PaulHutchinson

Ph.D. Psychologist and Therapist

Psychologist and Therapist, Individual Therapy,  Bellevue, WA

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How to Practice Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness is not terribly complicated.  It simply involves turning your attention to something that is going on inside you, and letting yourself become more aware of it.  With practice, you will get better and better at noticing what is going on inside you.  That should lead to a clearer understanding of your mental and emotional workings, and a fuller acceptance of yourself.  The goal for mindfulness is to simply try to be aware of what is going on inside of you, without judging it or trying to fix it. Just be aware of it and let it be.

The Importance of Practice

These methods are not complicated, but persistance and repetition is what helps them pay off.  As you repeatedly turn your attention to watching what is happening inside, you will come to know yourself better.  This may involve becoming more aware of painful emotions as well as pleasant ones, but the hope is that you will find yourself feeling more in touch with all parts of yourself, and more accepting of all parts.  You may start with any of the methods described below.  You may try any or all of them, but it is helpful to find a practice that you like, and return to it over and over.  Doing so steadily trains your mind to be more aware of itself, more in touch with the different parts of who you are.

Mindfulness of the Sensation of Your Breath

The most classic mindfulness practice is the practice of watching the sensations of your breath going in and out.  Doing this can be far more interesting than you might imagine, but it is also often frustrating.  You are turning your attention to something that is kind of subtle, something that most likely won't hold onto your attention all that well.  You will probably find that your attention wanders again and again and again, making you feel like you are failing at something incredibly simple.  One of the parts that can actually be interesting is becoming more aware of exactly where your mind wanders while you are telling your mind to watch your breath.   It is interesting to notice that the mind just wanders off and does stuff of its own accord, and there will be patterns in what your mind wanders off to do. 

Here are the basic instructions for being mindful of your breath. Sit comfortably in a chair or on a cushion on the floor, or lie down if you find that more comfortable. Begin breathing somewhat slowly and deeply, and let the muscles of your body relax. After a few deep breaths, let your breath settle into its most natural rhythm, peacefully going in and out with whatever depth and timing seems most natural.

Now let yourself be aware of the sensation of the breath in a particular spot in the body. You might find yourself drawn to watch the sensations of the chest rising and falling.  You might find yourself drawn to watch the sensations of the breath in the nostrils.  Whichever place you choose, simply let yourself notice how the sensations change from moment to moment as the breath goes in and out. There are always sensations, and they are always changing. Let yourself notice the changes in the sensations as your breath come in, and as the tide of the breath turns, and as the breath goes out again.  Let yourself notice how the sensations change all through the progression of each breath, and how each breath feels slightly different than the one before or after.

 Even as you direct your attention to the sensations of the breath, you will find that your attention and your awareness keep shifting.  The mind tends to look for anything new, and you may find your attention drawn to a new sensation, a sound, or a sensation in the body.  As this happens, each time gently bring your attention back to the breath.  Most of us are accustomed to spending much of our time with the thinking part of our minds rather than with our immediate sensory experience.  As you direct your attention toward the sensation of your breath, you may find that again and again your mind goes back to thinking.  Your mind may go to making a plan or thinking about a situation or remembering a conversation.  Your mind probably believes that thinking is what you want, that thinking is what it is supposed to do.  Each time your mind wanders in this way, simply, gently bring it back to being aware of the sensations of the breath. 

As your mind does whatever it does, simply notice it and accept it, and bring your attention back to your breath.  Try to observe and be aware of everything that happens in you without hanging onto any particular experience, or pushing any experience away. Simply let yourself notice whatever you notice.  You may find it frustrating that your attention keeps wandering, but see if you can bring an attitude of simply watching and accepting whatever happens, without judgement, and without trying to make something happen or prevent something from happening.  This is about watching what happens, not about forcing a particular thing to happen.

If you are trying to decide how long to practice, simply experiment.  Try practicing for five minutes.  After trying that a few times, try 10 minutes.  You may notice some different experiences that come with practicing longer.  You may find it useful to set some quiet timer to let you know when the time has been reached. 

Mindfulness of Your Emotions

For a long time western psychology has been aware that there are a great many benefits that come from being more in touch with our own emotions.  Knowing and understanding what we feel can give us a more complete sense of ourselves, and can make our relationships deeper and richer.  Watching the breath has the benefits of helping us learn to pay attention and notice what our mind does.  But we are very emotional creatures.  Being more aware of our emotions can often leave us feeling more connected to who we are.  And emotions don't come one at a time.  At any given moment, we are likely to be feeling half a dozen differnent things, because at any given moment our minds and our hearts are reacting to a whole collection of experiences, external experiences happening in that moment, and internal experiences coming from our thoughts and memories and interpretations.  You are having emotional reactions to all of those things all the time.  Being mindful of your emotions involves trying to let yourself be aware of all of that. 

