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 Eating

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book, “Coming to Our Senses”, suggests that his call to awareness has to be interpreted both literally (being conscious of the senses of the body) and metaphorically (behaving sensibly).

He describes each of the senses as a terrain and discusses mindful eating in a section of his book called “tastescape” (“touch”, for example, constitutes the “touchscape”).

Kabat-Zinn argues that we often eat mindlessly, unaware of what we are eating, with limited consciousness of taste and texture (we are too busy talking or thinking about other things).  He suggests that we have lost the fundamental purpose of eating:

Thus eating has has become increasingly separated from survival and maintenance of life in our consciousness.  For the most part, we eat with great automaticity and little insight into its critical importance for us in sustaining life, and also in sustaining health (p.231).

In his Stress Reduction Clinic, he starts his training with getting people to eat a raisin slowly and sensuously because it brings participants into the moment, the present, and dispels all misunderstanding re the nature of meditation.  He suggests that such an exercise increases “wakefulness”:

Eating one raisin very very slowly invites you to drop right into knowing in ways that are effortless, totally natural, and entirely beyond words and thinking.   It is an invitation that is unusual only in that we tend to eat so automatically and unconsciously (p.230).

Not long after first reading about mindful eating in Kabat-Zinn’s book, I was travelling interstate and purchased a packet of “goodies” to eat, comprising almonds, pistachio nuts and cranberries.  I decided to experiment with mindful eating as he describes the process.

I started with an almond and felt the ridged exterior and firm texture with my tongue and gradually bit into its firm surface.  Slowly, I tasted the distinctive flavour of the almond and appreciated this sensation which tended to be short in duration.  I followed this up with putting a pistachio nut in my mouth and felt the smoothness and wave shape of its surfaces. As I bit into the pistachio, I had a stronger sense of flavour than with the almond and this tended to last a bit longer.  Lastly, I placed a cranberry in my mouth and felt its wrinkled and rough surface with my tongue.  Biting into the cranberry was a very different sensation again – an explosion of flavour that tended to linger.

Normally, I would have thrown a handful of these nuts and cranberries into my mouth and, in the process, lost the distinctive sensations of differences in taste and texture. Kabat-Zinn suggests that we often eat with “stunningly little awareness of what or how we are eating, how fast we are eating, what our food actually tastes like, and when our body is telling us it is time to stop” (p.232).

He suggests that if we take time for mindful eating we can experience the rewards both physically and psychically:

If we slow down a bit, we can intentionally bring awareness to tasting anything we are eating, to be with this mouthful of food, and to really taste it, chew it and know it before we swallow it. (p.233)

Elsewhere in “Coming to Our Senses”, Kabat-Zinn explores the connection between our brain and our senses, as well as with our memories and awareness.  To appreciate this, you just have remember the last time a bit of food evoked a distant memory.

Image source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com

Building Mindfulness through Open Awareness

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.

Image source:  Copyright R. Passfield

Tai Chi – A Pathway to Mindfulness

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.

Tai Chi is an antidote to the business of life and work. As the Fung Loy Kok Institute of Taoism (FLK) observes:

Taoist Tai Chi® arts offer a powerful opportunity to unplug from our phones, tablets and computers, and reconnect with the world.

There are many health benefits attributed to Tai Chi.  The Taoist Tai Chi Society of Australia explains the basis for these benefits as follows:

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 circulation
  • improved balance and posture
  • increased strength and flexibility
  • reduced stress
  • alleviation of the symptoms of illness such as arthritis, high blood pressure and migraine.

Tai Chi, like mindfulness, develops calmness, focus, concentration and clarity.

Grow Mindfulness through Nature

 

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.