Mindfulness – focused or unfocused explained

Mindfulness – focused or unfocused explained

Mindfulness is a buzz word these days, the thing to do, but is ‘being in the moment’ doing? It can be.

The practice of mindfulness – the act of purposely paying attention and being aware of the experience of the moment you are living, without judgement – is an active thing in itself; focusing and paying attention takes effort and energy whether you are practising mindfulness in a formal sitting for a focused or guided meditation, or more informally while you’re doing things such as practicing open awareness whilst taking a walk.

Mindfulness has been defined as awareness, but its more than that. Mindfulness has been defined as paying attention, but its more than that. Mindfulness has been described as consciousness, but its more than that too.

Yet mindfulness IS awareness, IS consciousness, and it IS paying attention. But it is also about cultivating a quality of mind, a mental stance that notices, on purpose, and without judgement or attachment. It’s about cultivating a balance of mind that does not favour one thing or reject another. A mind that allows things to arise and pass away without trying to hold on or push away. It’s coming to see things, the experience of the moment, whatever is happening, clearly.

Mindfulness is an ongoing practice, not an end result. The intention is to cultivate awareness, the attention is on the experience of the present moment, and the attitudinal address is curiosity in a non judgemental way, with kindness. Mindfulness is a practice that, when coupled with the practice of Vipassana, the gentle open exploration of whatever arises, can bring about the real rewards of understanding, equanimity, and wisdom.

Benefits

There are many other benefits, particularly health and mental health benefits, that have been confirmed by numerous clinical trials. The results prove the efficacy, particularly in emotional, physical, and psychological wellbeing.

It’s worth mentioning here that the word well-being encapsulates a weave of things including what Aristotle had to say when referencing Eudaimonic well-being (as opposed to hedonistic), is was said to be central to … ’reasoning, happiness, and a rich and fulfilling life; and a start point for thinking about the nature of human life – its virtue and ultimate fulfillment’.

But back to forms of mindfulness, focused and unfocused.

Focused mindfulness, where the breath, mantra or object is the focus of attention.

Focused mindfulness is the best way to learn mindfulness – and it’s easy to learn and practice. Using an object, like sounds or the breath, for the mind to pay attention to helps keep other thoughts and emotions at bay, easing restlessness and steadying the mind.

If the mind wanders off as it tends to do, practising focused mindfulness will help you to recognise this and bring the attention back to the object. This is an active practice of concentration and focus, and it takes energy to do it.

Most focused mindfulness is practiced formally as a sitting or guided sitting meditation such as breath awareness, mindfulness of the senses or metta (loving kindness/compassion) meditation. There is also a focused formal mindful walking practice, more about that later.

If you are time or interest poor and want to try a short focussed practice, you can use any task, and just do it mindfully. My favourites are a ‘mindful mouthful’ or a ‘single sip’. These two activities happen all the time, the mindful mouthful takes longer than the single sip so I have written the practice out below. If you only want the quick single sip exercise, just cut out everything but the mouth and sip.

Mindful Mouthful / Single Sip exercise

First taking a breath – and if you can it’s good to keep a tiny piece of attention on the breath throughout this exercise – then pause to note to yourself that you are doing this practice.

To begin, be aware of the movement of the head and eyes in assessing where the cup of liquid is. Note the tension in the shoulder and arm as you begin the movement to reach out to the glass, then as the hand lifts let your focus settle on the movement of all the muscles.

Feel the stretch of the fingers to the glass. Note the contraction of the muscles as they grasp it, note the temperature of it, and the weight as your muscles contract and move to lift it.

Notice how the mouth prepares to receive the liquid, the relaxing of the jaw, the repositioning of the lips and mouth. Follow the continuing flex and movement of muscle in the arm and hand, the re-positioning of the head to receive the liquid, the feel of the glass and then the liquid on the lips as you take it in.

The inbreath sip, the temperature and taste, the tongue and jaw movement to swallow, the throat contraction and release, the mouth re opening, jaws dropping to release the glass. The sensations in the throat and stomach having received the sip.

The wrist tipping back, flexing, straightening the arm, the head turning and tilting while the arm and hand moves to replace the glass from where it came. The release of the fingers on the glass, the relaxing of the muscle tension in the shoulder, arm, hand and fingers, the repositioning of the head. Next note the intention to end the exercise, noticing any sensations, thoughts, or feelings about having done so.

