Coming to Our Senses

Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book, Coming to Our Senses, observes about our sense of sight:

We see habitually, which means we see in very limited ways, or we don’t see at all, even sometimes what is right under our noses and in front of our very eyes.  We see on automatic pilot, taking the miracle of seeing for granted, until it is merely part of the unacknowledged background within which we go about our business. (p. 43)

He suggests that we are badly “out of shape” when it comes to understanding and using our senses, not only our sight. He argues that we need to practice to develop our awareness through our senses.

As we work to develop mindfulness, we become more aware of each of our senses.  We hear more consciously and see more purposefully, we become more aware of our sense of smell and more refined in our sense of taste, and overall more attuned to our sense of touch.

Isabel Allende illustrates this heightened awareness of senses exquisitely when she describes how a view of a particular landscape reminded her of her childhood experience of Chile:

The landscape, green, and rather somber, reminds me of the south of Chile: the same centuries-old trees, the sharp scent of eucalyptus and wild mint, the stream that turned to cascades in winter, the cries of birds and shrill of crickets. (Paula, p.238)

We can develop mindfulness through being consciously aware of our individual senses whether through mindful eating, active listening, mindful walking or some other conscious mindful practice.

One way to start simply is to observe something within our own backyard. For instance, the image for this post is a bird I noticed in a tree in my backyard when I was consciously listening to and observing birds from my back deck.  Initially, I could not see the bird as it was camouflaged in a leafless tree.  It was only when I moved my position that I saw my backyard bird against the background of the green leaves of another tree.

As Kabat-Zinn observed we so often do not see or hear what is in front of us unless we make a conscious effort to be mindful and focus our attention.

Image source: Copyright R. Passfield

Mindful Breathing – Being, not Thinking

Western society is strong on thinking and we have developed so many words to describe the act of thinking.  Here’s just a few:

  • analyze
  • summarize
  • categorize
  • synthesize
  • realize

Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that we have become so engrossed in thinking all the time that we have lost the art of just being.  We have lost touch with the present moment with all its potential for creativity, calm and clarity. He strongly recommends developing the art of mindful breathing and offers a 3 minute meditation exercise based on conscious breathing:

One of the challenges of mindful breathing is to stop the distraction of thinking and to remain focused in a non-judgmental way – clearing our thoughts as they occur without judging ourselves for their occurrence.

Isabel Allende in her book, Maya’s Notebook, describes Maya talking to her host Manuel and, in the process, identifies the difficulty of staying focused on breathing – on being, not thinking:

I found him watching the sunset from the big front window, and I asked him what he was doing.

“Breathing.”

“I’m breathing too.  That is not what I was referring to.”

“Until you interrupted me, Maya, I was breathing, nothing more.  You should see how difficult it is to breathe without thinking.”   [Maya’s Notebook, p.69]

And therein lies the challenge of mindful breathing – not only do you have to fend off distractions caused by your own thoughts, but also the interruptions unwittingly caused by others who need to share their thoughts or want you to do so.  Thinking has become our substitute mode of being – we live in our minds not in the reality of everyday life and the present moment.

Psychologists point out that this disconnection from the present has resulted in much of the mental illness that is prevalent today – we suffer depression because we are living in the past or suffer anxiety because we are living in the future. Mental health and well-being reside in mindfulness and mindful breathing that are accessible to us at any moment.

Image Source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com

 

Being Still

I suppose like everyone else you find it hard in your busy life to be still and yet being still is a gateway to happiness, creativity and calm.

Isabel Allende once wrote that “life is nothing but noise between two unfathomable silences”. In explaining these words, she went on to say:

We have very busy lives – or we make them very busy.  There is noise and activity everywhere.  Few people know how to be still and find a quiet place inside themselves.  From that place of silence and stillness the creative forces emerge; there we find faith, hope, strength, and wisdom.  However, since childhood we are taught to do things.  Our heads are full of noise.  Silence and solitude scare us most. (About the author, “The Sum of Our Days”, p. 4.)

