Now it’s time to put together all the principles of mindfulness that you’ve learned so far, into a concise, clear, integrated practice. Here are the ABC’s of Mindfulness:
A is for Awareness
The first principle of mindfulness is awareness of what’s happening.
Whenever you can remember to do so, ask yourself, “What’s happening?” The hardest part of mindfulness is remembering to be mindful. Your mind starts telling stories and it’s so easy to get carried away, but you need to step back and observe. You do this mental ‘stepping back’ by asking yourself questions. Your mind loves to do tasks. Ask yourself, “What’s happening?” and it will bring you instantly back into the present moment and out of the trance-like nature of your stories.
It’s important to remember that what you’re asking is, “What’s happening?” and not, “What am I experiencing?” Posing the question in this fashion takes the “I” out of the experience. You’re just observing an event that’s happening. You’re asking your mind to think about what’s going on from the perspective of an observer rather than as the principal actor.
In response to this question, you can re-label the experience objectively. Your response might be “Now anger, now sadness, now pain,” instead of, “I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m hurt.” The “I” is not part of the experience. As soon as you personalize what’s happening, your stories will quickly multiply along with your negative thoughts. You’ll get caught up in the perceived drama of the moment.
Some mental events do not have a lot of energy behind them and just bringing your awareness to them is enough to allow them to simply fade away. However, there will be lots of experiences that are quite emotionally charged and more effort will be necessary to deal with them.
B is for Body and Breath
The second principle of Mindfulness is to anchor your experience in your body.
Ask your mind the question, “What’s being felt?” Bring your attention to what’s happening in your body. How are your mental and emotional states being reflected as physical sensations? In grounding your attention in the physical sensations, you’re stepping out of the storyline. The experience itself will become less personal and less threatening. You won’t be focusing on statements that include the word “I”, so there won’t be an “I” that is upset anymore. Instead, perhaps there will just be a twisting, squeezing and/or hot sensation that’s being experienced.
Breathing is also part of your body awareness. When you notice that you’re tense, ask yourself, “What’s happening to my breathing at this moment?” Notice if it has become shallow or uneven, or if you have been holding your breath.
Bring mindfulness to your breath and just follow it without trying to change it. Mindfulness of the breath will lead to it becoming more relaxed. A calm breath leads to a calm mind.
If you’re extremely stressed, consciously control your breathing. Start to breathe in a slow, deep, quiet, smooth fashion, from your abdomen and with a prolonged exhalation. Connect the breath and the body to help to calm yourself down.
When you’re experiencing a strong physical sensation, such as pain or tension, consciously bring the relaxed breath to the site in the body where the physical tension is being felt. Breathe into and out of that specific spot. Imagine that you’re directing the breath into the area of physical discomfort. This calming attention will relax the knot of stress and lessen the pain in the area.
The breath supports every moment of mindfulness. It’s of utmost importance!
C is for Connection
If a particular thought or emotion is very powerful, bring your awareness to the process of how the mind functions. Stepping out of the content helps to lessen the identification.
Ask yourself, “What’s the fact and what’s the story?” Identify the original thought and this will allow you to witness how your mind creates wild stories about everything.
Ask, “What’s my relationship to the story?” Are you clinging to, or letting go of, the story?
Ask, “What needs to be done?” You have the ability to make a wise choice and to stop yourself from owning the automatic, conditioned response.
Ask, “What remains after the clinging goes?” Can you rest in the stillness between your thoughts?
Ask, “What does the flow of mind-energy feel like?” Can you rest in the energy of thought movement and not its content?
Mindfulness is really a process that you will be constantly learning. Don’t be impatient if you continue to be caught by your thoughts and your emotional states of mind. You have had many years of practice at your old way of thinking. It will require lots of practice to relearn a whole new way of looking at, and dealing with, your own mind. The important thing is that you try to practice mindfulness every day. Practice as often as you can.
Initially, it will be easier to let the thoughts and stories, that are not so emotionally charged, pass by. However, the ones that are more important to you will continue to catch you and make you ride their train. It may be helpful to come back to those events when you’re away from the experiences that triggered the emotions. Replay them in your mind, in private, later, with mindfulness. Slowly, you will learn how to bring mindfulness to these emotionally charged events as well. You will have plenty of opportunity to practice with these more charged episodes, stories and thoughts, as they have a tendency to continue to replay themselves.
When you practice mindfulness on a continual basis, all of your sensations start to be treated equally. When you’re mindful of your physical sensations consistently, then you’ll start to treat a thought or emotion as just another sensation that comes and goes. Your thoughts will ultimately have less power over you. Therefore, there may be value in practicing the labeling of all sensations as they arise. Label your sensations as often as you can for now, although the eventual goal is for this labeling to be unnecessary.
It takes courage to be willing to face thoughts, emotions and physical sensations with acceptance and without judgment. It’s not easy to just be with what arises but you’ll get better at it. You don’t have to change or deny anything. The key is not to identify with a thought, but to simply see it as another bit of mental energy that traps, confuses and entices you into believing that it’s real and it’s you. It’s not! It’s just your conditioned history speaking to you. Your true self is much greater and wiser!
Mindfulness doesn’t free you from having thoughts; it allows you to be free to have those thoughts. In other words, it’s a wonderful technique that liberates you from your conditioned, automatic, reflexive mind. It allows you to approach your life from a place of greater insight, wisdom and compassion.
There are several things you can do everyday to start practicing mindfulness:
- For five to ten minutes in the morning and/or in the evening, sit quietly and simply observe your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. Label them as you notice them e.g., “thinking,” “feeling,” or “a physical sensation.” You can also be more specific and label the sensations as “judging,” “sadness,” or “a squeezing sensation.”
- When a negative or unpleasant event occurs, stop and observe the thoughts, emotions and physical sensations that arise as a consequence of the event. Stop and pay attention.
- When a happy or pleasant event occurs, stop and observe the thoughts, emotions and physical sensations that arise as a consequence of this type of event as well.
- During the day, whenever you can, try to label whatever internal or external sensation comes into your consciousness.
- Choose an environmental cue that will help you to be mindful. This could be: before you sit down for breakfast, brush your teeth, read the paper, go to the store, or when a certain ad comes on TV.
- Set your wristwatch or cell phone so that an alarm goes off every few hours. Whenever the alarm goes off, stop and try to be mindful of what you’re thinking, feeling and physically experiencing at that moment.
- Put Post-it notes up around the house, in your car or at your place of work to remind you to be mindful.
- Remember the ABC’s of mindfulness (Awareness, Body, Breath and Connection). Ask yourself: “What’s happening?” “What’s being felt?” “What’s happening to my breathing at this moment?” and “What’s my connection?”
- You constantly identify with your thoughts and emotions.
- Mindfulness is an accepting, non-judging, non-attached and compassionate awareness of your experience as it unfolds in the present moment.
- Mindfulness is the cultivated ability to be present to what you experience without having to react to it or change it.
- Mindfulness encourages you to be intentionally aware of your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations whenever possible.
- Mindfulness asks you to label your thoughts, to not judge them, to just accept them as mental energy that arises and then as quickly moves on.
- Be an observer in your own mind and body and try not to identify so strongly with your thoughts and emotions.
- Practicing more compassion for yourself is an important aspect of mindfulness.
- Mindfully focus on what occurs in your body during emotional responses, and you can learn how to calm yourself sooner.
- Thoughts, emotions and physical sensations don’t last forever and will change or go away. Just be patient.