Breathe in. Breathe out. We do this all the time, but most of us are not aware of air moving in and out of our respiratory tracts. Perhaps, we focused on our breaths during a mandatory yoga class at school or when a swimming instructor taught us how to blow bubbles while putting our heads under water. But for the most part, most of us pay scant attention to our breathing. Yet, mounting evidence suggests that mindfulness, which actually has its roots in yogic and Buddhist practices, has immense benefits for our minds and bodies. Moreover, mindfulness is not an esoteric practice meant only for wise and wizened sages in forests, but can be practised by anyone irrespective of their age, gender, religious beliefs or affiliations.
But what exactly is mindfulness? Like most philosophical and psychological constructs, mindfulness is hard to define, and thereby engenders multiple definitions. Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has popularised the term, provides a fairly straightforward definition, saying, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Most of us, at least most of the time, live our lives on auto-pilot. While this does not mean we are robots or zombies, we are ruled during our waking moments by a continuous stream of thoughts and emotions that seem to rise automatically in our minds. Hopes, dreams, worries, wishes, regrets, lists, plans, arguments and counter-arguments crowd our mind-space with one thought leading to another and then jumping to yet another.
So, one of the first steps to cultivate mindfulness is to become aware of the endless chitter-chatter of our own minds. Forgot to photocopy my Aadhaar card. Will I get my visa? I should have gone to the gym this morning. Why did Sindhu not return my call? Why does this city have so many traffic lights? I can’t wait to go on the Ladakh trek. As thoughts continually rise and fade, take a step back and observe your own mind. Don’t pass judgement or respond or react to the thoughts. Just observe. Doing this exercise for even five minutes a day will help you become more self-aware. Most of us are ruled by the automatic thoughts that pop into our heads. But by consciously practising self-awareness, you will be less of a slave to your thoughts, knowing that you always have a choice on how you respond to them.
In order to attain a greater degree of clarity and calmness, you may also try mindfulness meditation. Find a quiet, peaceful location where you can sit comfortably without getting disturbed. Set a timer for five-minutes. Take a few deep breaths and try to follow the air as it enters and leaves your nostrils. As you get accustomed to this, try to focus on the air as it flows through your airways into your lungs and out again. Gradually, you may lengthen and deepen your breaths as deep breathing is relaxing for the mind and body. Just focusing on your breaths is meditation. But, of course, this is easier said then done. Before you know it, the incessant chit-chat in your mind starts playing out and your focus shifts from your breath to the next assignment that is due tomorrow. At this point, take heart that this is entirely natural and does not in anyway mean that meditation is not for you.
Just let the thought about the assignment pass and return to observing your breathing. Again, within two breaths, you remember that you have to call your cousin. Similar to last time, just watch the thought and then return to your breathing. Continue in this manner till your timer beeps. If you are using your phone as a timer, you may put it on airplane mode so that it doesn’t ping while you are trying to focus. Try to mediate at the same time every day so that it becomes a habit. Start with five minutes and gradually increase the duration by a couple of minutes at a time.
Mindfulness is an effective antidote to today’s fast-paced life where digital distractions continually crowd our mind-space. As you continue to practice mindfulness daily, you may start noticing gradual and subtle shifts in your life. Ironically, mindfulness is what enables you to notice micro changes that take place in your body or mind.
Collating the findings of multiple research studies, psychologists Daphne Davis and Jeffrey Hayes list a number of benefits of mindfulness training. First, mindfulness meditation alleviates stress in people and reduces their tendency to ruminate on negative thoughts. In addition, it enhances people’s working memory and their ability to focus (students take notice). People who meditate are also less emotionally volatile and have more satisfying relationships.
Meditation also has salubrious effects on our bodies as well. Researchers have found that practising mindfulness daily can improve our immune system, boost the quality of our sleep, lower our blood pressure, help us manage chronic pain better and reduce the severity and frequency of migraine headaches.
As you continue to practice, you will realise that the purposeful awareness that you bring to meditation can be extended to other activities as well. Whether you are eating breakfast, going for a run, chatting with a friend or studying for a test, you will realise that each of these activities can be more fulfilling and enjoyable if we approach them with the same non-judgemental focus that we cultivate during meditation. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says in an interview in The Huffington Post , “The real meditation practice is how we live our lives from moment to moment.”
The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org