How (and why) to Practice Mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness is the beginning of freedom from the petty tyrants of our thoughts and emotions. So many of us are ruled by what goes on in our heads, and have gone to great lengths to avoid reality, or numb ourselves to difficult feelings.
If we are to stay clean and sober, we must change—plain and simple. Mindfulness is a tool that gives us freedom from the mental chatter and discomfort that often goes along with it. It offers us a path to relief from fear, obsessiveness, boredom, and anxiety.
The beginning of transformation is taking a look around. Instead of being constantly steamrolled by our feelings, our reactiveness, we can pause and say “Hmm. Is this true for me?” or “Oh hello, fear.” This often takes the teeth out of our emotions and gives us a sane place to move forward from. We begin to become awake to the world around us, making friends with it, and ourselves. Mindfulness is all about paying attention, and paying attention is one of the most transformative things we can do.
Here are some easy ways to get started:
Seated meditation is a great place to start. Some like to set a timer, and often it’s useful to begin with a shorter length of time. Next, find a comfortable seat. There is no right way to sit, but some meditation teachers remind us to “sit with dignity.” This naturally draws us up into a more graceful and upright posture, which in turn opens us up to breathe more freely. Now the hard part: just sit there. When thoughts arise, regardless of their nature, practice letting them float past. Like cars passing on the road. Avoid the temptation to get in each car and ride to the next town. Practice friendliness and non-judgment towards whatever comes up. This takes sustained effort, but the more we do it, the more natural it becomes. Suddenly we see that we are not our thoughts, and we are bigger than our minds and their chatter. We often leave this practice feeling calm, focused and renewed—but don’t worry if you thought about your to-do list the whole time. The practice is what matters.
Even if we have incorporated seated meditation, what about the rest of the day? It’s great to practice mindfulness for a few minutes in the morning but the more we can integrate this practice into our days, the greater the benefit. Creating reminders to “check in” can be really useful. For example, every time you get into the car. Or pick up the phone. Or use the bathroom: “What’s going on with me right now? What’s my head up to?” Am I really present to what I am doing or am I totally somewhere else? A great way to practice becoming more present is simply to try noticing what’s around you. How does the steering wheel feel under your hands? Are the birds singing right now? You get the idea. We are learning to tune in and bring ourselves more fully to each experience as if it is special and not to be missed.
Focus on the breath
Another great way to begin to practice mindfulness is to use the breath. It’s always right there with us, for free. Try tuning in a few times each day and simply paying attention to the breath come in and out. Feel how it feels in your nostrils and lungs. Notice how reliable it is. You can also try focusing techniques like paying attention to the moment when the inhale becomes exhale. Or work towards creating steady, even, slow breaths. When you get distracted, which is natural, simply return your focus to your breathing without judgment. In the beginning, even focusing for 10 seconds is a victory.
Practice doing nothing
We as a culture are becoming accustomed to constant stimuli and endless entertainment. We can’t stand in line for more than 30 seconds without scrolling mindlessly through our phones. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it leaves most of us feeling exhausted and less connected. Distraction is the enemy of mindfulness. So the next time you have a moment, allow yourself to be bored. No need to rush off to the next thing, take a moment and notice what is around you. Use your senses. Notice your thoughts. The more we can practice this sort of non-distraction, the more we refine the quality of our attention and bring ourselves more wholly to our lives. We as addicts and alcoholics often feel like we missed so much. Practicing mindfulness is how we don’t miss things. We were there for them. We watched them happen.