Open awareness is something that you can practice anywhere. It is basically being fully present through your senses.
From my lounge room and deck I can see Moreton Bay with Stradbroke Island in the background. I used to wake up of a morning and note the sunrise across the bay on my way to making a cup of tea in the kitchen. I would walk past what is an ever-changing view.
Now I am developing the habit of standing still and taking in the view for the few minutes while the water in the jug is boiling.
In this way I can practice open awareness – listening to the sounds of birds waking, watching the changing hues as the sun comes up, observing the breeze in the trees and sensing the weather.
I find that my body immediately relaxes and I am able to quickly drop into mindful breathing as a matter of course. So one mindfulness practice leads onto the next.
What you can do to develop open awareness is to link it to something that you do on a daily basis – a morning walk, the morning cuppa or coffee, the early morning bike ride. If you structure open awareness into your day, you will be more likely to persist with the habit and progressively build mindfulness. You will also find that you will more frequently stop what you are doing and become openly aware of your surroundings.
Have you ever been in a “conversation” where the other person was obviously not listening?
They may have been distracted by their own thoughts, looking at their smart phone or watching things going on elsewhere. While you are talking they could be keying on their computer, shuffling papers or doodling. One cue that they are not listening is the lack of listening non-verbals, e.g. eye contact, facing you, conversation encouragers such as a nod or smile.
The non-listener will interrupt, talk over you, try to solve your problem before they know what it is and direct the conversation to their own issue or story.
Of course, each of us engages in one or more of these behaviours at one time or another. The net result of the failure to listen is that the speaker becomes frustrated, annoyed and even aggressive in tone or posture.
When you really listen, you give the speaker the gift of affirmation – you affirm their existence, their worth and that you value them enough to pay attention to them (rather than to your own needs).
However, to listen reflectively you need to be present to the other person – to be mindful. You can reflect what the speaker is saying through summarising, paraphrasing and checking for understanding.
Reflective listening requires focused attention – a key feature of mindfulness. It is really a two-way street. The more you listen and focus on someone talking, the more mindful you become; the more you develop the habit of mindfulness, the more you are able to listen reflectively.
You have to learn to use your ears more and your mouth less so you can focus on the other person and what they are saying.
“Practice makes perfect” – a truism but particularly relevant to developing mindfulness.
People who know about habit forming suggest three basic steps to develop a habit:
focus on one small and simple behaviour
build the habit into your daily routine/structure of your day
frequently revisit your motivation (s) for growing the habit of mindfulness.
Start simple and develop more complex behaviours as you master an initial starting point. If you are trying to do something complex at the outset and trying to maintain the behaviour, you can easily become discouraged. However, if you start simply and achieve mastery, this will add to your motivation. You will avoid discouragement and frustration this way.
If you structure the new behaviour into you daily routine, you are more likely to be able to sustain the mindfulness practice. So if it is something you do first thing in the morning, then each time you wake up you are reminded to undertake the behaviour. One of the participants in the Search Inside Yourself leadership program decided to do mindful breathing whenever he put the jug on for a cup of coffee. I have started the practice of using open awareness first thing in the morning when I make my first cup of tea. Providing an inbuilt structure (timing & location) to a mindfulness practice helps to embed it into your daily life.
It is important to maintain your motivation when the going gets tough or there are things that distract you from your practice. One way to do this is to write down the reasons why you want to engage in the mindfulness practice. As you begin to practice, you will find that you will be able to add to your motivation list because you have experienced some positive benefits that you had not alluded to earlier in the practice cycle. Some people even develop a personal mantra to help their motivation, e.g. “be mindful, be my best”.
Mindfulness is within everyone’s reach but each person is different. So a particular mindfulness practice may appeal to one person and not another. You need to find somewhere to start (or extend) that suits your personal preference and lifestyle.
There are many pathways to mindfulness – mindful breathing, mindful eating, meditation, open awareness, reflective listening, yoga, and Tai Chi – to name a few. Start somewhere and grow mindfulness from that point.
