Monday, February 1, 2010

Mindful Monday

One of my favorite memories of my post-doctoral training was our weekly mindfulness exercise. Every Thursday afternoon during the consultation team meeting the first ten minutes would be spent doing some sort of interesting activity. Some exercises were silly (mindfully feed each other orange juice) while others were horrible (read graphic deceptions of awful stuff and be mindful of our reactions without actually reacting). The one that I looked  most forward to was one that we often did in the autumn or spring. We would go outside and mindfully walk while being aware of things that represented both seasons (snow and a plant with buds, green leaves on a tree with another changing colors). This was especially nice since the offices were all in a windowless basement. I relished having the opportunity to get outside.

What's mindfulness? There are a variety of definitions. The simplest, and my personal favorite, comes from John Kabat-Zinn. He writes that  "mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. That's all. Nothing more, nothing less. You can make mindfulness into an elaborate practice (there are many systematic forms of meditation that do this) or can make it into something very simple (though, once you try, you'll find how deceptively simple it is to just pay attention, without judgement, to what you are experiencing in the moment).

What's so good about mindfulness? It teaches us to pay attention to what is--what is right in front of us and what is happening in the moment. Practicing mindfulness frees us from becoming entangled in a mass of thoughts about what already happened (the past) and worries about what might happen (the future). In doing this practice, you can learn the counters of how you think, how you get in your own way, and how the very nature of your thoughts can cause needless suffering. Though this practice you can learn to distinguish observations from judgments, the transitory nature of feelings, and how to experience the present moment in all of its fullness.

Today is the first day of February. I'm in New England. There isn't a whole lot of examples a season other than winter. While I was walking Maggie today I got interested in areas where there was both lightness and dark. She and I searched out these contrasts and I captured some of the images with my mobile phone. That became my mindfulness activity. Each time I noticed my mind thinking about something else (which was frequent, between my own distractions and those that Maggie provided) I gently turned my mind away from the thought and returned to looking for areas that were both light and dark.

Try it out yourself. Go for a walk today and be aware of what you see. Where do you see the contrast between lightness and dark. Can you be aware of your thoughts when you are walking? When you start thinking of other things--your grocery list, what's for lunch, whether there is going to be traffic, etc.--gently turn your mind away from those thoughts and return to your quest for finding examples of both lightness and dark. Can you do the same with your thoughts? Can you see both lightness and dark in what you are thinking?

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