This is a guest post by Sean Fargo of Mindfulness Exercises
By now, most people know that mindfulness enhances mental health. Mindfulness research shows that nonjudgmental awareness of present moment experience helps reduce stress, anxiety and depression while supporting cognitive performance and mental resilience.
Mindfulness is taught all around the world in corporations, schools, professional sports teams, prestigious hospitals and even the US military.
However, many people don’t know what mindfulness is exactly, much less how to practice it. If you’d like to learn or help others learn the basics of mindfulness, here are five important things you should understand.
1. Practice Defining Mindfulness
Mindfulness can be defined as “nonjudgmental awareness of moment-to-moment experience”.
Mindfulness is simple, but not easy.
Shedding the myths of mindfulness, there’s nothing religious, new-age or airy-fairy about it. Fortunately, anyone most people can cultivate it with simple mindfulness exercises of paying attention to what’s actually happening without judging it to be good, bad, right or wrong. This simple (though difficult) form of meditation can be done anytime, anywhere – no lotus posture or levitation required.
People can choose to notice whatever they happen to see, smell, taste, feel or hear. Or they can explore the physical sensations of emotions in the body. Even types of thoughts, such as remembering or planning can be the object of mindfulness.
Right now, can you feel the weight of your body on your chair or on the ground?
Can you notice the rise and fall of your belly as you breathe?
Can you sense a bit of tension or tightness in your jaw or shoulders without judging it?
These can be a very effective ways to introduce mindfulness.
2. Emphasize ‘The Nonjudgmental’ Aspect of Mindfulness
Most mindfulness teachers emphasize the “awareness” piece or knowing WHAT you’re aware of. Often underlooked is the “nonjudgmental” piece, or knowing HOW you’re relating to it.
Noticing ‘how’ you’re relating to present moment experience is half of mindfulness.
It’s great if you can notice sensations of stress in the body, but if you’re not attending to ‘the how’ piece, then your awareness could be infused with self-judgment, embarrassment or shame – which is the opposite of mindfulness.
Q.) When you sense stress in your body, do you judge it to be ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’? Or do you wear stress as a badge of honor, showing that you care deeply about the success of the company, thinking that stress is ‘good’ or ‘right’?
While forming opinions and enhancing analytical capacities can be very useful and necessary, judgments often get in the way our ability to stay with what’s actually happening, moment by moment by moment by moment. Our judgments can create a sense of separateness, segregate feelings into black & white reality, and close us off from continually sensing experience with an open heart.
If we replace judgments with open curiosity, we’re enabled to continue sensing what ‘is’, rather than get caught up in stories about what we think ‘should be’.
This builds our capacity to be with whatever arises (ie: resiliency), as well as build our confidence that we can face anything without emotionally reacting against it, distracting ourselves from it, or grasping onto it too tightly.
Judgment often feeds closed separateness. Openness often feeds caring wisdom. This is the heart of mindfulness.
3. Cultivate Compassion
The root of great mindfulness training is a sense of compassion for the people you’re helping. It’s all about empathizing with their real-life struggles, knowing what they want, and actively wishing them well.
Who you want to help?
What are their challenges?
Why do you want to help them?
When mindfulness teachers worry about what people will think of them, showboat about how wise they are, or spend their time marketing mindfulness cure-alls for the rich, they’re typically not aligned with making a meaningful impact on the quality of real people’s day-to-day lives.
Prior to sharing mindfulness teachings and practices, it can be helpful to step into their shoes, ask them what they’re stressors are, listen to their stories, or at least imagine how they may be suffering.
It’s helpful to ask what their mindfulness experience is and how they think mindfulness may be able to help them. Simply asking and listening to their responses can inform how you relate to them and knowing which mindfulness practices may be most potent for their given situation.
Your way-of-being is as important as your words. If you’re teaching nonjudgmental awareness, then do your absolute best to refrain from judging yourself or others – especially in the face of skepticism. And if you do notice judgments arise, then open to those with mindfulness and self-compassion.
You’re not out to convince anyone of anything or to force people to be mindful. Instead, you’re sharing concepts and techniques that many people have found helpful with the hope that it’s also helpful to them. Not everyone will appreciate everything you teach, but most people will find something to learn from.
Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about helping them.
4. Sequence From Physical to Mental
It’s generally easier for the mind to stay aware of what is obvious and coarse (ie: our physical body that is always with us), rather than what is subtle and fleeting (ie: mental thoughts and emotions that transform by the second).
So when teaching mindfulness, start with something simple and physical, like the breath. Mindfulness of breathing can simply mean noticing the sensations of the belly rising and falling with each inhale and exhale. Most people can sense the movement of their belly in any given moment without much judgment, which makes this a great beginner practice.
We can transition toward something a little more difficult, such as a body scan meditation, in which we scan nonjudgmental awareness through the sensations of the body, from the toes to the head.
Then we can practice simply noticing the present moment characteristics of the five senses, such as:
- tones, pitches and volumes of sounds
- colors, shades and movements of sights
- characteristics of any smell we may notice
- sweet, sour, spicy, or salty tastes of food and drink
- visceral sensations happening underneath and on our skin
People tend to have a harder time staying nonjudgmentally aware of their emotions, like anxiety or sadness. Noticing an emotion in the body, sensing into the actual visceral nature of what the emotion feels like, diffuses the energy of the story around the emotion, while increasing consciousness of what is actually, objectively happening right now.
- What does this anxiety feel like in the stomach? Is it tight and tingling? Can you stay with the actual sensations without judging them to be good or bad, right or wrong? How does it change from moment to moment as you stay aware of it?
- What does this sadness feel like around the heart? Is it heavy and numb? Can you explore the physical nature with caring curiosity? What happens when you continue exploring these sensations?
‘Mindfulness of thoughts’ is like the 300-pound bench press – you need to work your way up to it. It’s very difficult to concentrate on the nature of ever-changing mental states, so people find it helpful to categorize thoughts into one of three simple categories: “past”, “present” or “future”. Other “categories”, or labels of types of thoughts, can include one of the five senses, the type of associated emotion, or whether the thought it wholesome or unwholesome.
When teaching mindfulness, adjust where you start in this sample trajectory, given the skill and experience level of the people you instruct.
As you can see, mindfulness can seem simple, but not so easy.
Teaching it can be even harder.
There are plenty of questions that mindfulness teachers are routinely asked:
What happens when people can’t form the habit?
Can mindfulness be tailored to specific mental health conditions?
How do you deal with skepticism?
What is the best scientific research on mindfulness?
When should you be concerned about trauma resurfacing?
Do professional mindfulness programs help the employees or the financial bottom line?
How do you deal with judgments of judgments?
Is diversity among groups an important factor?
Which practices are best for kids? Inmates? Yoga practitioners?
Are mantras effective?
How does loving-kindness, compassion, gratitude and forgiveness relate to mindfulness?
To effectively answer these questions and build confidence through experiential understanding, it’s important to certify with an accredited mindfulness teacher training program.
Criteria for choosing the right program for you include finding a teacher who you trust, learning the material relevant to your teaching goals, and not spending more than your means.