For our purposes we can define 'mindfulness' as 'consciously
attending to the present moment.'
It is being more aware of your immediate physical surroundings:
the smoothness of a wooden bannister, the sharpness of a fresh breeze,
the vibrancy of a sunset.
It is being more aware of your 'internal' mental/emotional space,
and being able to make a choice about what goes on
in your mind -
instead of being carried along by a rollercoaster of thoughts and emotions
which constantly compel people to jump to conclusions,
to 'have an opinion' on the latest hot topic.
It is about developing a deeper appreciation for what is actually important
and meaningful in life whilst spending less time and effort
on pointless distractions and trivia.
Which is all interesting, but why bother with it
when all these 'trivial distractions' are so bright and shiny?
What's the real big benefit?
A little while ago I read a book 'Waking the Tiger' -
if I were to summarise the book in one sentence it would be
"All mammals have the natural ability to 'release' any stresses,
tensions and trauma -
but Human Beings have accidentally got into the habit of interfering
with the normal functioning of this ability."
This 'interference' is caused by our tendency to live
in an increasingly intellectual, verbal and cultural 'headspace' -
to spend more and more time mentally chatting to ourselves,
obsessing over the past and daydreaming about the future.
All the while spending less and less time in the 'Here and Now'.
As a result of this 'interference' people tend to slowly accumulate internal
stress and tension, with increasingly negative consequences for mental and physical
Mindfulness is the key to restoring this natural ability of your mind-body.
Being mindfull of your surroundings keeps you in the now.
Being mindfull of your mental goings-on helps to prevent inner
obsessions, fixations and movies running away by themselves.
If you have been practising some of the language and perception exercises
from this site then you are already developing the skill of being more mindfull
- by directing more conscious awareness onto inner workings of your mind
which until now had largely been running purely subconsciously - on 'automatic.'
When learning to concentrate conscious awareness on the five senses, personally I find the sense of touch is a good place to start off from. We’ll need to find something that has an ‘interesting’ texture to work with. For the purposes of ‘venting’ old
accumulations of tension you will find that large, heavy objects are best. Walls made from stone or brick are good choices, and you might find that many trees have interesting-feeling bark that is also suitable.
Find a bit of wall (or bark) that is reasonably clean and free of sharp bits.
Now place your non-dominant hand (that’s your left hand if you are right-handed, right hand if you are left-handed) onto your chosen surface, fingers out-stretched, palm flat against the surface.
Then, very slowly, move your hand around in a small circular or wavy pattern, all the while focussing your attention on the sensations and feelings coming from your hand. If you find yourself mentally chatting to yourself about ‘what’s on TV tonight’ or ‘is anything happening yet,’ then just quiet your mind and put your attention back onto your hand.
For the first week, go out and do this for at least half an hour every day. Depending on how ‘highly strung’ your musculature might be, you could even feel some benefits from just doing this. As you focus on the ridges and undulations of the surface, on the crags and valleys of this sensory landscape, you find that some of your muscles begin to spontaneously relax. These might be muscles that you’d never realised were tensed in the first place.
For the second week you continue the exercise as given above but with one addition: I want you now to imagine that you have another identical hand placed just below your hand already against the wall surface. As you move your hand around very slowly, this imaginary hand moves also, so that it is always just below your actual hand. Now as you move your
hand(s) across the surface of whatever you’ve chosen I want you to imagine that your imaginary hand is experiencing the exact same feelings as your real hand. So that whatever sensation you experience from your actual hand, you imagine an exact copy of this sensation also coming from your imagined hand.
This exercise will help you to develop your ‘kinaesthetic imagination’. When you can ‘project’ the tactile sensations from imagination in such as way that they are ‘comparable’ to real sensations then you are ready to move on - into working with the touch sense in a purely imaginative way. However, this ‘put your hand on a tree and compare the actual versus imagined sensations’ should always be an exercise that you regularly re-visit to keep this tactile imagination sharp and strong.
This 'kinaesthetic imagination' is not a replacement for actually
going out and touching stones and trees for real, but the more you practise
this both in imagination and for real, the more strongly the imagination
will become associated with, and a trigger for, these same 'real' feelings -
helping you to maintain and practise the same resourceful feelings even
during those times and situations where
rushing out and grabbing a tree is not immediately possible.
The next exercise can be done either sat cross-legged on the floor, in a chair that holds your back firmly upright, or standing. (I’d suggest trying all three – personally I prefer the chair.)