This exercise can take moments or minutes, its up to you, each time.

Unfocused mindfulness, or ‘open’ mindfulness, is where we notice whatever it is that comes to our attention.

Unfocused mindfulness is to open the mind, it is a non directive meditation to allow a mental spaciousness and ease that can encompass whatever happens in and around you, without getting caught up in it.

A teacher once explained to me that he felt it as a gentle wise and caring person sitting on a bench in a playground, aware of the children and dogs playing, aware of the sights and sounds, the smells, noticing thoughts, reactions and emotions appearing and passing through as different aspects of sights and sounds happened, but rather than getting caught up in them, not responding to urges to be anything, do anything or go anywhere, just content to just be here, open and gently curious, fully aware and present.

Informal movement

Sometimes I practice both focused and unfocused meditation at the same time, particularly during movement practices or bush walks. Put simply I pay attention to my breath and muscles then hold them in semi awareness whilst practising ‘open senses’ awareness of whatever is happening in the creation around me.

For those who prefer a more overall practice here are some guidelines.

Before you begin take scan of how your body feels and make a point of noting it. Is your body feeling light, heavy, limber, stiff? Note your emotional and mental condition, is your emotion balanced or a bit wobbly? Your mind clear or cloudy? if you can, name what state is present in you (well, happy, upset, anxious).

When you’ve finished the scan let everything you’ve come to go, let it float away.

Informal Movement meditation

Now bring your attention to the whole body. As you do your warm up exercises, get an overall sense of how the movement feels then try and match your breath to your movements – not too slow, not too quick, just allow your body movement and your breath to synchronise naturally.

When you begin to move bring your toes and foot muscles into awareness, then the legs, knees, and lastly thighs. Notice the balance and movement, the rhythm and pace and the flow of the muscles as you move.

Next bring in your hips to awareness, noting the different tensions and balances in the lower body as the ground changes.

Next bring in upper body, noticing the arms, chest and the breath, allowing the breath and bodily movements to synchronise, finding the ease of rhythm.

Then open awareness out, allowing all the senses to flow in.
Noticing sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch … letting it all arrive and pass, come and go and flow. Inviting an awareness of the whole body in action and in harmony.

At the end of the exercise, stop and take time to scan the body again. Noting the changes in the body, emotion, the mind, and mental state.

For those who prefer to undertake the formal walking meditation, an introduction to the formal walking practice can be found on the website under the heading ‘In the Workplace’ and called ‘Walk the Block” from the link below.

Be active. Be well.
AL

Access meditations … here …

 

 

A Personal Experience of Meditation

A Personal Experience of Meditation

The timer goes off and you slowly start to move away from the meditative state, momentarily carrying a blissful sense of the stillness and silence within you and the flicker of pure happiness or joy.

You smile at the anomaly that all the circumstances surrounding you, from your own personal situation to the state of the world on the news, have not changed.

But you have.

You have opened your eyes and, just for a short time, see things through a slightly less clouded veil of habit and ego.

So for a while you remain in this deep well of well-being; perfectly poised in the balance that “nothing matters” and yet “everything matters profoundly”.

You understand the sages’ advice that time is so short we should all move more slowly. In fact for a few more moments, it will be impossible to do anything but move in a much more measured way.

Even though you are often aware right up to the moment the timer goes off that your mind is still getting periodically dis-tracted by a ‘treeful of monkeys’ throwing random thoughts, emotions and desires into the mix, you have slowed down.

You have gone deeper.

The demands of daily life and the issues of the day are fast closing in on you, but you still feel that lingering connection to your, gradually receding, meditative state. Somehow you understood the wise words of the mystics, although you neither know how or why, that:

All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”.

Although, as your rational mind tells you, in the material realm, they are most clearly not.

You know of the fear and despair the scientists feel, and the frustration and anger of the young. You have felt it too.
How can you not when you really think things through? But you sense too the antidote contained in acceptance of the statement, “This too shall pass”.

Everything, shall pass, sooner or later. And the acceptance of that fact brings settlement.

Without doubt, in the not too distant future, our little planet will have changed so much that it will become increasingly inhospitable to us guilty humans, as well as to many other much more innocent creatures.