I'm going to describe two different emotional awareness practices.  The first one is shorter and simpler; the second one is longer and more comprehensive.  The first one takes the form of asking, "what am I feeling?  and what else? and what else?"  The second involves going through the primary emotions one at a time, and noticing any trace of each emotion that might be present.

          What Am I Feeling?

To practice this version, sit or lie comfortably, and let yourself relax, taking a few deep breaths.  Now direct your awareness to whatever you are feeling emotionally.  If there is a primary emotion that you find going on in you, simply let it be and let yourself be aware of it.  If it is a positive emotion, let yourself experience it, and allow yourself a moment of gratitude for it.

If the emotion that you are most aware of is painful or negative, let yourself acknowledge it and experience it.  Let yourself breath a few times and experience whatever you are feeling.  If it is strong enough to be painful, see if it is possible to be kind to yourself about this feeling.  Try to allow yourself to feel compassion, compassion for the emotional pain of being alive.  Try to imagine that someone you love is feeling this way, and direct toward yourself the compassion that you would bring to a loved one who was feeling this. 

Give yourself a few moments to feel whatever this is, and then sit with the emotion for a few moments more.  And then imagine this emotion being on a particular page of a photo album of your life.  Aknowledge it, let yourself feel it.  And then see if you can say to yourself, "I will turn the page and see what else is here." 

Now let yourself be aware of any other emotion that you might be feeling.  It is typical for us to feel several things at once.  This feeling may be more mild or more subtle, but let yourself be aware of it.  Feel the feeling, and let yourself be aware of where it might be coming from, what it might be attached to.  Whatever the feeling is, allow it to be there.  There is no need to change it or fix it.  Simply observe and accept that it is a part of your experience in this moment.  Notice it, and after a few moments, after a few breaths, again, think of it like a page in a photo album.  Allow yourself to say, "I know that this is here.  Now let me turn the page and see what else is here." 

You may find that you are aware of just one emotion, or, more likely, you may find you you are aware of feeling three or four different things, each with a different degree of intensity.  See if you can accept each thing that you are feeling, without judging it or trying to change it or push it away. 

There is a very important element to consider as a person is becoming more aware of their emotions.  Emotions can be painful, and sometimes very painful.  If you find that these exercises bring you deep into very painful emotions, proceed very carefully.  You may want to do this exercise at a time and place in your day when you are able to take care of yourself, and digest the feelings that arise.  Or you may want to practice this under the guidance of a therapist who can help you with the depth of the emotions that come up. 

          What Am I Feeling Of Each Emotion? 

This version of the exercise assumes that all of us are probably feeling various shades of all the major emotions all the time.  One turns one's awareness to each of the major emotions one after another, and allows oneself to be aware of whatever is there.  For this purpose we will assume that the major emotions are happiness, sadness, fear, love, and anger.

Sit or lie comfortably and let yourself relax, taking several deep breaths.  Now allow yourself to be aware of any happiness that you might be feeling.  Be aware of it and let yourself feel it.  Let yourself be aware of any sense that you have of what that happiness is about, of where it might be coming from.  Let yourself be aware of the emotion, and its source, and just let that be for a few moments.  Now let yourself be aware of any other source of happiness, any other experience or idea that is bringing happiness right now, in this moment.  You may find that there are several things inside you associated with happiness right now.  Note each one and let yourself feel each one and be aware of each one.  When you feel as if you have let yourself take note of all of the things that you are currently happy about, then you will be ready to move on from the awareness of happiness to the awareness of the next emotion. 

Now turn your awareness to the experience of sadness.  Allow yourself to be aware of any sadness that you might be having.  Be aware of it and let yourself feel it.  Again, let yourself be aware of any sense that you have of what that sadness is about, of where it might be coming from.  Let yourself be aware of the emotion, and its source, and simply experience that for a few moments.  Now let yourself be aware of any other source of sadness right now, of any other experience or idea that is bringing sadness right now, in this moment.  Again, you are likely to find that there are several things going on inside you associated with sadness right now, in this moment.  One at a time, make note of each one and let yourself feel each one and be aware of each one. 

After noting each of the things that are associated with sadness, turn your attention to fear and anxiety, and take yourself through the same process.  As you note each one, ask yourself again, "is there anything else going on in me associated with anxiety or fear."  Make note of each, one at a time, until no more items come readily to mind. 

Now go through the same process with the feelings of love and affection.  Let yourself be aware of each person or pet or circumstance that is connected with love or affection, right now, in this moment. 

Finally, go through the same process with the feelings of anger and frustration.  Note each things associated with those feelings, and let yourself feel them and make note of the connection, of where those feelings are coming from, right now, today. 