Imagine yourself inside a small, enclosed, room right in the centre of a huge stone pyramid. Now imagine ‘projecting’ one of these imaginary hands onto the wall to your right. Imagine this ‘imaginary hand’ performing the same circular movements that you practised against your neighbourhood walls and trees – and strongly imagine the feel of a huge block of stone. What would it feel like if you were actually stood in front of one of these stone blocks with your hands against it? And then strongly imagine these sensations from your imaginary hand to your right. Now you project another hand, this time onto the wall to your left. Strongly imagine the sense of being able to touch and feel the stone blocks to either side of you. As you get the hang of doing this, reach out with other imaginary hands to your front as well as above, below and behind you. And then more: keep reaching out with hands in all directions until it seems as if you are able to touch and sense all of the surfaces of the room simultaneously, like a kind of ‘3-dimensional tactile echo-location’ telling you about the spaces and objects around you. Finally – begin to rotate all of these hands around you, so that the hands on the front wall slowly move over to the right, then behind you, to your left and in front of you again. If it helps you might conceptualise this ‘rotation’ as if there were a spinning glitter ball above you, and at each point of light you imagine the feelings and sensations of the wall, ceiling or floor surface texture.
Or if you find that a bit claustrophobic try something a little different. You can imagine some stone pillars either side of you, or imagine yourself inside a tree and sense the bark around you - from the inside. One favourite of mine has been to imagine myself ‘hovering’ half way down a stone-walled well, then to become aware of this sensory cylinder around, above and below me.
Some systems of martial arts (specifically Aikido) posit the idea of a ‘Centre’ or ‘One Point’ situated somewhere an inch or so below and behind your belly button. Try ‘projecting’ these imaginary ‘hands’ from this place, or from other places in your body and see what works best for you.
Basically the important thing to remember is that we are trying to give the seemingly endless mental chattering a break for a while and spend some time with a portion of our mind-body that is more connected with the physical world around us and more engaged with the reality of being a physical body in a physical world. This ‘instinctual’ part of the mind-body is also open to symbolism and metaphor. This is why I suggested working with something big and heavy - stonework and trees are both strongly symbolic of a quality of ‘stability’ and permanence. The act of placing this stonework around you - as though it were a protective wall – may also have further beneficial effects on your mind-body state.
It’s worth pointing out that this might not always be an entirely pleasant experience.
As the life and feeling begins to return to these muscles they will probably ache quite a bit. There might be years or even decades of tension that needs to be thawed out. It’s quite likely that emotions that have somehow been ‘frozen’ into a tense musculature may resurface as these muscles relax.
There is also a possibility that strange ‘memories’ might bubble up from somewhere. It is important to be aware that these might not be actual memories but instead could be some sort of symbolic expression of the unpleasantness being vented from your body. To put it simply, if your body has felt like it has been ‘under attack’ by life’s stresses - and has locked this feeling into a tense musculature - then as your body begins to relax you may experience some odd feelings and sensations of ‘being attacked.’
Depending on their personal history a person might interpret this feeling of ‘being attacked’ in a number of ways. They might see it as a ‘past life experience’, as a ‘recovered traumatic memory’ or as evidence that they are under ‘psychic attack’ from spirit-like ‘negative entities’ or something.
There is a possibility that the so-called 'Dark Night of the Soul' may be
a reference to this experience.
However: none of these ‘explanations’ are really that useful. The simple solution is to keep your conscious awareness on tactile sensations. Keep touching those stone walls! The more you immerse yourself in a world of tactile sensations, avoiding mental chatter, the faster your mind-body system will vent all of this accumulated rubbish.
Keep your conscious awareness on tactile sensations.
Should a person start to fixate on the emotions, focussing on ‘what does this mean’, ‘where does this come from’ and so on and so forth then they could jeopardise the process of venting this stuff and accidentally force their mind-body to re-freeze it all back into their muscles.
Keep your conscious awareness on tactile sensations!
There are a few books that may be useful to you.
Teach Yourself to Meditate by Eric Harrison
An excellent 'how-to' manual that manages to cover all the basics
and give some useful insights into the more advanced
stages of meditation - so we know where we are going, why and
what to expect.
Waking the Tiger by Peter A. Levine
One of the very few books on anxiety/stress/trauma that is
actually useful and even occasionally genuinely inspirational -
a massive contrast to the patronising pap that normally
fills these types of books.