A Mindful Moment: Float through Storms
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
Imagine yourself lounging on a comfortable dinghy in a sheltered cove on a calm day. The sun is warm, the sky is blue, the waves are gentle and the salty breeze brings a refreshing coolness to this perfect moment. Breathe. You now notice ominous clouds are swiftly moving in. The wind picks up and the water gets choppier. Within minutes, you are hanging on for dear life as the waves threaten to capsize you. If we try to use sheer willpower to force the waves to stop, we know it won’t work!
Ocean waves symbolize the waves of thoughts, emotions and sensations in our life. Many approach meditation as a challenge to stop these experiences of life. Mindfulness meditation is not about controlling the waves; it is about learning to surf with them. Just like surfing, we don’t learn to surf while in the middle of the ocean during a storm at night. Formal meditation practice is like practicing near the shore on a calm day so that when the waves in life catch us off guard, we have the skills to not only stay afloat during storms, but to surf and even perhaps enjoy the ride.
The Science Behind Mindfulness
Mindfulness has been around for thousands of years in ancient wisdom traditions, yet it was only in 1979 that Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn provided a secular, scientific and evidence-based foundation for mindful practice — Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction®. MBSR® involves a commitment to daily one hour guided meditation, three hours of class time per week and one silent retreat day in the eight-week course. Since that time, a growing body of research documents the benefits of regular practice in improving quality of life, greater wellbeing, mitigating stress, and symptom reduction in many medical conditions.
A scientific understanding of mechanisms involved allows us to evaluate working memory capacity, emotion-regulation, attentional performance and document activation in specific somatic maps of the body, cortical thickening in specific regions of the brain, immune function enhancement and regulation of gene activity. Researchers have recently confirmed the existence of two “circuits” in the brain. The narrative (default mode) network processes all the information and develops a story or narrative. The experiential network is grounded in the current moment of breath and body sensations. These circuits are inversely correlated, which means that by focusing on breath and body, the “storyboard” circuit decreases and we can observe ourselves with greater clarity in this moment. This awareness allows us to respond as opposed to react to circumstances, situations and people.
(This particular piece of science helps me to get on my mat when I really don’t feel like it and also to *S.T.O.P. and take a breath before I automatically react to someone who may be pushing my buttons!)
“Just go into the room, sit in the centre of the room, open the doors and windows, and see who comes to visit. You will witness all kinds of scenes and actors, all kinds of temptations and stories, everything imaginable. Your only job is to stay in your seat. You will see it all arise and pass, and out of this, wisdom and understanding will come” —Ajahn Chah
A daily formal mindfulness practice can be integrated with an informal practice of mindful moments. The Mindful Moments described here are not meant to be a replacement for formal practice or a course. They serve as an introduction and a reminder that the wholeness of our lives are linked from moment to moment and give us an opportunity to connect with ourselves, in this moment, just as it is and just as we are, right now.
As soon as you become aware that your mind is not here (rehashing the past, rehearsing for the future or even resisting the present moment as it is versus how you expected it to be):
Take a deep breath.
Observe what is happening in your mind and body.
Proceed with a mindful response rather than a mindless reaction.
Mindful Moment: Breath
Bring your attention to your breath at the tip of nose. As you breathe in, notice where and how you feel it — the flow, temperature, moisture. Notice it enter the nose, through the bridge of the nose into the back of the throat, mouth through the neck into the upper middle and lower chest and the rise of the ribcage. Notice the same on the exhalation. Ask yourself: “Where do I feel my breath the most in this moment? And in this one? And this one?” Explore the possibility of paying attention to your breath for one minute.
Mindful Moment: Body Scan
Feet – Focus attention on your feet. Notice your toes, the sole, the heel and top. Notice the feeling of the shoes, socks and where they touch the floor or arch away. Notice also if it is hard to feel them.
Seat – Focus attention on your seat. Notice where you contact the chair, the weight of your body, the feeling of fabric of your clothing and perhaps even your upper legs and back as you connect with the sensation of you, your body, sitting here right now.
Hands – Focus attention on your hands. Notice your fingers, palm and back of your hands and what they are touching. Notice the feeling of edge of cuffs, watch, bracelet or rings. Pay attention to sensations of temperature, moisture, weight and surrounding air.
As soon as you become aware that you are not “here,” practice this three-point body scan and observe what you notice with a gentle curiosity. Explore the possibility of paying attention to your body for one minute. Choose to experience the body scan in a supine position and for a longer time. If uncomfortable thoughts or feelings arise, notice them and be kind to yourself and refocus your attention to a safe and supportive experience.
IN THE NEXT ISSUE…
The next in this series of articles will address the non-judgment element of mindfulness. What does non-judgment really mean and how does that relate to universal kindness? Where do our emotions fit in mindful practice? What is the difference between compassion, empathy and sympathy — and is it important? Does scientific evidence of the benefits of awe, kindness and gratitude fit in with a mindful practice?