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Here and now
By Nikki Davies, Entertainement News, May 1, 2005
If you're spending your life living in the past or waiting for tomorrow, wake up and smell the roses. Not sure how? Aspects of the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness can help you live in the moment.
Sydney, Australia -- As I sit here writing this I am trying to be mindful. I'm noticing the feel of the computer keys beneath my fingertips and the way my foot is going numb.
The radio is playing, there's a truck going by outside and I'm starting to feel a little peckish. All of these observations drift across my mind to tell me where I am, and they are, in their own way, quite settling.
This is mindfulness, and it's all about being aware of each moment, about not judging what is happening, but simply "being there". It's a way of getting more out of life while at the same time reducing stress. When practised correctly, it's like an out of body experience where your senses are heightened but your reactions are controlled - I can hear the dog barking in the middle of the night but I don't feel the urge to kill it.
Experiencing life fully is something most of us don't really do. Instead, we get though each day by ignoring the boring bits, reacting and railing against the bad bits, while clinging to the good stuff to remind ourselves that we can be happy. In doing this though, we become too busy and distracted to take in the finer details of what is going on around us and what is happening to us. We think about tomorrow or we remember the mistakes of the past and miss out on much of what is happening right now.
Coming from the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness is now being incorporated into mainstream practice associated with cognitive therapy (teaching you how to change your thinking patterns). Developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a US-based researcher, it allows patients to deal with chronic pain, anxiety, stress, depression and illness by taking charge of the direction and quality of their lives. Author of several books on the topic, Kabat-Zinn sees mindfulness as the opposite of taking life for granted.
Mindfulness, says psychologist and mindfulness trainer Timothea Goddard from Openground Training and Consulting, is about "bringing our awareness to all states we find ourselves in". Whether it be joy or sadness, embarrassment, pleasure, back pain, contempt, a headache or heartbreak, it is all about living each and every moment.
There are many things in this world that are sent to try us: the neighbour's dog, the bad drivers you encounter on the way to work, the long queues at the supermarket or your bank's lack of service. Petty little triggers that annoy and frustrate us can become bigger than they should be because we respond to them in ways that are really overreactions. They generate our neck pain and headaches, they anger us so we pick fights or snap at our friends and families. They generally put us in a bad mood that lingers long after the event has passed.
According to Goddard, this is a state called hyper-arousal, and it's characterised by muscle tension and strong emotions. Mindfulness works by taking the edge off this tension, placing us in a calmer, more grounded space. "It builds the capacity to accept, tolerate and transform our painful mind and body states without reacting too intensely to them," she says.
Living in the moment allows us to detach ourselves from our usual emotive responses - athletes call it being in the zone - that state of mind where you narrow your focus to what is happening now. This frees you from overreacting and over-thinking, it reduces stress levels and produces a calm, prepared-for-anything state. It also heightens sensory awareness and allows you to truly see and experience what and who is coming and going in your life. "If we are not fully present, you may not only miss what is most valuable in your life but also fail to realise the richness and depth of your possibilities," explains Kabat-Zinn in his book Wherever You Go There You Are (Hodder Headline Australia).
Mindfulness, though, is not about passivity. It doesn't mean that we abdicate responsibility or control over our lives, or that we don't act to save ourselves or others, says Goddard. "Some people worry that if they practise acceptance and letting go that they are not acting powerfully to change situations in their lives that need changing. That meditation is somehow a withdrawal from the real world."
In reality, our actions become more authentic, more true to the situation. Mindfulness allows us to accept what is happening and react appropriately rather than letting our thoughts catastrophise what is going on, a process that often leads to stress, anxiety and even depression.
Breathing is an integral part of mindfulness and it's the quickest and easiest way to calm yourself and slow down. Proper breathing happens in the belly. Sit down on the floor or on a cushion with your back straight but not rigid. Place your hands on your knees or in your lap, shoulders relaxed. Close your eyes and concentrate on each breath, noticing how your stomach extends with each inhalation and deflates with each exhalation. Focus on your breathing and keep your mind on the sensation of each breath.
As well as breathing, we need to also become aware of our bodies and our surroundings and this means using all of our senses so that we experience "being" rather than just "doing".
We are most familiar with the "doing mode", says Goddard. "It involves all the activity and thinking and working things out, making decisions, taking action and so on. But living only in the doing mode can feel unsatisfactory unless we also cultivate in our lives the 'being mode'." It's about letting go of the habitual responses that tie us up in knots.
Try this. Lie on your back in a quiet place with your hands by your sides, palms up. The idea is to become aware of your body and surroundings rather than to create a feeling. What do you feel? Is there any tension in your body? What are the sounds and smells around you? Is the air cool or warm? Is there a breeze? Now scan the body from your toes up to see how you feel, don't judge it, just feel it and move on.
Bringing mindfulness to daily life takes practice but is ultimately rewarding. Using your senses to fully experience each moment allows you to actually be present in ways you may not have been before. Goddard uses examples of daily tasks such as showering. Stop mentally making your shopping list while you're shaving your legs, or planning what you have to do tomorrow while you're washing your hair. Instead, feel the texture and fragrance of the new bath wash you bought, pay attention to the way the water feels across your skin. And if the air is cold when you step out, simply feel it.
Lap up every moment and live. "When we commit ourselves to paying attention in an open way without falling prey to our own likes and dislikes, opinions and expectations, new possibilities open up," writes Kabat-Zinn.
Openground Learning run courses on mindfulness. For more information see www.openground.com.au