This post is approximately a 5 minute read but feel free to scroll down towards the end and look for the subtitle called “The one actionable insight you can take away”
Mindfulness is a recurring theme throughout my blog so it made sense for me to dedicate an entire post to this magnificent practice.
Based on my experience with mindfulness so far I have found that practising it with consistently over years has had a profound impact on my mental world.
So what’s mindfulness anyway?
According to the Wikipedia it is “the focusing of attention and awareness” which sums it up quite nicely in my opinion.
Mindfulness, then, is simply the act of doing something with self awareness and focus in each present moment.
All we have to do is pay careful attention to the mind as we go about our day. That’s it.
The benefits of mindfulness include stress reduction and productivity
According to Buddha’s teachings mindfulness paves the pathway to ultimate freedom – spiritual enlightenment.
Freedom which promises to take us beyond this three dimensional world. Beyond the realm of time. Beyond the cycle of birth and death.
Back on the ‘earthly’ realm recent research suggests mindfulness practices are useful in the treatment of pain, stress, anxiety and several other mental afflictions. I have even come across literature on improved decision making and productivity.
So clearly a mindfulness practice has a lot going for it. At the very least it’s a cure for various neuroses we all seem to wrestle with and at best it’s a gateway to spiritual enlightenment.
And all you have to do is be mindful. Sounds simple right?
Simple? Yes. Easy? No.
The simple but ‘not so easy part’ of a sustainable mindfulness practice
Over the long term it’s remembering to be mindful that’s the hard part. I’ve spent hours reacting to the daily drama that unravels itself in my life with little or no awareness. I keep forgetting that I made a choice to be go about my day with self awareness.
You see … the seductive power of a runaway mind whisks me away into hours, days, and sometimes weeks of oblivion.
Pointless rumination with little or no self awareness.
I get so caught up in the ‘role’ that I forget to watch ‘the play’.
I get so stuck ‘in the tree’ that I forget ‘the forest’. I get so mesmerised by the branches on the tree that I forget the tree.
Hell I get so caught up in the leaves on the branch that I forget that the branch is on a tree in a forest!
You get my drift?
So what’s a workable solution? How do I keep from getting so involved in the minutia  the leaves) that I forget to be mindful (of the forest).
The solution is to use the tangible breath as a barometer (of the mind)
A year ago I came across a youtube video where Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo – an accomplished buddhist nun – speaks about the link between the mind and the breath.
She said the breath reflects the state of the mind. When the mind is self unaware and agitated the breath gets shallow and fast.
When the mind is self aware and calm the breath gets deeper and slower. We tend to breathe from the belly.
Keeping tabs on my self awareness via the (relatively tangible) breath is very useful when practising mindfulness.
Interestingly I discovered that the converse is also true.
When I focus on keeping my breath deep and slow it’s pretty hard for my mind to run away with itself. I feel grounded (in my breath) and can ‘watch’ my thoughts and emotions with some detachment.
Besides when I’m actively focusing on my breath it keeps my mind productively engaged and that makes it a lot harder for my mind to run away with itself and languish in pointless rumination.
Using my breath as an anchor I ‘watch’ myself go through the day and can successfully ‘opt out’ of the temptation to buy into my dramatic projections with increasing frequency.
Of course this isn’t an air tight solution (no pun intended).
Sometimes I ‘forget’ to be aware of my breath and my monkey mind is off swinging through the trees like there’s no tomorrow once again!
But as soon as I become aware of the fact that I forgot, I bring my attention back to my breath and start all over again.
Practise makes permanent (and can have profound positive impacts)
This repetitive processes of bringing my attention back to my breath used to leave me feeling that I was going round in circles.
But when I noticed myself being far less reactive to the same situations that used to really rankle me the prior year, I realised I wasn’t going in circles. It was more like an upward spiral.
These incremental changes have been generally imperceptible from day to day. But the cumulative impacts on my general sense of well being were quite dramatic and ubiquitous.
Developing mindfulness is like building a muscle. It grows with use against resistance. I start small and up the ante with time. If I don’t use it I lose it.
The one actionable insight you can take away
Watch your breath. Yup. That’s it.
Be aware of your breath as you go about your day. Inevitably your mind drift off with one of the many mental hooks that appear as thoughts and emotions.
When you realise your mind has drifted from your breath, gently bring your attention back to your breath and start again. Simple but not easy.
The good news is it does get easier with time and practise. Practised consistently over time it becomes second nature.
Jon Kabat-Zinn and his work on mindfulness for stress reduction
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School is a leading authority on mindfulness.
Look for Jon on youtube where he gives a talk on mindfulness to google employees. It’s pretty comprehensive.
Jon teaches mindfulness meditation as a technique to help people cope with stress, anxiety, pain and illness. He even created a stress reduction program which is offered at medical centres, hospitals and health maintenance organisations.
Novak Djokovic will be practising mindfulness at the Wimbledon finals against Andy Murray tomorrow
While I can’t say that Djokovic is the greatest tennis player that’s ever graced Wimbledon (I think Federer is) I was pleasantly surprised to come across an article which talks about how Novak Djokovic has been using mindfulness practice in his quest for the 2013 Wimbledon title.
The article (very aptly) titled “It’s Wimble-Zen as Djokovic gets inner buddhist peace” discusses the No 1’s meditation practice at the Buddhist centre in Wimbledon. He visits to meditate and ‘recharge’ between matches at the Wimbledon.
And what’s more … he didn’t drop a single set until the semis! And at the semis he prevailed over Del Potro in what turned out to be the longest semi final which was pretty gruelling no doubt. Physically and mentally.
If it seems to work so well for Djokovic and Jon Kabat-Zinn has been raving about it for most of his life then I say it’s definitely worth your while. Go ahead … give it a shot.
How’s your breath right now? Deep? Shallow? Fast? Slow?
What about your experiences with mindfulness? How effective you you found it in reducing your stress levels and raising your productivity? What works for you and doesn’t work for you? I’d love to know. Please leave your comments at the end of this post.
I’d like to thank my dear friend Vinod Sreedhar for contributing the stunning images to this article. Vinod is the founder of Journeys with Meaning.