Mindfulness is the sort of thing that you can practice just about anywhere, anyhow. It’s something that benefits you nearly any time you call upon it… and every time you try to be mindful you’re also improving your skill with it.
Calling mindfulness a thing or it is probably the most honest way to describe it in English.
- It’s not exactly an emotion; it’s the separation from emotion’s effects, without denying their existence
- it’s not a thought; it’s the absence of conscious thoughts that you are directing
- it’s not even a state of mind; It’s no-mind
Mindfulness is described by what it isn’t and what it is.
Don’t worry, there’s a lot of that duality here to come!
Leaving your mind at the door can take a bit of effort. It takes practice.
Have you ever paid attention to someone cooking with a great deal of skill? They somehow do everything at once and all at the right time – chopping rapidly on the fly, checking texture and flavor and temperature, stopping components at the right time… That person has probably put in enough effort, practice, and training that they can perform these wonderful combinations of activities with seemingly no thought.
Mindfulness is really no different, except that your being is the amazing chef. It has a mind that makes thoughts, a body that feels emotions, and a consciousness that can set all that aside to enter the state of mindfulness.
Or maybe it’s the chef that’s practicing mindfulness. Who knows!
All it takes is a bit of practice.
Okay, maybe a lot of practice. That’s fine though – the journey is half the fun!
In between having a wild monkey mind and reaching enlightenment are distinct and interweaving steps. The first few stages of Patanjali’s 8 Limbs help you to settle your mind and remove some of its distractions and impurities. The next few walk you through deeper and deeper levels of consciousness – from the outside sensations to the many inner levels. As your conscious mind steps out of the way bit by bit, your preconceived notions, assumptions, and baggage go with it. In between letting it all go and pure mindless mindfulness, there’s the stage of concentration, also known as Dharana.
Concentrating on a single object settles your mind quite firmly into the present moment. When you focus completely on a task, nothing else interrupts you. Your own thoughts don’t get in the way, and neither do any of your worries and aversions. Concentrating in a mindful way is much like this, except that you’re not really trying to accomplish something. You’re trying to simply be. And, at the same time, not trying.
At first, it will take effort. Your attention will wander to thoughts, you’ll force yourself back to the task of concentrating. As your ability for mindfulness builds, you’ll find yourself drifting away less. At the same time, you’ll find directing your attention to be even easier. At the very height of mindful concentration, this will take no effort at all. You’re working to not work.
This change in concentration doesn’t happen overnight. For most of us, there’s no sudden moment of enlightenment that makes it all click. You may sit one day and find yourself settling easily into focusing on a single object. Other days, you may be tired, spending as much time re-straightening your back as you do trying not to think about it.
Eventually, this state of relaxed semi-focus will become more natural. It’ll happen almost like instinct. Like the cook in the kitchen, you’ll be able to settle back into this not-state-of-mind. You’ll be able to be aware of an object without allowing your thoughts to interrupt your steady contemplation. Your senses will take in the world, but you won’t be totally devoted to them. You can simply exist while the world exists in your awareness. In this particular case, one little object in the world. This calm state can be your natural state, and this ability for gentle awareness can be an instinctual state of being. All it takes is practice.
Concentration improves gradually.
A Few Notes
Please practice from a state of kindness and compassion for yourself and whatever you’re looking at. Be gentle with yourself when your awareness wanders, and be kind with how you encourage yourself to draw it back to the object in the present moment.
For my particular practice, I tend to pick a leaf. I’ll face the upper or lower side of the leaf towards me, sometimes leaning it against a shelf or a plain-cover book. I also have a few dried flowers that can each be put in a slim, simple vase. I relish letting my attention be drawn to nature in its many stages – vibrant and growing little plants, stately mature flowers, and dried remnants many months later. Next, I think it may be time to focus on a seed; something easy, like a sunflower seed with the shell still on.
What follows are the very simple steps of focusing on a single object. Before you dive right in, take some time to get relaxed and centered in the present moment. Silence your phone and TV, perform some light stretches, and do a bit of breath work to settle into your body in the present moment. Make sure you set up your object beforehand so you don’t have to go deciding on one or trying to remember where you put it.
- Sit comfortably, with an erect spine and relaxed shoulders.
- Pick an external object that rests comfortably in your field of view. You don’t want to have to go craning your neck to hold your gaze on it! Pick something that isn’t so large that your eyes have to move to take it all in. And try not to pick something so small that you have to squint to make it out. You can use the same object time and again, or pick a new one. Whatever helps you settle into a comfortable state of being.
- Direct your awareness to this object.
- Begin to take in every detail. Every edge, every color, every dimension, every texture.
- Allow your gaze to relax into something between focusing on the object and not focusing on the object. Let your eyes unfocus slightly – enough to take in all the details, but not enough to truly be focusing on it.
- If your awareness drifts, or if thoughts pop into your mind, allow them to be while you draw your awareness back to the object. Your mind will do what it wills, but you can decide to draw your awareness elsewhere – away from the thoughts that spring up unbidden.
- See the object for what it is. Don’t try to label it or name parts of it. Just let it fill your awareness, your relaxed-yet-active focus.
Let yourself rest in this state for as long as you feel appropriate. Treat this like exercising; start with a few minutes of concentrating on an object. Add time, minute by minute, with each few sittings. If you want to test yourself, concentrate as long as you feel comfortably able, then check the time.
If you are setting a stopwatch to control your time, I recommend that you use a quiet, gentle alarm sound. Hearing a sudden siren is quite jarring when you’re deep in concentration. I prefer to set my phone’s timer to go off with a single vibration, and leave it on carpet a few feet away. That way, if I decide to go longer on a particular day, I can easily ignore the timer. If I’m concentrating with great focus, I never even notice it happening. Eventually, I think I’ll be able to be aware that it’s happening without having any change to my state of being – and by then, I won’t be setting timers anyway.