"I stand in awe of my body" Henry David Thoreau
Try this thought experiment: what would change if we approached the practice of present-moment awareness as being more about the body than the mind?
Mindfulness stems from ancient eastern spiritual practices but the term became popular in western culture since the 1980's when Jon Kabat-Zinn was introducing his Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction course. The word mindfulness refers to the quality of being mindful. The word mindful simply refers to being aware.
A difficulty is that the word ‘mind’ can conjure up ‘thinking’ since that is what the mind seems to do. Yet, mindfulness has little to do with thinking. It does have to do with being aware of thoughts - and thinking can sometimes help. Yet there is also much about awareness of the body. So, in the interest of clarification and to counteract a possible mistake, I would like to, light-heartedly, introduce the term ‘Bodyfulness’.
‘Sensations’ and 'Mentations'
Our whole experience can be boiled down to ‘sensations of the body’ and 'mentations of the mind', the latter meaning mental activities such as thoughts, ideas, and images. For example, we may experience a personal goal as a mental picture of where we would like to end up, accompanied by sensations of energy in the body moving us to take the next step in that direction. We can also observe how an emotional response is a combination of sensations in the body accompanied by mental interpretation or 'story'. For most of us it is these 'mentations', often on repeat, that dominate our minds and reinforce our views, including the less helpful ones. Yet it is often through noticing our sensations that we can find a way to relax back from stress-inducing reactions.
Directly reduce stress reactions through the body
Take for example occasions when we might take an edgy comment from someone personally. If we notice how the body tightens up ready to counter-attack, this opens up an opportunity to breathe into the tension, actively releasing and softening. This is often a more effective way of shifting towards a more helpful response than mentally ruminating on the comment. Over-thinking very often strengthens stress reactions, while connecting with the body opens an accessible path to a calmer place. Maybe we can take a few deeper breaths, as if we are breathing out any sense of threat: we might become aware that the comment perhaps says more about the state of mind of the person who made it than about oneself. Or perhaps we may consider: "OK, maybe they have a point! Perhaps I can learn something here."
Shifting awareness from thoughts to sensations
Most of us spend most of our time caught up in a mental stream of thoughts, future plans and rumination on past experiences. Perhaps the most fundamental mindfulness instruction is to shift the focus away from these time-travelling thoughts in our heads and arrive more fully in our present-moment, embodied experience; gathering our attention in the here and now; feeling our feet on the ground and opening to the senses and the flow of breath. While it's useful to notice any sensations of ease or soothing qualities for example in the breathing rhythm, it is also helpful to become aware of the tension that we hold in our body.
The body is amazing!
Consider all the processes going on in your body right now: the heart; lungs and bloodstream all doing their job; digestion taking in nourishment and immunity fighting to keep us safe - not to mention the strength and flexibility of the bones and muscles holding us up. Bringing attention to the body can bring qualities of appreciation and gratitude for this extraordinary organism that mostly we take for granted. From childhood onward, us humans need a certain amount of quality attention to enable us to thrive. Paying attention to the body likewise supports the very heart of our wellbeing.
Coming to our senses
The home is also 'home' to all of our senses, which may also be invoked in mindfulness practice. You may like to try this right now: take a moment to rest your gaze out of the window and take in the sky, or close your eyes and tune in with the ambient soundscape. You may be sensing other elements of your environment such as the temperature or aroma. Notice how even a momentary shift away from the ever-busy, problem-solving mind towards an immediate awareness through the senses may bring a spacious quality and a broader perspective: perhaps something that has been a focus of anxious preoccupation suddenly seems less important.
What about thoughts?
But surely thoughts are useful? Absolutely! Thinking is a core capacity of humankind; essential in our evolutionary success. From sorting out your finances to planning an event or writing a blog; we wouldn't get far without a capacity for clear thought. However, thought is not always the best tool for the job: especially when it comes to difficult feelings, where a few soothing breaths and a softening into the knot in the stomach may be more helpful than months of analytical thought.
So, would it feel different to think in terms of practicing being more 'bodyful'? How about giving it a try?