By Thomas McConkie, adapted from episode one of the Mindfulness+ podcast
Mindfulness is the buzz of the world right now. Business leaders, educators, scientists — everyone’s talking about mindfulness. People are even saying mindfulness will create revolution in human health.
So, what is all this hype about?
I want to address that question, but first I want to share how I came into the practice.
It started when I was 18 years old. I was an insomniac. I'd just moved out of my parent’s home to start my freshman year of college. I got to my apartment, unpacked my bags, sat on the floor, and realized that my life was a total mess.
I felt emotional turbulence. I wasn't able to sleep through the night. It was a really stressful time for me. I didn't know how to be on my own.
One day I somehow absorbed this word out of the ether: mindfulness.
I started asking people about it. I'd never known a meditator, and I'd never sat with any group formally to practice meditation, but something in me was yearning to learn mindfulness. I just had an intuition that it could help me.
So I learned the basics: how to hold the posture, how to follow my breath, how to observe my thoughts, etc. It was challenging, but I kept doing it because I had a sense that the practice was really going to help.
Then, around the six month mark, I felt my whole life change. It changed in a very subtle but profound way. I had gone from being an anxious, destabilized teenager to feeling like I was really rooted in my self. I had a certain centered awareness that I'd never felt before, that I didn't even know was possible, and I knew that it was the result of practicing mindfulness for a few months. In a very concrete way I could feel that my breathing had changed. It had gone from this kind of nervous, anxious, chest breathing, to dropping down deep in to my belly — every breath calming me more than the last.
Mindfulness changed the course of my life. I've been doing it daily for nearly twenty years, and it’s a joy of mine to share the basics with people so that they can start their own journey with it.
If you stick with the practice, your transformation will look very different from mine, but I can promise you that it will be incredibly rewarding. You'll wonder how you ever lived without it, which brings me to the next point.
When we talk about mindfulness, it can sometimes sound like a really exotic technique that gurus know how to do and you don't. Perhaps you’re already hearing those gurus saying, “We're on the in and you're on the out!”
I want to debunk that notion immediately because what I love about mindfulness is that mindfulness is who you are. What I mean is that when you pay attention, like I invite you to do right now, what you'll notice is that you're aware. You're just simply aware. You're not trying to be aware. In fact, you can't try to be aware. You're just aware. And there’s something really profound that happens when we just notice the fact that we're aware. Everything shifts.
I'll give you an example. If you watch a newborn infant, you realize there’s something wondrous about the simple act of looking around. It's an amazing experience.
That’s the way it is with all our senses. It doesn't matter if you're hearing a dump truck or if you're hearing Niagara Falls. Human hearing is an incredible experience.
Infants know this intuitively. You could say that they're enraptured by the sensorial experience of being a human. Unfortunately, what happens over time is that as we become used to the many sensory experiences available to us, they lose their charm.
You could say that a mindfulness practice is the practice of remembering. It's remembering just how amazing it is to be awake, to be in a human body, to be in this very moment.
That's the essence of it. There are techniques we can learn. We can rev up our mindfulness and raise our baseline of mindful awareness, but at the very heart of the practice, at the very heart of the experience, you're already mindful. You’re already aware. You’re already perfectly present. In this sense, to practice mindfulness is to celebrate what's already here.
Let’s go ahead and try it. As you read the following words, see if you can treat the experience as mindfulness practice.
Start by bringing awareness to the physical body.
Notice that if I prompt you to notice the physical body, your awareness just goes right there. It's not effortful. You're just suddenly aware of the physical body.
And you can just notice the flow of sensation in this moment. If you're sitting down, you can notice what it feels like to be sitting. If you're standing, you can notice the sensation of standing.
What I want you to notice, especially here, is that it doesn't take any special effort or special training to simply notice that you're already aware. In this case, you can just notice that you're aware of body sensation and let that body sensation flow and enjoy.
In this moment, notice hearing. Notice any sound in the environment. If there’s not sound, you can simply attend to the silence, the absence of sound. Again, just notice how effortlessly you're aware of sound, aware of hearing. You don't need any special training to do this. You simply turn your attention one degree, and suddenly you notice all the sound in the world.
At this point, I invite you to notice seeing. Take a moment away from this text and notice your surrounding. Notice the different shapes, the different colors in your visual field, the volume of space, and so on. Maybe you're sitting in a small room. Maybe you're outdoors beneath the wide open sky. Whatever the case, you can just notice the experience of seeing all of this. Notice that it doesn't take any special training. Just bring awareness to seeing and you're aware of seeing. Seeing is happening.
Now give yourself a nice full breath, letting go and softening even more. Notice that all of these different qualities of awareness are happening all at once: feeling, hearing, seeing, all just different experiences within the experience of awareness, of being aware.
At the heart of experience you're always already aware.
There are many mindfulness teachers in the world right now — many extremely talented and knowledgeable mindfulness teachers. They have their own definitions on what mindfulness is, but I want to offer you my own very simple definition, which hopefully you just had a chance to experience:
Mindfulness is the awareness that you are.
In this sense mindfulness is the practice of just remembering that we're already aware. It's being aware that we're aware. When we get buried in daily tasks, when we're stressed about where we need to get to next, we forget this joyous and simple feeling of being that comes through our own awareness. By contrast, when we take a moment or pause, when we shift attention one degree, when we pay attention to how we're paying attention, these are all mindful moves.
As we make these mindful moves more and more they become habit, and this habit changes our experience. It changes the course of our lives.
Remember this incredible thing that you already are. You might have simply forgotten.
Transcribed by Seth McConkie, edited by Jon Ogden
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