Teaching mindfulness to beginners for many years, I’ve learned that people tend to focus on certain aspects of the teaching and forget or have a harder time grasping others. Specifically, people focus on the “being present” part of mindfulness but quickly forget both the intention and the heart qualities of kindness, compassion, and nonjudgment that are necessary for the practice to be most helpful.
The most widely cited definition of mindfulness is by Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program. He said mindfulness is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” This definition gives us three characteristics of mindfulness—namely intention, attention, and attitude. In order to practice mindfulness, it is helpful to (a) set the intention to cultivate awareness, (b) bring your attention to what is happening in the present moment (e.g., thoughts, feelings, sensations), and (c) cultivate the attitude that is non-judgmental, curious, kind, and compassionate.
The “being present” part of mindfulness would not be very beneficial without the other two characteristics. Let’s consider the role of intention. The intention is like the fuel that takes the car from point A to point B. Without any gas, you are likely to not make it very far. Such is how it is for mindfulness practice. Without the intention to show up and practice mindfulness it is quickly forgotten, and you find yourself powered by automatic pilot and prior conditioning.
I set the intention to practice mindfulness years ago, and without it, I don’t think I’d still be here practicing. Quoting Jon Kabat-Zinn again, he gives his students the motto of “Just Do It” for their meditation practice. Yes, we all know it’s the Nike motto, but it is a good one. You tell yourself “just do it” because your mind is likely to say some version of “I’m too tired. I have too much to do. I can’t get up early to meditate. I have too many distractions, etc.” My mind has never told me to get out of bed at 6:00 a.m. to meditate, but because I set the intention to do so, I get up and get my butt on the cushion or on the yoga mat. Over time, the benefits you reap will continue to fuel your intention.
I recently started an advanced teacher training in Energy Medicine Yoga (EMYoga) and it is going to require an extensive amount of time each week. I knew the only way I was going to be able to do it was to get up at 5:00 a.m. every morning – a full hour before I usually get up. To my delighted surprise, I have been able to do that almost every morning this past week. Did my body and mind want to get up at 5:00 a.m.? That answer would be “no.” But my heart, which set the intention to do something that I feel is important to my life, has been the wind beneath my sails. The feeling of accomplishment of completing all of the material in the first week will carry me through week two.
However, I would be doing you a disservice not to mention the help that I have received from a buddy. I met Chrissy last summer when I did the Foundational Energy Medicine Yoga Teacher training, and we became fast friends. We are both enrolled in the Advanced Training Program and support each other through daily texts even though we live in different states. Without her encouragement, I’m not sure I would have been so successful. So, if you are embarking on a meditation or yoga practice, I really encourage you to find a group, teacher, or friend who can do it with you. When your energy fades, this support system will help you stay engaged.
The second characteristic entails your awareness of the present moment. The present moment is filled with sights, sounds, smelling, hearing, tasting, touching, thinking, and behaving. However, half of the time (at least) we are somewhere else, namely lost in thought—thinking about the past or future or daydreaming. Great physical and psychological benefits develop as we live more and more in the present moment instead of living in a dream world.
I recently gave a presentation to a group of college students on mindfulness and its ability to help us be with the discomfort of life. One earnest student stopped me after the presentation and asked for five minutes of my time. He said he realized through listening to the presentation that he had hardly been present for the last six or seven years of his life. As a result, he had made decisions that he now regretted. He wanted to know if he would be able to be more conscious about his decisions through the practice of mindfulness. Of course, the answer is “yes” and, like any skill, the more you practice the better you get at it.
Third, and maybe most important, are the heart qualities of mindfulness. In fact, if I had to pick one characteristic, it would be this one. If you intend to be present and succeed at it but leave out the heart you will still be struggling with the present moment. With the heart qualities, you let go of the struggle. Your relationship to the present moment and everything in it is what matters.
Let me qualify my statement by saying, if you have a very stressful moment, your hardwired first response will be to fight, flight, or freeze. That is how the body is biologically designed to respond to an imminent physical threat. This first response is what has kept us alive as a species. However, if your stressor is not an imminent physical threat, your ability to open your heart to yourself and others will serve you much better.
The heart qualities include acceptance, patience, trust, non-striving, openness, trust, kindness, curiosity, compassion (towards self and others), letting go, gratitude, and generosity. Just breathe those into your heart and notice how you feel. Think of a current stressor you are facing and pick which of these qualities could come in helpful. I’m sure it won’t take you too long to see how beneficial they would be.
A recent unexpected encounter with a family member gave me the opportunity to open my heart as I took in what was happening. My first response was to react and be angry. But, my mindfulness training kicked in and I knew that now was not a time to respond. Nothing said or done in anger is usually a good idea. I waited as I allowed my body sensations, thoughts, and feelings to arise, exist, and subside. I acknowledged my feelings and then I turned to the qualities of trust, openness, self-compassion, and letting go. I decided I didn’t need to do or say anything. I decided through this examination not to struggle with things as they are or give any more energy to the situation.
I will talk more about the process of letting go of things that don’t serve you and cultivating the things that do in my next blog on “skillful effort.” Stay tuned!
In the meantime, cultivate the qualities that you would associate with the heart. In any situation you find yourself in, ask yourself “what would love have me do?” It may take a while for you to get a clear answer as there is no easy way to handle many situations. Over time, you will begin to trust your heart more and more to lead you in a way that represents your highest self and greatest good.