How To Keep From Losing Your Mind

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Mindfulness is a bit of a buzzword these days. You can attend mindful eating workshops, learn mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, and become more mindful of your surroundings. But what exactly is mindfulness mediation and how can one practice it?
The mind always has an object. You can be mindful of your downstairs neighbors by taking off your wooden clogs before you walk across your hardwood floors, and you can be mindful of how many times you say "um" during a presentation at work. You are always being mindful of something, whether it’s your cellphone or the grocery list you are constructing in your head. In the case of mindfulness meditation, we are making the felt sensation of our breath the object of our mindfulness.
By sitting still and gently placing our mind on the breath, we are cultivating the ability to notice when we have become lost in thought. The mind will wander during practice, and this does not mean you are "doing it wrong." You just notice that a thought came up, touch it gently, and then return to the felt sensation of the breath in the body. In going back and forth between your thoughts and awareness of the breath, you are building your mindfulness muscle.
Mindfulness is available to you at all times. Our minds move in and out of meditative states all day. We have all had that experience of forgetting ourselves through focusing on a task, feeling very connected to what we’re doing, or suddenly being very present. This type of meditation is a form of training ourselves to be able to have these experiences intentionally, without our minds jumping around from a memory to a plan to an idea to a car honking. We’re settling our minds so that we can really look at our experience.
I personally believe that it helps to enter into this experience with a sense of humor. It can be a very brave act to turn the light on in our mind and really experience and observe what’s going on in there. We spend so much of our lives trying to distract ourselves from our thoughts that to begin to acknowledge them can be a difficult process. So, before I sit, I try to remind myself that I don’t have to be embarrassed by or judge my thoughts. I am just a curious observer.
My teachers have expressed that the regularity of practice is more important that duration. If you can commit to a regular practice of even just three minutes of really following the breath, it will be more beneficial then trying to do a marathon sit once a month. You can move up to ten, twenty, or thirty minutes when you begin to crave it. You want to sit long enough that your mind has time to settle, but you don’t want to sit so long that you will feel hesitant to sit again the next day. Making the choice to commit to this on a regular basis is in itself a beneficial shift in perspective towards beginning to make friends with yourself.
How to cultivate a mindfulness practice:
Sit in a position that is alert but not rigid. If you are going to sit with your legs crossed, it can help to get your knees below your hips. It is ok to adjust yourself if you begin to feel uncomfortable. And you can even sit in a chair. The important thing is to feel very grounded and supported.
Begin to bring your awareness to your physical body. Take a few deep breaths. Give yourself a quick body scan and notice any spots of tension. See if you can release and relax while still having an alert posture.
Check in with yourself. What is the flavor of your mind right now? There is no right or wrong texture of mind. Maybe you are tired, or maybe your mind is very scattered. Maybe you are thinking about something that happened today, or are worried about something that might happen tomorrow. Just see where you are at this moment, and acknowledge it. You don’t have to change it, but you do want to be aware.
After you’ve checked in, begin to shift your focus to the felt sensation of the breath in the body. You don’t have to make yourself breathe any particular way, but you just want to begin being aware of your breath. Not the idea of breath, but the actual breath you are experiencing in this moment. It can be particularly helpful to follow the out breath.
When your mind wanders, as it will, just notice the thought that has come up, and return to the felt sensation of the breath in the body. The breath is your anchor here. You can always return to it. Be gentle with yourself, and try not to judge the thoughts. You are an explorer, and you are just acknowledging and then returning to the breath.
Continue this process of noticing and returning to the breath for ten minutes. I find it helpful to close my practice with a bow of gratitude to my numerous teachers.
This post was authored by Caroline Contillo.

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