 After you have finished letting yourself be aware of the various emotions, take a moment to acknowledge the experience before putting them away again.  For the positive emotions, of happiness and love, allow a moment of gratitude for the experience.  For the difficult and painful emotions of sorrow and anger and fear, allow a moment of compassion, compassion for the hard parts of being human, and the way that painful emotions are always a part of being alive along with the positive emotions.  Then allow yourself to imagine that all of these emotions, all of these sides of your experience, are in a picture album.  You have looked at each one, and now you can close the picture album for the time being.  You know that all of these things are there, and you can take them out again and experience them whenever you chose.  At this moment, you are letting them be what they are, and you are now going on with your day. 

Mindful Yoga

Some people find that a sitting meditation doesn't suit them, that they are simply not wired for sitting still.  Yoga is a mindful practice that gives a person a lot more to do.  There are different varieties of yoga, and some are more mindful than others.  Let me suggest that if you do yoga with the intention of letting yourself be more aware of your body and the sensations in your body, yoga can be an excellent mindfulness practice.  

Mindfulness is all about letting yourself be aware of your experience, from moment to moment.  In yoga, you are moving your body, slowly and deliberately, and holding poses, and breathing deliberately along with the movements and the poses.  There is an element of mindfulness that often happens naturally in yoga, as a person lets themselves pay attention to their body and their breath. 

I think that one can add to this by deciding to do yoga in a way that makes mindfulness part of the goal.  Basically, that means saying, "I'm going to do yoga, and as I do this I am going to let myself be aware, from moment to moment, of the sensations in my body and breath."  Then, as with the breathing meditation, one simply keeps bringing one's awareness back to the sensations of the present moment, the sensations of in the body, and the sensations in the breath. Each time you move your body into a new position, let yourself notice the sensations of your body moving and stretching into a new pose.  As you hold each pose, direct your awareness to the way that the sensations change from moment to moment as you hold the pose.  Let yourself be aware of the sensations of your breathing as you hold each pose.  To do yoga as a mindfulness practice, see if you can add this mindset to whatever instructions you are hearing from the yoga instructor

There are many good yoga studios, and many fitness clubs offer yoga classes.  If you are looking to try yoga at home, there are versions on youtube and on other streaming media sites.  I recommend a PM yoga routine by Patricia Walden. It is slow and peaceful and, at 20 minutes or so, not too long.  There is a version on Youtube, which is broken into two segments,  that will allow you to try this yoga routine.  If you find it useful, go to Patricia Walden's official site, and pay her fee for the use of this yoga routine and her other yoga routines.

Some yoga poses require great flexibility that takes time to acquire.  If you are new to yoga, and especially if you have any back problems or joint problems, don’t push your body into the poses that the instructors can do. Move your body in that general direction, and if you start to feel any discomfort, you have pushed yourself far enough.  If you have any doubts, be conservative, and either consult your doctor, or consult a good yoga instructor about how to practice safely. 

As with all mindfulness practices, let yourself be aware of what you feel happening in your body without judging. 
Try to let your body be however it is without judging it or wanting it to be different.  Try to avoid telling yourself that your body should do this or that more easily, should stretch further, should look different. Simply notice and accept however your body is, and let yourself notice the sensations in your body as you move it and use it.

Mindful Journaling

Some advocates of mindfulness might be reluctant to call writing in a journal a mindfulness practice. Classic mindfulness argues that we spend too much time thinking and filling our minds with words, and that we should stay closer to our immediate sensory experience. The mindfulness practices described above all involve watching the sensations in your body, and part of the goal is to get better at watching.  The goal is to watch the sensations and don't get caught up in thinking about them. 

But I'm a fan of writing, and of putting things into words.  I think that there are versions of writing that can greatly help with the project of becoming more aware of our insides. 

The version of journaling that I would suggest works something like this. You might think of it as a form of centering, or of getting in touch with yourself each day. At your keyboard, or with pen and paper, ask yourself the question, “what seems to be going on in me?” Write a number of sentences that begin with, “I am aware of ______.” You might start with the emotions that you are aware of. You might write, “I am aware of some sadness. The sadness seems to be coming from ______.” Since this is an awareness exercise, you don’t need to analyze things much more than this. Note your awareness of something, and the possible source of it, and then see if there is anything else in yourself that you are aware of. Try doing this for five or 10 minutes every morning.

Instead of writing, this can also be done by talking to oneself or thinking to oneself.  It could be part of your routine on your commute to ask, "what is going on in me?  What am I aware of?  And what else?  And what else?"

Try More Than One Practice

It is useful to think of all of these mindfulness practices as part of a larger mindfulness project, which is simply the project of becomeing more aware of yourself, of getting better at watching yourself and noticing what is happening inside you.  And don't be intimidated about trying it a bit and seeing what it is like.  You don't need to become a meditation master to benefit from mindfulness, just as you don't need to become a marathon runner to benefit from exercise.  Any amount is good, and you'll get better with practice.  Any amount of mindfulness should leave you feeling more in touch with yourself.

Copyright 2019, Paul Hutchinson, Ph.D.

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