Tai Chi is described as “poetry in motion” and is a popular pathway to the development of mindfulness. It builds the connection between body, mind and spirit.
I first encountered Tai Chi practice when, as a manager in the public service in the 1980s, I engaged a Tai Chi instructor to conduct training for myself and my staff on a weekly basis. At the time I felt extraordinarily uncoordinated but persisted with the practice in the weekly lessons, only to drop away as pressure of work took over.
In 2014 my wife and I undertook the beginners class in Taoist Tai Chi before going overseas to Europe. I think it certainly helped our fitness and presence of mind. More recently, I returned to the weekly beginners classes but was unable to maintain attendance and learn the full 108 movements owing to work commitments.
The Tai Chi classes provide social support and motivation to master the art of Tai Chi. However, I became discouraged with the classes because I could not keep up owing to my work-induced absences. However, I had really appreciated the benefits of practising Taoist Tai Chi, so I located a training video that takes you through the first 17 moves and now I attempt to use this video to practise Taoist Tai Chi on a daily basis. This video takes you through the steps very slowly with a clear explanation:
The advantage of this video is that the 17 moves take only about 4 minutes and they can be completed in sets of three or more repetitions. The creators of the video also provide a practice video for the highly recommended warm-up exercises.
As with mastery of anything, Taoist Tai Chi requires regular practice, ideally on a daily basis. The more frequently you practise, the greater are the benefits you can experience in terms of physical and mental health and the growth of mindfulness.
The significant degree of turning and stretching in each of the movements, combined with the adaptability of the form to suit individual needs, are just some of the factors that contribute to its focus on restoring, improving and maintaining health.
The specific health benefits they identify include:
improved balance and posture
increased strength and flexibility
alleviation of the symptoms of illness such as arthritis, high blood pressure and migraine.
Tai Chi, like mindfulness, develops calmness, focus, concentration and clarity.
So often you look without seeing. It’s as if your eyes are turned inward rather than outward – you are consumed in thought, not absorbed in what is before you.
Sometimes if you are open to experience, and present to what lies before you, it is possible to experience an awakening awareness of the beauty that surrounds you.
M.L. Stedman illustrates this exquisitely in their best-selling novel, “The Light Between the Oceans”. The light refers to a lighthouse off the coast of Western Australia which is positioned between the intersection of two oceans, The Indian Ocean and The Great Southern Ocean. In describing a particular location, one of the book’s characters recalls how they “had been struck by the emptiness of this place, like a blank canvas, when they arrived”.
However as awareness gradually dawned, they came to see the place through the eyes of others, “attuning to the subtle changes”:
The clouds, as they formed and grouped and wandered the sky; the shape of the waves, which would take their cue from the wind and the season and could, if you knew how to read them, tell you the next day’s weather.
This is the power of skilled novelists and people like Louie Schwartzberg, the time lapse photographer, who enable us to look at nature through their lens and see it as they see it.
So it is often possible to just stop what you are doing, however briefly, to take in the beauty that surrounds you. In this way, you begin to build mindfulness practice.
Nature is a wonderful source of mindfulness. We so often look at something in nature but don’t see the beauty that is there. One way to really appreciate nature and all it has to offer is to adopt “open awareness” – to take in the sounds, sights, colours, smells, contours and touch sensations.
So often we walk past the opportunity to be mindful in the presence of nature – we overlook the connectedness that is in front of us. As Louie Schwartzberg reminds us – every living creature is dependent on some other living entity for its survival.
We so often fail to appreciate what is before us – the changing nature of the sky with each passing moment. We miss the varying hues, the different cloud formations, the sun drenched waters that emerge with sunrise or the deepening shadows occurring with sunsets. We pass off the weather as “good” or “bad”, ascribing some personal value to it based on our own convenience or inconvenience at the time.
Louie Schwartzberg, the famous time-lapse photographer, reminds us to be grateful when we encounter the beauty of nature:
Louie argues that nature is a pathway to mindfulness if we are open to, and appreciative of, its beauty.