Mindfulness. It’s a buzzword being thrown around a lot these days – and for good reason. The practice of mindfulness meditation, which is basically living in the present moment without judgment, has been shown to be beneficial in reducing stress and anxiety, decreasing depression, and learning to treat yourself and others more compassionately. While there have been multiple studies on the benefits of meditation and mindful practice (and one day I shall blog about it), I want to speak to my personal experience and offer a few guidelines to get you started.
I am terrified of bees, wasps, and hornets. Actually, if it has a stinger I probably don’t like it. Remember that detail – it will mean something in a few minutes. Several years ago a good friend who is also an MD introduced me to mindfulness and meditation. They both go hand in hand; meditation is often done sitting or walking while focusing on the breath, while mindfulness is bringing yourself into a non-judgmental awareness of the present. My friend taught me to find a busy object such as a quilt or something with a pattern and just look deep into it. He asked me to look at it for what it was without judgment. How many colors? How many more colors? How many textures? Other details about the object? My friend told me to do that anytime I was experiencing anxiety or depression. I did not fully realize the benefits of it until I tried it one summer at the zoo.
The Mindful Picnic
Now back to the wasps and hornets. It was my 30th birthday and my friends and their kids took me to the zoo (why they picked the outdoor activity for this ginger’s birthday is beyond me but I do love me some reptile house and the penguin stinkquarium). At lunchtime we found ourselves a couple of picnic tables and I was enlisted to help make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their kids. Seriously y’all, the amount of bees and wasps swarming the moment I opened the jelly jar was epic. I mean Alfred Hitchcock could have recorded it and made millions. My first thought was to ditch my friends and spend my 30th in an air-conditioned bookstore or coffee shop. My second thought was they drove me and I didn’t have their keys so I could not easily make an escape. So I went with my third thought – attempt the mindfulness. I stepped away from the picnic tables for a few moments to get away from the buzzing, sharp-butted feeding frenzy of wasps, bees, and hornets and concentrated on my breath. Breathing in, I reminded myself of the following things: 1. The insects are interested in the food, not me, in this moment. 2. If I move slowly and unthreateningly, I most likely will not be stung. 3. If they swarm and I slowly set the utensils down they will swarm them instead of me. I stepped back over, and began breathing in through my nose and out through my nose. Slowly I walked back over to the jars. I picked up a new knife and put the peanut butter on the bread. I then picked up a new spoon and very carefully inserted it into the jelly jar. My hand was swarmed, but I kept breathing. I could feel the tickle of wasps and bees landing on me, but I kept breathing. Slowly I removed the spoon and carefully dropped the jelly on the sandwich and set the spoon down. I kept breathing while I repeated the process with two more sandwiches. After the last sandwich I carefully sent the utensils at a different table to divert some of the insects and carefully closed the jars. I then stepped away from the tables to breathe. It was then that I began shaking slightly as I processed what had just occurred but I was proud of myself. So were my friends.
Being Mindful vs. Missing Out
This practice has helped me in other ways. We live in a world where we constantly need to be gratified, to the point where we get angry and anxious when something takes longer than seconds to load on our phones. We are constantly moving and doing, and I see more and more people not taking a moment to breathe or simply be in the present moment. I have seen people miss key points of concerts while fumbling with their phones to get the perfect pic or ten second video of the singer. And many of us find ourselves restless and unable to sleep. I have tried to counteract that through meditation and mindfulness practice and I have found it has helped me to face fears, work through depression and anxiety, and treat myself and others with compassion. I would like to share some methods of practice with you. Please enjoy.
Sitting Meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh in Chanting From the Heart says, “Sitting meditation is a way of returning home to give full attention and care to ourselves.” At the Plum Village monastery they practice sitting meditation often. It is recommended to sit in a position comfortable to you, whether it is on the floor, on a cushion, or in a chair. Sometimes I lay down on the floor with a pillow under by knees. If possible, breathe in through the nostrils, noticing the feeling of the air as it enters and the sensation of the air expanding the abdomen. Upon exhaling notice your abdomen returning to its original position. If you find your mind wandering, gently bring your awareness back to the breath without judgment. If you are like me and you have a music degree and constantly get some song stuck in your head, keep breathing and let the song play. But your goal in any case is simply to enjoy sitting.
Walking Meditation. I particularly love walking meditation. It can be done indoors or outdoors and is great for ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder) when sitting is too difficult. Thich Nhat Hahn says, “Walking meditation indoors or outdoors is a very precious practice. Walking meditation means that we know we are walking. We walk just for walking, no longer in a hurry.” This practice begins with breathing, while walking in a slow, meaningful way with your head upright and a light smile on the lips. As you take one step, breathe in, and on the other step, breathe out. I like to visualize drawing my breath from the ground with one step and sending the air back to the ground with the next step. While outdoors, it is good to take notice of the sounds and stop to appreciate those sounds, sights, and smells around you. Some people carry a bag to pick up trash as they go to add a compassionate element to their walk and contribute to the environment.
Mindful Bathing. While in the shower (not getting saucy here, I promise), stand in the shower with your chest facing the down flow of water. Start with warm, hot, or cold water and close your eyes. Notice the water. If you are using warm or hot water, notice where on your body the water touches it and where on your body it feels cold because of the lack of water. Notice the feel of water as it hits your skin and see if you can mindfully isolate feeling individual drops on various parts of your skin. What else do you notice? The first time I practiced mindfulness in the shower I was delighted to notice (for the first time ever) the tiniest of drops splash against my face. Sure, I had probably felt it thousands of times in my life, but this was the first time I actually noticed it.
Music Appreciation. Having a BA in music has helped me cultivate my own fun activities in mindfulness. One of the activities is music listening and appreciation. Start with a standard famous work like Beethoven’s Ninth (do not start with the Ninth if you are A Clockwork Orange fan – it will take you to dark places) or a Mozart symphony. Grab a pen and paper to take notes from time to time. Begin with the instruments. How many can you identify? Even if you cannot identify them by name, take a mental note of their sound and any detail that comes to mind. Ask yourself what kinds of emotions or feelings are evoked by the music. Maybe it tells a story. Maybe it reminds you of a time in your life. Does it make you want to move, dance, laugh, or cry? Does it make you feel sad or dark? Don’t judge these feelings or thoughts as good or bad, just notice them.
These practices can be done almost anywhere at any time. When I used to be in the restaurant service I would take a moment after the lunch or dinner rush to use the restroom. It was then I would spend a couple of minutes breathing deeply (not the most nostril-friendly place to breathe deeply through the nose but it was better than nothing if it helps one’s mental health) and it would help me mentally prepare for all the prep and cleaning to be done. I urge you to take a look around your home and spot objects that could help you in your practice. The same goes for the office, church, and any other places you frequent. Look around at your surroundings. Not only will you find things to contribute to your mindfulness/meditation practice, but you may be delighted by the discovery of things you never realized were there.
I will leave you with a common phrase often used by people who practice meditation and mindfulness, “Don’t just do something, sit there!”
-By Annen Weber, LLPC