Yet in another realm of understanding you feel the strange hope in the words of the Desiderata and know that:

“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and stars and whether it is clear to you or not, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

Your human life has a purpose, it has meaning; for the short time we are able to remain on Earth, we have to connect into that and be as … and do … what we can to fulfil it.

Despite the weight of the encroaching future of the world you ‘re-member’, you link back to the feeling of being momentarily totally happy and at peace.

You touched the one thing that all a human really needs, as the yogis say, to unfold the spiritual life is to be patient in all circumstances. And then the cheerful monkey in your mind makes you laugh at the fact that “patience” anagrams to “peace tin”.

And what is meditation, (or gardening, or painting, or poetry writing or even washing up with awareness,) except the practice of being patient, for however long you are able to keep faithfully paying attention. Allowing a mantra to help clean out the chambers of the soul and, as Mirabai Starr so sweetly puts it, “Wait for the grace to come.”

So you wait. Stay calm. Put on peace and hope to get some spiritual wisdom.

And sometimes in those peaceful moments you do just ‘get it’.

You are suddenly part of that greater whole. The one underlying current of the energy of peace gently throbbing in the heart of all.

And you stay a moment, you pause in time, realising you are in it now…

 

Guest Blog by Amanda Brown, Yoga Practitioner and Teacher UK

Access meditations … here …

AL

Twixtmas Reflections

Twixtmas Reflections

Twixtmas is that quiet, special time betwixt and between the Christmas gatherings and the New Year celebrations. Twixtmas offers a quiet time, a time to rest, reflect and, perhaps, make a New Year’s Resolution.

New Year’s Resolutions date back over 4000 years from Ancient Babylonian celebrations which included paying off debts incurred in the previous year, returning borrowed items, and planting new crops. The celebrations lasted for 12 days in March, and then the timing changed with the onset of the Romans bringing in the Julian Calendar, and the start of the New Year then began on January 1st.

Interestingly the Romans had a God of New Beginnings called Janus. Janus had two faces, one for looking back and reflecting on what has past, and one looking forward to new beginnings.
Leaping forward to the late 1800s, new year’s resolutions took on a more moral and spiritual nature and, over the last century, have also encompassed denying aspects of worldly pleasures, the invoking of self-discipline, compassion of others, and a deepening of held values.

Today, we are so busy with work and the myriad of entertainment, stimulation, and distraction options, it is easy to let slip those importance’s of life – our values, and to live, learn, give and grow.

So, the challenge for us is to find time in this often-frenetic end of year/start of year activity.

Twixtmas is a time to embrace; a time to pause, self-measure and take stock. A time to look back and reflect and discern if what we say we are, is what we know ourselves to be.

Insights arising from this gentle and important practice can form a fundamental part of how to move forward in life and supply the seed of any New Year’s Resolution you may make.

Especially at this time of year, I spend time in nature, read inspiring books and writings, listen pod casts and do Lectio Divina to help deepen my response to the gift that life is. Recently I came across something that originated in Japan with the idea of promoting reflection which caught me immediately, it’s called a Tanka.

Like a Haiku, the Tanka is a poem of sorts. It has a strict structure of lines and syllables, and it need not rhyme.

Here’s an example of an ancient Tanka by Izumi Shikibu which I hope you will find time to reflect on.

How invisibly
It changes colour
In this world
The flower, of the human heart.

And another, this a more modern sample to spend time with by Andrea Dietrich:

We ran gleefully
Chasing the summers fireflies
Putting them in jars …
Those warm nights of our childhood –
They flickered, and then were gone.

Whilst I value the reflections that arise from these evocative Tanka’s, I have also found that the process of writing one is quietly satisfying and cultivates a rare peacefulness. In turn, having moved into a more reflective mood during the writing of this blog, I pass a reflection that arose in the process.

A life without reflection lacks the insight, understanding and foundation on which our deeper soul and spirit life depend.

Unfortunately, its not a Tanka, but I hope it is something that will encourage your own reflection.

Wishing you a Merry Christmas, a Quiet Twixtmas and a Happy New Year

AL

Access mindful meditations and Lectio Divina here …

 

Feeling Lucky?

Feeling Lucky?

Have you ever looked at some people who just seem to have it all and asked yourself, ‘what makes them special? Do they have more angels on their side? How come they are so lucky?’

