Jon Kabat-Zinn, a mentor and the rock star of mindfulness meditation, was featured in last month’s issue of Time magazine with “Mindfulness” as the cover.
Kabat-Zinn is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is the creator/founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Technique (MBSR) which helps people cope with stress, anxiety, pain and illness. This esteemed program is offered at medical centers, hospitals and health maintenance organizations world-wide.
As Kabat-Zinn is fond of saying, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” He often uses the example of waves to explain mindfulness.
“Think of your mind as the surface of a lake or ocean,” says Kabat-Zinn. “There are always waves on the water, sometimes big, sometimes small, sometimes almost imperceptible. The water’s waves are churned up by the winds, which come and go and vary in direction and intensity, just as do the winds of stress and change in our lives, which stir up waves in our mind. It’s possible to find shelter from much of the wind that agitates the mind. Whatever we might do to prevent them, the winds of life and of the mind will blow,” he says.
Though mindfulness takes practice, as with forming any new habit, it can become second nature. “Witness” your thoughts from the time you get up in the morning until you go to bed at night. Narrate your day to yourself, “Good Morning, Self,” and do so with great interest and enthusiasm.
Cultivate and practice noticing what you habitually pay attention to and what you ignore. If you reflect on what you pay attention to throughout the day, what does this say about you? What priority would love and soulful connection with others have in the arc of your day? Would you like to change your investments in attention, time, and concern? All poignant questions on the path toward mindfulness.
A more formal approach to mindfulness may be through meditation. And specifically focusing on your breathing. You can sit in a chair, with shoulders relaxed or lay on your back. Keep your spine reasonably straight. Focus on every aspect of the gentle inflow and outflow of your breathing. “Be” with each in-breath and out-breath for its full duration, as if you’re riding the waves of your own breathing. You may feel the coolness of the breath as you inhale though the nostrils. Fill your lungs as widely and deeply as is comfortable for you on the in-breath. You’ll feel your belly gently rise or expand. The belly will then fall or recede on the exhale. Feel the warmth of the air through the nostrils as you fully exhale.
Every time you notice that the mind has wandered away from watching the breath, notice what took you away, and then gently bring your attention back to your breathing. It’s okay and natural for thoughts to arise or distractions to occur and for your attention to follow them. Simply accept them without judging or interacting with them. Just let them come and go like migrating birds or clouds floating by through the sky.
If your mind wanders away from the breath a thousand times, then your job is to simply bring it back to the breath every time, no matter what preoccupies you. Continue on this way for five to 10 minutes, ultimately working up to 15 minutes per day. Over time, you will become grateful for your mindfulness meditation time, and will look forward to it.
MARY BETH JANSSEN is a certified mind-body health educator for the Chopra Center for Well Being and author of five books. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.