Q: In your previous columns you have referred to terms like “mindfulness,” “sensing your body,” and “awareness.” I know generally what they mean, but don’t have a good grasp of them. You talk about them when someone needs help with understanding their feelings and issues. Can you explain more fully what you mean and especially how to practice these?
A: These terms can be nebulous and without some background are difficult to just practice. Mindfulness is a practice that is part of the Vipasana meditation tradition. This method originates out of India and has been developed and refined by Buddhists in various parts of Asia. It is designed to bring greater insight and is the central practice in the insight meditation tradition. It works by bringing greater awareness to one’s thoughts, feelings, and body experiences. Although it originated in a spiritual tradition, it is very psychological.
The easiest way to practice it is to sit comfortably in a quiet place. Close your eyes and bring awareness to the inflow and outflow of your breath. As your mind wanders, slowly guide it to return to focusing on your breath. This develops concentration and calmness. If practiced well and regularly, it can help create deep states of peace and stillness in oneself. After a few minutes of breathing you can switch to noticing the arising of thoughts and feelings.
When a thought arises in your mind don’t try to stop it, simply note it as “thinking.” At its own accord, the thought will subside. Then a feeling may arise, such as fear or frustration. Again, without trying to change the feeling to joy or calm, simply note it as “feeling.” Let the feeling come through as it wishes. But be aware of the process. When it settles, return to the flow of the breath. This is the formal practice, described very simply. It teaches a person several things: 1) to slow down and pay attention to one’s inner process; 2) to develop an observing self; 3) gain knowledge or insight into the mind and emotions; and 4) develop a more spacious mind.
Another aspect of this practice involves awareness of how the body is feeling. There is always some sensation occurring in the body: a pain, an itch, a tightness, a pull, a sound, tension, or release. Most of the time we try to ignore it and just keep going. In mindfulness work we try to pay greater attention to it. Why? Because it is another way to be present in our bodies, rather than always thinking or even spacing out. This awareness facilitates being present, grounded, and connected to ourselves. This is the beginning of knowing who we are and experiencing the truth of the moment. Some people find that pain and tension decrease as they really feel into them.
When we earnestly practice these methods, we get a mini-vacation—the mind and body slow down and we open up to the peace and pleasure locked in our being. It takes slowing down and simply being with our inner selves. On vacation we may have left our work and home, which is wonderful, but we haven’t left our minds and personalities. As they say, “Where you go, there you are.” When we learn to create more space between our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, we ourselves become more spacious and relaxed.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in Palo Alto and San Francisco. (650) 325-8393.