In 2004 an English Professor, Richard Wiseman, published a book The Luck Factor, which drew on the results of several years’ research examining the behaviour, attitudes, and experiences of hundreds of ‘lucky’ and unlucky people.

His research identified that luck was not a birthright, nor did it somehow just happen to those who were classified lucky, but rather their luck hinged on essentially four principles.

So, what are these four principles of luck?

In summary they are:
o Principle 1 – ‘Lucky people create, notice and act upon the chance opportunities of life. (They are aware).
o Principle 2 – Lucky people listen to lucky hunches, which is to say they listen to their intuition.
o Principle 3 – Lucky people expect good fortune (You might call this visualisation.)
o Principle 4 – Lucky people seek to turn ‘bad luck’ into ‘good luck’.

Through large experiments he also determined that luck was not a matter of psychic ability (did that person somehow ‘know’ the winning lottery numbers?), nor was it a matter of intelligence, of conscientiousness or hard work.

Rather, it was attitude that led people to be open to possibility.

It is important here to stop for a moment and reflect on what it means ‘to be open’.

Does this mean that we just lie on the grass and wait for a possibility to happen? Or do our lives, thinking, language and conversations all reflect the activity of being open?

Think of it in terms of being open to a new relationship. The way we approach, speak, and respond to members of the opposite sex will reflect an activity of being open, if only at a subconscious level.

If we look at Professor Wiseman’s lucky people, we find that they lived out the expectations of their hearts. In the first principle listed above, consider all the activity words: ‘create’, ‘notice’ and ‘act upon’.

These people are consciously living life; hence, again, the importance of observation and of awareness.

‘If you seek, you will find’, as the bible puts it. If you visualise your ‘dream’ then, as you begin to attract to yourself the makings of it, you will at some level notice those ‘makings’ and act on them.

So, for instance, being open meant that these lucky people tended to network and socialise. They listened to their intuition; they were also open to the universe rather than tending to notice only those things that were important to them at the moment, whilst ignoring whatever else was in their surroundings, not least the opportunities.

Lucky people were found to be more relaxed; they would tend to listen to people rather than seek to dominate a conversation. (How many people even know how to listen?) They then became aware of what there was to be seen in their world, rather than what they thought ought to be seen.

In other words, they were not confined by the lens of their paradigms.

What tends to happen in many conversations, not just with strangers, and acquaintances, but also friends, is that we are so keen to tell them what we have to say that we only half listen, if at all, to the other person’s dialogue.
We have this desperate need to be noticed and heard rather than to notice and to hear.

So:
• We can miss the cues that could tell us of new possibilities, of new directions
• We can miss the cues that might open our paradigms up and introduce us to whole new worlds; and
• Maybe we also miss the cues because we, consciously or unconsciously, close off because of the other person’s voice, clothes, or background and so miss those angelic messengers who would speak into our future through the medium of that person.

Stop here for a minute and ask yourself, ‘‘do I over-talk other people? Do I really listen? Do I select my conversational partners because of how they look, or sound, or their occupation or lack of it?’’

Do we focus on the visible bards that mark the boundary of our momentary existence?

As we have noted throughout, being relaxed in ourselves is a part of this whole approach to life, this openness. Too often we engage in a social or work situation with an end game in mind.

We focus on meeting the right people, saying the right thing, having a good time; or just plain focused on finding a partner, making an impression, clinching a deal, or reaching a destination etc.

In so doing we focus on the bars that mark the boundary of our momentary existence and are blind to the stars that beckon us beyond, to the life changing opportunities that are on offer.

In a related fashion, Professor Wiseman notes that ‘lucky people are open to new experiences in their lives’. This is demanding.

First and foremost, this challenges the self-imposed limits of our own world. It places an imperative on us to step outside what we know or had planned. It challenges our comfort zone – sometimes seriously so.

Secondly, lucky people expect the new experience to be positive. They have an outlook that expects the best rather than believing in failure and disappointment as a normalcy.

How do we move to become a person with a sunny and open outlook on life; one who is prepared to grasp new experiences with high expectation?

The answer is to start small.

For instance, do you travel the same route to work every day, or follow a set routine? Do you live habitually? Just for once why don’t you change it, mess with your mind, and live dangerously! Do you find yourself always mixing with or talking to the same people? Break out and force yourself to also begin mixing with new groups. You don’t have to discard the old friends. Join a salsa dance class, as one friend of mine did; or a ‘slow cooking group’, as another did.

