I have sorta wanted to write an article about mindfulness ever since I did the university course in Michaelmas term of my second year, but hesitate; this is mainly because mindfulness means different things to different people, and one of the greatest joys of it for me has been creating my own version of it, tailored to me, and exploring it on my own terms. So I am wary of prescribing what it is, and I am sure that there will be many things I have taken from mindfulness that other people haven’t, or that other people have picked up on but I haven’t. I am writing nonetheless because I think that it could do a lot of people a lot of good, really; it has done me a tremendous amount of good, and at this stage I feel the compulsion to share this goodness.
So what is mindfulness? At the heart of mindfulness for me is the practice of compassion. It starts with yourself. In a mindfulness meditation, you take the time to concentrate on all the physical sensations available to you, starting and ending with the feeling of the breath moving in and out of your body. You pay attention to the way it feels to be sat on the chair or lying on your bed, focusing on all the places your body makes contact with the bed or chair beneath you, and feeling the ground beneath your feet. This process is called ‘grounding’, because the practice of feeling the earth beneath you grounds you physically and mentally. Feet on the ground, bum on the chair you are safe, the earth holds you, and that physical security translates into mental security.
Grounding achieved, the idea is to continue focusing on the physical sensations available to you, as these ground you in the present. Of course, this is not the easiest thing in the world, and inevitably thoughts will arise, positive or negative, as they tend to do. The idea is to accept these thoughts as they arise, listen to them, and return to focusing on the breath when you can. The key is rather than getting frustrated with the lapse in attention you are wholly accepting of your tendency to get lost in thought, and respond by gently guiding your attention back to your breath and corporeal presence but only when you remember to.
One of the tenets of mindful practice is that thoughts and feelings are there to help you. Anger, sadness and anxiety exist not to just make you feel horrible but to highlight unmet needs, so that you are looking after yourself, body and soul, as well as possible. A useful image is to see these feelings as guests knocking on your door, whom during a meditation you take the time to lovingly welcome in, give a cup of tea, and listen to.
This is not an easy thing to do. Often our gut reaction is to reject sadness, anger, fear and anxiety. But by welcoming them and seeing them as things that exist to make us happy we can do ourselves a world of good.
One mindful practice that makes this easier is changing the way we think. Rather than thinking ‘I am sad’ we isolate the emotion within our psyche and think ‘part of me is sad’; this image is hugely helpful, because we are able to remember that the rest of us is available to embrace the sad parts of us and give them the love and attention they need.
The more we are able to master the practice of self-compassion, the more we can feel compassion towards the people and things around us, starting of course with those closest to us who gain a great deal from our love and attention. With the ability to love ourselves generously comes the ability to love other people generously. Understanding your own needs gives you a great deal of insight into other people’s, and you are more able to respect other people’s needs and love them for exactly who they are, rather than just for the good things they bring to your life. During formal meditation, another tenet of mindful practice is to take a moment to think of those closest to you, hold awareness of them in your heart, and send love in their direction.
Having compassion for all other human beings is the next step. Sending love to those closest to you comes naturally; it is not as easy to extend love to everyone else in the world, but again, from empathising with your own needs comes the awareness that everyone on this planet has their own internal universe, their own worries and joys, and they are as deserving of love as yourself or your boyfriend or your best friend.
To make a slightly more questionable next step I would say the ultimate move is to extend your love to all the other living beings in this world, including the animals and the trees and the lakes and the mountains, respecting their own individual beauty and loving them for themselves, not for what they can do for you.
Not that loving things for what they can do for you is an impulse to be ashamed of. Shame gets in the way of compassion. Selfishness is a natural thing; it is about self preservation, really, and as such serves its purpose. Like every other emotional impulse, it is something to be accepted.
Image credit: Hannah Chukwu
Yangshuo, Guilin, China, July 2016