We live in strange times.
While currently experiencing our third lockdown here in Canada since the pandemic hit, it feels like we’re playing out a scene from an apocalyptic movie that just doesn’t want to end.
Though incredibly hard at times, I’ve found it really helped me to take it one day at a time, focusing on the present moment, rather than delving too long into the past or anxiously overthinking about what the future could bring.
Amidst all the uncertainty around us, the one thing we know for sure is that the sun will rise and set every day and rise again in an unending cycle. Focusing on this reassuring structure is what has grounded me, giving a sense of meaning to life, which otherwise seemed, at times, to be spiralling out of control.
This is when I realised the sheer importance of mindfulness, being in the present moment, and leaving behind the constant buzz of noise inside my head.
I have actively been trying to cultivate this mindset, more so since I got involved with the Centre of Mindfulness Studies here in Toronto, and recently discovered the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn in particular. Anyone familiar with the term mindfulness would probably know that it is synonymous with the name of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of MBSR, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Therapy.
A scientist, writer, and meditation teacher, he is internationally renowned for bringing mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society. The nine mindful practices (or attitudes) as taught by him resonated with me in particular.
In fact, I was inspired to share these practices with the aim of providing guidance for others who may be in dire need of such tools to help them cope with whatever challenges life throws their way.
Here are the nine mindful practices:
1. Beginner’s Mind
The first practice is a key starting point: cultivating the practice of Beginner’s Mind, which essentially means seeing things from a fresh perspective, as if seeing them for the first time. In other words, approaching everything in life with a new lens instead of viewing it through our tunnelled vision of preconceived notions.
If you are stuck in your own fixed ideas and opinions, there is no scope for novelty; the possibilities are limited, whereas in a beginner’s mind, they are infinite (for example: imagine viewing your children with fresh eyes every day, instead of through already-formed opinions and labels).
This refers to the practice of paying attention non-judgementally. We tend to see things from our own perspective, which creates a veil in front of our eyes. It is important to recognize this tendency to judge (which seems to come naturally to most of us), but not be imprisoned by it.
In other words, it is crucial that we let go of judging our judgements. If we could just observe our judgements, acknowledge them, and not judge the judging, ironically, we might actually be on the path to becoming less judgemental and living life more authentically!
The mindful practice of acceptance is the active process of recognising things as they are and not how we want them to be. We get so caught up in trying to change things to suit ourselves that we don’t allow them to just be.
Acceptance, especially of unpleasant or negative occurrences, thoughts, and emotions is not easy (e.g. pain and suffering). Before you can actually deal with the pain, you first need to accept it and allow it to be. That is the first crucial step toward healing. Once you know where you stand, you can apply your own wisdom on how to change the situation and take the right action.
4. Letting go
Letting go goes hand in hand with the preceding practice of acceptance. Only if you accept and recognise things as they are, will you be in a position to let them go instead of trying to hold on to them. In other words, allowing things to come and go.
During the course of our lives, it is inevitable that we will experience both pleasantness and unpleasantness. We have a natural tendency to want to cling and grasp to the positive experiences and the urge to push the unpleasantness away. Cultivating the habit of letting go, the opposite of clinging, is a therapeutic but difficult practice to master.
Difficult as it may seem, it is a natural part of life to receive and then release, letting go. Our breath reminds us of that—every time we take a breath in, we have to let it go; otherwise, there would be no room for the next breath.
The mindful practice of trust entails cultivating an intimacy with ourselves and our bodies, trusting the natural wisdom of it. We take our body totally for granted, till something goes wrong.
Be mindful and notice how beautifully our bodies support our lives—how our breath takes care of itself, our organs take care of our metabolism and the biology of being alive.
The more we can learn to bring trust to ourselves, the more we can learn to bring trust to everything in our lives: other people, our relationships, nature, and ourselves.
The practice of patience can be healing and restorative, but requires a lot of work. It is the practice of not rushing into the next moment and missing the present—recognising that things cannot be hurried, but unfold in their own time.
The proverbial example of a butterfly brings home the significance of this practice: if we try to rush the process, instead of allowing the chrysalis to metamorphize, the butterfly does not develop properly. Patient struggle is part and parcel of its journey. Similarly, we need to pause and be where we actually are, instead of trying to rush through every moment, pushing our agendas.
The seventh practice of non-striving is the act of “non-doing,” an engaged restraint from action or effort. It goes hand in hand with the practice of “letting go” discussed earlier. It is the realization that wherever we are in life is good enough.
Let life unfold as it is, without trying to escape, or without an agenda to follow. Simply allowing life to take its course and just “be” can be tremendously nurturing and healing.
One way of cultivating this habit would be introducing short periods of stillness and quiet throughout the day by closing your eyes or intentionally refraining from looking at your screens. Just a few minutes is enough to center your energy.
We tend to take so much for granted in our lives. There is a strong need to bring gratitude to the present moment, realising how blessed we are to be alive, with our body working in perfect harmony: to be thankful for having eyes that can see, ears that hear, hands and feet that work! Being mindful of these blessings is so important.
However, we normally only come to this realisation when something goes wrong, an injury for example, which propels us into actually thinking about and counting our blessings. The practice of gratitude keeps negativity at bay and fosters a spirit of contentment with life.
Finally, we have the practice of generosity, giving our time and attention to ourselves and others, showing that we care, enhancing the feeling of interconnectedness. Bringing joy to others, striving to give people what would make them happy is known to have many physical and psychological benefits (I wrote about this in an earlier article).
It doesn’t have to be anything grand; it can be something as simple as smiling at a stranger, who for all we know may have been having a bad day and could really have used a kind, friendly smile.
The key to staying calm and grounded is to bow down and accept where we are in life’s journey, non-judgementally and with compassion, safe in the knowledge that we are where we are meant to be and that things will naturally unfold as they were meant to.