Written by Andrea Neal, PhD
Sometimes it can be helpful to go back to the basics. Mindfulness is a term that one hears and sees a lot these days, but we here at Mountain Air Mindfulness often get questions or hear misconceptions about what IS mindfulness. So, as Julie Andrews as Maria Von Trappe sang in The Sound of Music, “Let’s start from the very beginning, a very good place to start…”
Our favorite definition of mindfulness is from Jon Kabat-Zinn, who describes mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, one-mindfully, and non-judgmentally.”
That sounds lovely, but how do you DO that? The most common practice, which comes from ancient Eastern traditions, is to sit in a still and quiet manner and observe your breath.
“Observe your breath” means to direct your attention to the physical sensations in your body of each in-breath and out-breath.
Do this for just one breath right now:
- Notice the sensation of the air entering your body, whether through your nose or your mouth.
- Observe the sensations of your chest expanding as the oxygen enters
- Notice the rise and fall of your belly as your diaphragm contracts.
- Following the out-breath, notice the sensations of your belly falling, your lungs expelling, and the carbon dioxide leaving your body through your nose and mouth.
OK, were you paying attention “in a particular way”? Check! This is not how you typically experience your breath, right?!
Was this “on purpose”? Check! In this exercise, you were deliberate and intentional in your actions of observing your breath. Often our breathing is out of our awareness completely, and when we do notice it, it might be in those moments when we notice that we are breathing in a shallow, short, choppy way.
Was it “one-mindfully”? Well, yes, it was one-mindful if you tried to bring all your attention to your breath, and didn’t do this while driving or talking to someone or planning your day tomorrow.
And “non-judgmentally”? That is a skill that takes effort and practice to cultivate. So give yourself a break if you spent half the time criticizing yourself (“I’m so bad at this, what’s wrong with me?”) or maybe criticizing me (“what is she talking about, does she know what she is doing?!”). You can gently label the thought, “OK, there’s a judgment” and then bring your attention back to your breath. This is a skill that takes time to develop!
This exercise can be very difficult to do, particularly for beginners (or immediately after an unexpected, tragic break-up, but that is a different story….). It can feel EXTREMELY uncomfortable – you might feel restless and fidgety, or have very painful thoughts that pop into your head, or start to feel anxious when paying attention to your breath.
So you might try something else.
As I write this, I am sitting at the window seat of my favorite neighborhood coffee shop with people and dogs walking by, an evergreen tree standing tall behind the shop across the street, and a patch of blue sky showing the promise of summer. One mindfulness practice involves observing what you see around you, and this can be easier than mindfulness of breath for some people or in some situations (e.g. tragic break-up). Sometimes shifting your attention to things that are outside of you rather than to things within you is a much easier practice.
In my current moment, observing what I see is different from the typical “people-watching” which can involve a lot of judgment: “Why did they leave that miserable dog outside? Cruel!” “Those shoes are fantastic!”. People-watching is not necessary one-mindful: “Oh, that guy looks like my plummer, which reminds me that I need to call him about that bathroom remodel. Let’s see, what am I going to do about that remodel? Should I put in new tile?”
So, take this moment to intentionally, non-judgmentally, observe what is in front of you without doing anything else for this one moment. Notice colors, shapes, movement, without labeling things. Try to experience what you see as directly as possible, without putting words, meaning or preferences onto them.
Of course, the moment I chose to do this, there were no cute dogs walking by or silly small children or really any people at all. There were cars and shops, and trees, and mostly clouds. Aah, the judgments come in so quickly: “This is so boring?! Why was it that NOTHING happened the moment I started this exercise? Typical!”
It is hard to just notice something (whether it is gray skies or intense sadness) and not want it to be different. Yet that is mindfulness practice, to pay attention to something, and to try to let go of wanting it to be different.