Mindfulness is a hot buzz word these days. Whether or not you’ve ever meditated, it’s likely that you’ve heard the word. It’s a powerful practice that can help us in many ways, whether we’re learning to practice meditation, working on ourselves in a clinical setting, or practicing yoga.
UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine points out that mindfulness is not just awareness of the present moment, but also carries with it a quality of nonjudgemental acceptance. That is, mindfulness is not about bringing awareness to things so we can judge ourselves harshly.
There’s a piece of mindfulness that is often missing from these definitions, and it’s that mindfulness also means some level of recognition and remembering. That is, we recognize what is happening and what it is leading to. For example, when we are aware that we are experiencing anxiety, we should notice it and also notice that if we resist it we are causing more pain. Or if we are experiencing anger we should know that feeding it or acting upon it will cause harm.
This comes from a remembering or recognition. We remember how this has felt in the past and recognize our choice in responding. When we’re experiencing joy or happiness, mindfulness means we pause, appreciate it, and recognize what it is that’s making us happy. With this remembering and recognizing piece, we can train ourselves to behave and respond in ways that promote freedom.
Mindfulness comes from the Buddhist tradition. The word “mindfulness” is a translation of the Pali word sati. Pali is an ancient Indian language that the Buddhist teachings are offered in. The word sati actually means “to remember.” This is pointing toward the remembering we must do with mindfulness. We practice noticing what is happening AND recognizing if it is likely to bring suffering or liberation.
It’s important to understand that in its original context, mindfulness isn’t the end of the path or the goal. Mindfulness is one factor on a path that leads to awakening. Knowing this, we shouldn’t treat it like the end-all of spiritual practice. Rather, it’s one tool in our toolbox! Sometimes we use mindfulness and notice that we need to break out the compassion, the concentration, or some generosity.
Mindfulness of the body is an important and beautiful practice. The Buddha taught mindfulness of the body as the First Foundation of Mindfulness, which is the first way we can establish mindfulness. There are many different practices that can help us do so.
When we practice mindfulness of the body, we practice looking at the body to see what’s going on. We aren’t trying to make anything happen. Rather, we are just observing what is naturally arising and passing. Whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, we just watch the body and our reactions.
One of the most common practices of mindfulness of the body is working with the breath. In mindfulness of the breath practices, we don’t need to breathe in any certain way. Instead, we just let the body breathe itself. The body does so all the time by itself! Just let it do its thing and observe it.
You can pick one spot in the body to work with. Maybe it’s the stomach and abdomen, the chest, or the nostrils. Wherever it is, just pick one spot and stick with it for now. See if you can be with the body breathing from the start of an inhale all the way through the end of the exhale. One breath at a time, just observe how it feels to be breathing. Tune into the actual physical experience of the body breathing, letting go of judgements about how it should be!
Body scans are another great way to practice mindfulness of the body. In a body scan meditation, you start at one point in the body and move slowly through the body. As you move through each individual part of the body, tune into whatever is going on for you in this moment. With each part of the body, you can just try to bring awareness to whatever is there.
Movement practices like walking meditation, yoga, or qigong are another great way to practice mindfulness of the body. When we practice while we’re moving, we can practice in a new way. Whether we’re walking to work from the bus, learning a few basic yoga poses, or just moving through our days, we can always practice mindfulness of the moving body.
What does it feel like for the skeleton to move? What about the muscles? Can you feel your body working to move? Notice how it feels to stretch, to sit, to stand, to walk, and to be still. This can lay an incredibly beautiful foundation for awareness in our lives.