I found out that this constant mental buzzing is a consequence of letting my mind go wild. And I found out that (to some degree) I am able to calm my mind. For me, a calmer mind means bringing a different flavour to my mental activities. My mind never stops moving, but its quality changes. It becomes less jumpy, it's content somehow softer, more wholesome. I don’t get carried away that easily by my own thoughts.
What is Mindfulness?
The concept of ‘Mindfulness’ is ubiquitous in Buddha’s teachings. As the seventh element of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, it is considered its most important component. Mindfulness is the basis for all the other components on the path. It is a precondition of the right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, and concentration. Buddha encouraged meditation as a practice to develop mindfulness, so practitioners can progress on the Eightfold Path towards enlightenment.
While the wish to ‘do right’ (right intention, speech, action etc.) always felt close to me, enlightenment definitely didn’t figure as my goal in life. It was rather the wish to ease my stress symptoms that brought me to the yoga mat. From there, I adopted a Mindfulness practice. Mindfulness features as a red thread in many yoga styles, with its invitation to returning again and again into the Here and Now. There are aspects of Mindfulness in probably every yoga style, like the focus on the breath.
Mindfulness in the West
The concept of Mindfulness had a renaissance in the late seventies, when Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced a mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR): a crossover of Buddhist philosophy, Hatha, yoga and meditation practices, and Western psychology. Western culture and education focus heavily on training the intellect (the mind) by continuously feeding it with impulses to process, while there is less attention for the processes of the body, and often even less for the emotional processes. As a consequence, the Western mind is often ‘full’ - “Mind full”, instead of the Eastern idea of ‘mindfully (= with awareness) living in the moment’.
From a desire to find space and calm within a head that seemed constantly on overdrive, I followed the 8-week MBSR program. During formal meditation and mindfulness practices, I learned to spread my attention more evenly between mind, physical sensations, and feeling tones. This practice gave me the insight that it was my own mind trapping me in certain conditions and behavioural patterns, ultimately leading to unease and suffering.
Mindfulness on the mat
Mindfulness invites us to turn our senses inward, to become equanimous in the tension field between aversion and attachment. The yoga mat is a great laboratory for practising mindfulness, because it mirrors our physical, emotional and mental patterns. From exploring these on the mat, we can bring the mindfulness practice into our daily life.
The 4 Foundations of Mindfulness are:
1. Mindfulness of the body and breath
2. Mindfulness of feeling tones
3. Mindfulness of the mind
4. Mindfulness of the objects of the mind
Mindfulness of the body
During formal Mindfulness practices such as the body scan or asana, we focus on the sensations in the physical body. Can I feel (all) my toes? Can I feel my left ear without touching it? My yoga practice made much more sense when I included these self-inquiries. Instead of allowing my mind to run wild while moving my body from a place of lifelong competitive conditioning, I started to really pay attention to what happened in my body. I slowly invited mindfulness about my body into daily activities, e.g. noticing when to give myself some more gentleness and care, listening to my needs.
Mindfulness of feeling tones
While exploring the feeling tones, we ask ourselves: What kind of sensations, subtle or intensive, do I feel in my body? Do they stay solid, do they change? I learned that how I internally comment on the sensations actually makes a big difference in how I perceive them. By focussing objectively on a physical sensation, I found out what was beneficial or where I encountered boundaries. I learned to listen to the signals of my body, instead of judging them. Off the mat, this helped me to embrace life situations in a more nuanced way.
Mindfulness of the mind
Paying attention to the quality of the mind came as an eye-opener for me. It had never occurred to me that there was anything to observe, let alone ‘do’ about the quality of my mind. I had not learned before I could resist a thought that was about to sweep me off my feet. Now I learned that through keeping my mind on physical sensations, by looking at my mental activity from one step of a distance, I can actually manage my mental activities.
Mindfulness of the objects of the mind
Watching the content of the mind taught me not to take every thought so serious. If all my thoughts were true, what a world would we live in! While bringing much of my mental processes into perspective, this process gave me more access to my intuition and to deeper knowledge that I hadn’t known I possess.
Mindfulness off the mat is now part of my daily practice. Mindfully listening in conversations. Being mindful about my emotions. About my judgments. My health and energy balance. Mindful of my body and breath, the nature around me, the food in my mouth. Mindful of my own motives, underlying assumptions, behavioural patterns. I now embrace mindfulness not only as a physical anchor in the Here and Now, but also as something that opens up space in me to connect to the bigger picture, to the spiritual aspects of life. Perhaps Mindfulness can open my door to Enlightenment after all.