Simply speaking: ‘broaden your world’.

Meeting people from other cultures and from different backgrounds were recommended strategies to changing our thinking and so remove our cognitive barriers that shape our paradigms.

My wife and I have had some of the richest moments of our lives when we have connected with people from radically different backgrounds, by joining or being involved with different interest groups.

Another factor is that of intuition – the hunch – the gut-feel, in a given situation.

Intuition is an interesting phenomenon. Literally it is defined as instinctive knowing without the use of rational processes. For some, and I believe that this is true, it is an aspect of the divine, or at least of the spirit life, of a person. As an unseen, unreasoned, process it is also a highly creative process.

Listening to your intuition is the essence of art and creativity and soulful living. Intuition is what you use to find the purpose of your life and your place in the world. In philosophy, intuition is the power of obtaining knowledge that cannot be acquired either by inference or observation, by reason or experience.

As such, intuition is thought of as an original, independent source of knowledge, since it is designed to account for just those kinds of knowledge that other sources do not provide.’’

How do we cultivate intuition?

Lucky people in Professor Wiseman’s study not only listened to their intuition but their intuition was strengthened by practicing stillness exercises such as meditation which relaxed their being allowing them to hear from the small inner voice. (Notice that word ‘relax’ again)

Lucky people also tended to clear their mind, find quiet places, and return to problems later. They allowed space and time to find the road through a situation or to the next staging post in life.

As Elisabeth Kubler Ross once said, there is no need to go to India or anywhere else to find peace. You will find that deep place of silence right in your room, your garden or even your bathtub.

Relaxation and meditation are an integral part of the journey of the lucky person. It is so important.

I would also encourage you to read The Luck Factor which demonstrates scientifically the reality that luck is essentially a matter of an attitude towards life.

Professor Wiseman’s research clearly revealed not only the opportunistic nature of the lucky individuals who participated, but also how they had lucky events occur that were clearly outside of their control, yet somehow, they were the beneficiaries of the WOW factor. The factor that causes those around them to scratch their heads in bemusement and say ‘wow’ the lucky devils, how come everything goes their way?

I am writing this to say that their experience is yours for the living if you really want it. You too can be ‘lucky’.

Guest Blogger  Dr Brian Gordon, OAM

Access awareness and relaxation meditations here …

AL

References:

Wiseman, R. 2004 The Luck Factor Arrow Books Great Britain
WordNet Retrieved 13 September 2007 from http://wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=intuition
Angelfire. Retrieved 13 September 2007 from http://www.angelfire.com/hi/TheSeer/intuition.html

Firm Focus, Soft Gaze

Firm Focus, Soft Gaze

Ways of developing a firm focus, and soft gaze.

In Vipassana meditation, we open ourselves in a wide awareness of senses, with a soft mental gaze that allows us to notice whatever is happening. If something catches our attention, we then turn toward whatever it is – thought, sound, sensation, emotion and, with gentle curiosity, investigate it.

With the soft gaze of vipassana meditation a special vulnerability and openness develops that facilitates insight, acceptance, and compassion.

In a meditation that has a firm focus, for example a specific focus on the breath or sounds, when something else catches our attention, we note/acknowledge it, then allow whatever it is to fall into the background of our attention, allowing our focus to remain firm on the chosen object.

A focused meditation helps develop resilience, fortitude, and builds a form of mental clarity.

Recently speaking to someone in the throes of fear, I wondered which way they would choose to go, softly opening to it, or acknowledging it and gently but firmly letting it go.

Both ways of working with fear, or whatever else arises, are open to us all the time, the trick is to start at the same point, acknowledgement of what is present in you.

In our busy everyday life if something has triggered a negative thinking pattern or emotional reaction, we are operating on autopilot or under the motivations of the amygdala.

But, if we can learn to be aware of when our thinking changes, or our emotions rise, the very act of noticing, of acknowledgement is enough to bring the pre frontal cortex into play allowing the ability to consciously think and choose which direction to go.

There are many books and meditations available to help develop both the clarity of firm focus and the insight of soft gaze, including how to navigate challenging emotions and re wire mental patterns as you begin to uncover your unique triggers and motivations.

Right now is always a good time to start – so why not check out our awareness and working with challenging emotions meditations  in Health and Well-Being.

AL