Occasionally people contact me and want to know how they can learn mindfulness. Like most things around this mindfulness business the answer is both quite simple, and it often gets a bit confusing and complicated once you start to talk about it too much.
The simple answer, and the most practical, is find a relatively quite place where you are unlikely to be disturbed. Get in to stable and comfortable position. Then pay attention to the physical sensations of breathing. That's it.
Be aware of the feeling of the breath in the body; as you breath in and breath out. All you have to do is be aware. Now if you are like most people things will pull your attention in different ways. Thoughts, feelings, urges to move, plans for the future, memories, all sorts of things come up. This is OK. That is what happens. Its not wrong. Your job in practising mindfulness is to simply to become aware of the sensations of breathing wherever they are occurring at the time. It helps to not make anything, and I do mean anything, of what we think of as distractions. The other things that come up. In this exercise, in this practice we are learning to attend to what is physically happening, and not so much to our thoughts and fantasies about what is happening, should happen, did happen, or might happen. Its about fully experiencing what is happening now.
It can be very helpful to have an aid to keep you on task with the breath. Breath counting is a good way to do this. We still attend closely to the sensations of breathing, and add in a count, generally on the out breath. We do this by counting silently to ourselves one (oooonnnnnne) for the full length of the out breath, while still being aware of the breath. Breathing in aware of the breath, and counting again twwwwoooo on the out breath. All the way up to four. This is not really a counting exercise, but a way to keep anchored to the breathing, the experience of breathing.
It is important to remember that there is no special, or right way to breath. Big deep breaths are not any better than shallow breaths. The aim is to let the breathing happen by itself. Although breathing happens on its own, once we attend to things we habitually try to control them. The practice here is giving up control. Letting the breath happen. And following from that, letting the sensations happen, letting the attention rest with the movement of the breath, and not be dragged off with every passing whim.
That's it, and that really is plenty to work with. For years. Although we can also be mindful of other things, like the feeling of our feet on the floor, the sound of birds, or passing traffic, wind on the skin. Anything at all. However awareness of breath is a good foundation, and with practice leads to wider open awareness, which includes the activities of daily life.
It can be extremely useful to have some instruction and support in this. It is very easy to divert off into funny ways of practising. Almost any instruction we are given some how gets distorted. This is my experience as a student, and as someone who uses mindfulness in therapy. Now this is where things can get a little confusing. The standard response to people who want to learn mindfulness is to send them off to some popular books, or recordings, or maybe even a youtube video. While I have read a lot of these books, and find many of them useful for motivating practice I generally don't feel comfortable recommending them as manuals for practice. This is for a variety of reasons, some of which I will very likely go into in latter posts. The main reason is that I don't fully trust the language they use to teach mindfulness.
The language we use is very important. It causes great confusion. Mindfulness is an activity, and many of the concepts around this activity are simply contrary to good practice. That is why it is very useful to have some support and guidance from someone more experienced. They not only have the experience, know the problems that can come up in practice, but can be there as someone to consult and check out if you are “doing it right.” Or at least not going down the wrong path, and simply reinforcing bad habits such as avoidance of emotions,
The problem is, where do you find someone.
In general Buddhist teachers are pretty experienced in mediation practice. But, some of these people can be a little weird too. Just because some one is a Buddhist, or was a monk, does not mean they are an expert in mindfulness, in teaching others, or that they have their shit together. The same applies to therapists who use mindfulness.
So, my advice is practice yourself. Also, check out mindfulness resources locally, and from books, or from the web. Don't automatically believe everything you hear, or read. Question. Does what people say regarding mindfulness, and how to practice ring true? Not does it sound good. Or make you feel good. Is it simple? Does it make sense? When you have practised for awhile have you found it helpful? Ultimately this latter point is the best guide for your personal practice. Finding a practice that adds to your life; to your experience of living.