On being mindful
Lucia Cockcroft of Satvada Retreats says mindfulness starts with an open, non-judgemental awareness of the body
Many people first come to yoga when they sustain an illness or injury of some kind, drawn by the need to suddenly take care of their physical needs after years, or decades, of ignoring or over-ruling the body’s innate intelligence. As a yoga and meditation teacher, I see plentiful examples of mind over-ruling body: runners continuing to train with injury; city workers hauling themselves to work despite debilitating exhaustion; parents refusing to allow themselves the time and space they need to take care of themselves and therefore their family.
Modern, increasingly common conditions such as Chronic fatigue, ME and IBS are often severe forms of burn-out: worn down by years of high stress levels and tiredness, where the system is in a constant state of fight-or-flight, there comes a time when the body crashes, and at last, we’re forced to listen. Culturally, we are simply expected to carry on, and a working culture of desk-bound lunches, skeleton staff, and 24/7 connectivity add mounting pressure to a workforce already stressed-out to the max. Yet there’s a quiet, rapidly catching-on revolution taking place: one that asks us to make time every day to tune into the body’s direct sensory experience. It’s mindfulness, of course.
In the midst of the worldwide buzz currently surrounding mindfulness meditation (Time Magazine recently had mindfulness as its lead story), it is helpful to recall that the practice as originally taught by the Buddha, 2,500 years ago, always started with Mindfulness of The Body: an open, non-judgemental awareness of the body’s visceral experience. It sounds obvious and easy, but actually most of us are so preoccupied by concepts, thoughts, plans and judgements that we are barely aware that the body has its own moment-by-moment experience – all we need to do is remember and choose to tune into it.
There is no rocket-science in the art of re-connecting with the body. Essentially, we choose to stop (if only for a minute or two) and notice the direct physical sensations – good, bad or neutral – that are occurring. Here a tingling around the little fingers; there a pocket of heat or coolness; somewhere else a soreness, or sense of tiredness or heaviness. The texture of the body on the chair, or feet on the ground.
This awareness of the sensory life of the body perhaps sounds obvious, or trite. Yet the opposite is true: by intentionally stopping our habitual busyness, and switching from Doing to Being mode, we are moving towards sharper present-centred awareness, better sleep and digestion, and lower stress-levels triggered by the relaxation response. And it’s this all-important state of relaxation that, for many of us, has become so elusive; an anabolic state where the body enters a period of deep reduction of activity – where the body is building, not breaking down.
With the fundamental mindfulness practices of The Body Scan, Mindfulness of Breathing and Mindfulness of The Body (together with twin yoga practice, yoga nidra), we are re-learning how to access the body’s moment-by-moment experience – something we did naturally as babies. And once we hone our ability to turn towards our sensory experience in this way, something miraculously simple, potentially life-changing, occurs: we are, if only for a micro-second, stepping out of our heads; the mostly imaginary worries, self-criticism and rumination that can – without awareness – keep us half-living in an exhausting loop of anxiety and stress.
As Tara Brach says in her wonderful book, True Refuge: ‘Our own healing and awakening unfolds in any moment in which we take refuge in our aliveness – connecting with our flesh and blood, with our breath, with the air itself, with the elements that compose us, and with the earth that is our home. Whenever we bring our presence to the living world of sensations, we are touching the ground.’
- Home practice: Mindfulness of The Body
For five minutes, turn off all phones, TV and technology. Sit or lie down in a place where you won’t be disturbed. Take a few longer, deeper breaths.
Begin to notice any play of sensations you can feel in your body: a tingling around the palms of the hands, the feeling of the breath moving in your abdomen, warmth or coolness residing anywhere.
We are not trying to judge or make feelings arise; simply turning into what is already here. If it is difficult to feel anything, that’s fine too; just have a sense of the tone of the body – like any practice, it becomes easier with time and patience.
Do not try to clear your mind of thoughts – thoughts will almost always be here; it’s how we are in relationship to them that matters. However many times you need to, keep patiently and kindly returning your attention to your physical body in this moment, and the next.
After these minutes, notice – again, without criticism – how you are feeling. Remember: we are not trying to get to any special state of mind or being. We are simply becoming aware.