“It is only when the mind is open and receptive that learning and change can occur.”
To cultivate the healing power of mindfulness requires much more than mechanically following a recipe or set of instructions. The attitude with which you undertake the practice is crucial. It is the soil in which you will be cultivating your ability to calm your mind and relax your body, so it is essential to get that soil right before engaging in any sort of useful practice.
For that reason, Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, has come up with the following 7 foundations of mindfulness practice:
When we start to pay attention to the activity of our minds, we find that there’s often a tendency to judge our thoughts. For example, during a meditation your mind may begin to wander and you might find yourself thinking “I’m bored” , “My back hurts” or “I can’t do this”. When you find yourself thinking in this way, try to suspend judgement and instead be an impartial witness to your own experience. Label it as “judgmental thinking” and simply observe whatever comes up without pursuing or acting on it in any way.
Mindfulness isn’t something that you will be immediately good at, hence why it’s called mindfulness “practice”. You have to work hard to get the benefits. In the early stages the mind will be wild and untame, which can be exhausting and make you want to give up. However, you can’t force the mind to relax, you have to let it unfold in its own time. The example Kabat-Zinn gives is a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. If you try to break it out early, it will not survive. But if you allow it to emerge in its own time, it will thrive.
3) Beginner’s Mind
Too often we let our thinking and our beliefs about what we “know” prevent us from seeing things as they really are. To truly experience the richness of the present moment, we need to cultivate a “beginner’s mind”, one that is willing to see everything as if for the first time.
By having a beginners mind, you go into each experience free from expectation, which in the case of mindfulness, makes you more receptive to new possibilities and frees you from the trappings of your own ego, namely your “expertise”, which often thinks it knows more than it does.
You should aim to develop a basic trust in yourself and your feelings. If something doesn’t feel right, maybe it’s not right. This is particularly important with the yoga elements of mindfulness. If your body does not feel like it can perform a certain stretch, don’t force it because your teacher has instructed you to do so. It is better to listen to yourself internally than seek guidance externally. Only you know what you are capable of.
Everything we do tends to be for a purpose; to get us something or somewhere. But ironically, with meditation, having a goal-oriented approach can actually prevent us from achieving our goal. For example, if you go into a meditation thinking “I’m going to relax”. “I’m going to become enlightened” or “I’m going to master this”, then you are focusing on where you should be, rather than where you are, which brings your mind out of the present. Rather, simply observe those thoughts and bring the mind back to the breath.
Acceptance is a willingness to see things as they truly are in the present. We waste too much time and energy wrestling with trying to force situations or circumstances to match what we want. Now is the only time we have for anything. Making our happiness dependent on certain criteria happening in the future keeps us miserable in the moment. Trying not to want things to be anything other than what they are is the soil for progress to emerge from.
7) Letting Go
When we go to sleep, we let go. So in that sense, we are already experts at letting go. We just need to bring that practice to our meditation sessions. If the mind is becoming overwhelmed with thoughts, don’t try to analyse or fight them. Instead, just let them go, like water under a bridge.
If you find it particularly difficult to let go of something, focus on what the feeling of “holding onto something” feels like. Feel that reluctance to give it up. Focus on where you feel it in your body. Now take a deep breath and let it go.
Starting a mindfulness practice can be challenging, particularly at first when you’re not used to listening to your thoughts, but by incorporating these 7 foundations, we increase our chances of not giving up when difficult thoughts or feelings do come up.
For more information, check out my previous blogs on mindfulness, and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Full Catastrophe Living”.