In this series of blogs I will describe the main aspects of what really happens on a Mindfulness Course. It will hopefully give those thinking about doing a course a much deeper insight, those on a course some reflection and those who have completed a course some revision.
The first thing we do on a mindfulness course is practice. We start as we mean to continue. This is because mindfulness is really a verb. It is fundamentally about practicing rather than just thinking about practicing.
We begin by doing something very ordinary, eating a raisin. Sorry, no sitting in cross-legged in full lotus, striving to attain levitation or enlightenment, just eating a raisin. We do this relatively mundane activity to underline that mindfulness meditation is not something special, it is really quite ordinary. We want mindfulness to infuse our whole lives and not just be a half hour of calm at the end of a crazy stress-filled London day. Importantly, we do it in a different way, slowly, carefully with full focus on exactly what we are doing. We feel the raisin, we look at it carefully, we smell it, we taste it with all our focus. Sometimes we even listen to it! At this point some participants are wondering what the hell they have let themselves in for!
Participants often comment that this experience was much more intense than they would have imagined, even though it’s ‘just another’ raisin! This is because when we are really being present to the process of eating, we notice a myriad of sensations that we would routinely ignore. This is a nice analogy of what we are doing here: we are becoming more intimate with our experience, all of our experience in fact, not just eating.
We are often on automatic-pilot to get through the day, going through the same pre-programmed routines with little or no awareness of what is really happening. And while this automation can be a useful faculty to have, it may also cause us to miss out on much of our precious lives. To be a bit blunt, this would be fine if our lives were unlimited but unfortunately they are not. We get a certain amount of years here and then it’s over. When we are on autopilot we have less control, less ability to respond appropriately and less freedom.
Would it not it be nice to spend more of that precious time experiencing life directly in each moment, rather than living through predictions, expectations, memories and comparisons? What we start to see in session 1 is that there is vast potential locked in our lives that we can once again learn to experience.
In the next practice, we expand this idea of focusing on the sensations in our immediate experience by doing a ‘bodyscan’. Again, this is not rocket-science, it is merely practicing to bring our awareness to different areas of our body. Nevertheless, it can be surprisingly difficult as our minds have been trained by our busy culture to be over-stimulated, scattered and unfocused. Research has shown that this training works, but to start with, as when training a puppy, our minds tend not to stay. Often, they are here, there and all over the place. Or they are asleep, snoring gently in the middle of the studio floor.
Paradoxically, none of this a problem. Mindfulness does not advocate striving and ‘getting it right’ because we cannot be in the moment unless we acknowledge and fully accept where we are right now. The great thing about this is that you cannot get it wrong. Each mind-trip is just another great opportunity to come back. We start from where we are and with a sense of gentleness and non-judgement, bring our minds back when they stray from the body focus. Again and again and again. This is the training that the research talks about and it is just the same as if we were learning the piano. We are rewiring our brains and becoming more intimate with our lives.
So, on the one hand we are becoming more intimate with our lives, getting to know them more deeply. We do this not for fun but because our lives are limited and precious and worthy of our attention. Secondly we start a systematic training, or un-training if you prefer, to enable our minds to be more stable, focused and calm.
Christopher Gaia is a mindfulness teacher, teaching courses in Chelsea, London. He has a 5 year MSc. Training in Teaching Mindfulness Based Courses from the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice, Bangor University. He has over 20 years of experience of mindfulness practice and has completed post graduate research into mindfulness and self-compassion. He is also a registered Osteopath, working in Chelsea and Balham.