As Allende explains, being still is about “being” rather than compulsive “doing”.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in discussing his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, describes how participants stand and do nothing, sit and do nothing, lie and do nothing – they clear their thoughts and just focus on being.  The MBSR Program has proven over more than 30 years to be very successful in helping people deal with chronic stress, panic and many forms of mental illness that are often precipitated by busyness. Kabat-Zinn discusses the program and its origins in his book, Full Catastrophe Living.

Andy Puddicombe suggests that “all it takes is 10 mindful minutes” per day to achieve an increased sense of calm, clarity ad focus.  He reminds us that we spend more time looking after our clothes, our hair and how we look, than in caring for our brain – the centre of creativity, energy and happiness.  Puddicombe demonstrates how our lives have become an endless juggling act, not only juggling things-to-do but also our self-defeating thoughts:

There are many resources available to motivate you to be still or to show you how to achieve this.  RMIT, for example, provides an audio resource on “sitting still” to help students cope with study and life stress. This is part of an online resource that covers “mindfulness and being present“.

Being still and doing nothing is a real challenge, but if you take the time out from your busy life to actually do nothing, for however long each day, you will experience real benefits for your health, well-being and happiness.

Image Source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com

Mindful Walking

So often we walk from place to place, lost in our thoughts, unaware of what surrounds us and the response of our own bodies.

Mindful walking is the practice of bringing our attention, in the moment, to some aspect of our walking experience – and doing so for a purpose.

This approach to developing mindfulness is designed to enhance our awareness and clear our minds of clutter, self-defeating thoughts and anxiety.

You can practise mindful walking anywhere, anytime – walking during the lunch break, taking a walk on a beach or through a rainforest, walking to the train or shops.

There are many variations you can adopt for mindful walking.  You can adopt an open awareness approach taking in the sights, sounds, taste, smells and touch that surround you.

Alternatively, you can focus on some aspect of your present experience when walking, e.g. the sensation of your feet on the ground.

The Internet provides numerous resources – text, audios and videos – on mindful walking.  Here is one approach by Simon Paul Harrison that combines mindful walking and mindful breathing:

Mindful walking is often recommended for people suffering stress, trauma or anxiety.  RMIT, for example, through their online counselling services provides a range of online resources, including an exercise sheet and audio for mindful walking, to help students deal with the stress of study and exams.

Isabel Allende, in her book, The Sum of Our Days, describes how she frequently lost herself and found contentment on a tranquil walk in a forest:

These walks are very good for me, and at the end I feel invincible and grateful for the overwhelming abundance of my life: love, family, work, health – a great contentment. (p.299)

Another approach to mindful walking is discussed and illustrated by Chuck Hall:

You can walk anywhere mindfully if you are conscious of the opportunity. You should find an approach, timing and location that suits you so that it can be a pathway to a sustained habit of mindfulness.  Once you establish the habit of mindful walking using one approach consistently, you will find that you will automatically adopt mindful walking in other situations as your consciousness of the opportunities grows.

After learning about mindful walking, I decided to use a personal approach that suited me to grow my own mindfulness.  On my morning walks around the tree-lined streets and along the river, I would tune into the sounds of the birds that surrounded me. This required turning off my thoughts, tuning out other sounds and paying attention solely to the sound of the birds.  I became more aware of birds above and below me, in front and behind and on my left and right side.

Invariably, as I walked, the sound of the birds seemed to stop at some point.  The reality was that my thoughts had come back into my head and I had tuned out from the sounds of the birds – I had lost focus.  Once I cleared my thoughts and re-focused, the sound of the birds came flooding back into my awareness again, a concert surrounding me as the birds fed off each other’s sounds.

Mindful walking induces peace, calm, clarity and contentment and helps you grow in mindfulness.

Image source: Copyright R. Passfield