are observing your thoughts and your physical being: the emotions and bodily sensations, as well as your current surroundings: the people and events transpiring around you.
Mindfulness is the practice of observing the present moment without any judgment. Rather than worrying about the future or regretting the pain of the past, rather than focusing on things beyond one’s control, rather than wishing your life were something that its not, mindfulness is a freeing way of simply accepting “what is”. It is a simple concept but it can difficult to do, which is why it is called a practice. Mindfulness is a skill and like any skill it must be used consistently in order for it to be used comfortably, in other words you have to practice it and you will have days when it comes easily and days when you may struggle; even when you struggle if you observe and accept the struggle without judgment you are practicing mindfulness.
Keeping and returning your focus to the present moment can be done by tuning in to your physical presence. Turn (and return) your focus to your breath as it moves through your body: into your lungs filling and expanding is it enters, compressing and lowering as it leaves; your belly, ribs, and shoulder all actively move, while internally the blood carries the oxygen and energy of each breath down to your toes and your finger tips. Another way to use your physical presence to stay in the present moment is to feel the weight of your body as you sit or lay: start with your feet feeling them connected and sinking into the ground then move your focus up your body noticing the physical sensation as you slowly tune into each segment. One more way is to use the 5 senses: choosing objects and deliberately noticing the minute details of each thing that you see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.
Practicing non-judgment can be done by tuning into your thoughts and noticing the content of your thoughts. Be on the watch for thoughts that contain any sort of judgment: labeling, criticizing, evaluating, dismissing. When you notice a judgmental thought resist the urge to beat yourself up about it, along the lines of : “I should not be thinking that, I won’t ever think that again!”, because this is, of course, another judgment. Going back to the river metaphor you must simply notice the thought and let it float on by, rather than letting it get stuck and muddying up the waters. The more often you practice nonjudgment, the more often nonjudgmental thoughts will be passing through your mind. Focus on observing and letting go, observing and letting go, observing and letting go….
3 replies on “The Practice of Mindfulness”
Wow- did I really say that?! I’m still on the river, passed through ugly TB rapids; the unimaginable, rapturous spell-binding beauty of granddaughter canyon; the class 10 death-defying whitewater of stem cell transplant… all of which have led me to the soothing healing pool of “complete remission”. still outlasting the unwanted guest…
Love this response from Kathleen. She is sending me a message through time.
I love the metaphor of a river! I try to practice mindfulness in my trip down the river. I share my journey with an unwanted partner: cancer. Many people speak of fighting cancer but I don’t feel that impulse as much as I do outlasting a bad guest. Mindfulness can be not rocking the boat, keeping steady. The rapids will come in their own time, so to will the slow-drifting. Your article is one of the best- clear and inviting. Thanks!