A Crash Course in Mindful Living
This sermon, “A Crash Course in Mindful Living,” was originally delivered to the congregation of Harmony, a Unitarian Universalist Community, on January 7, 2018. It is published here with permission from the writers, with all rights reserved.
By Jen Gillum and Susan Wenner Jackson
Mindfulness and meditation have become trendy topics in recent years, but how does reality compare to the hype? We wanted to find out for themselves, so last fall, we took an eight-week Mindfulness for Stress Relief course. Here’s a little taste of what we experienced as students of mindful living.
Why we took this Mindful Living class
Jen: I just wanted to feel better – to ease pain—or at least have a healthy means of dealing with it. Also, to experience more joy from the simple things in life (because some of the big ones hadn’t worked out so great); to get a fresh start on the new school year; to attempt to develop a practice of regular meditation and see what that might do for me when I wasn’t practicing.
Susan: I had been practicing meditation on my own for about 18 months, experimenting with various iPhone apps and reading about different methods. Mindfulness piqued my curiosity, because I feel like I miss so much of life in my constant state of “doing.” I wanted to learn more, and find others who were interested in practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Tim Raine’s course is loosely based on one that originated in 1979 with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center. (It’s now known as The Center for Mindfulness.) Primarily rooted in the Buddhist tradition, MBSR was created as a means of cultivating greater awareness and wisdom—helping people to live each moment of their lives as fully as possible.
In our society today, SO much of our Western culture and media seem to indoctrinate us in escapism—to the very point where pain/discomfort of any kind is deemed offensive or wrong—MBSR takes a much different approach. Rather than do anything to escape the pain, an integral part of this mindfulness practice is to look at, accept, and actually welcome the tensions, stress and pain, as well as those disturbing emotions that surface in our lives—fear, anger, disappointment, grief, feelings of insecurity and unworthiness. All the biggies. This is all done with the purpose of acknowledging our present moment reality as it is found—whether it is pleasant or unpleasant—as the FIRST step in transforming that reality and our relationship to it.
The practice of mindfulness meditation can help us to cultivate the sense of ourselves as present moment awareness that observes the thoughts that arise in the mind and views them as something to be noted, perhaps responded to, but NOT to be identified with as “me.”
So to use the ocean analogy . . . we are not just living on the surface, where the crashing waves of our repetitive thought patterns have the capacity to recycle our pain—over and over. Mindfulness meditation allows us to quiet the mind and journey to the silent depths below the surface. This quiet stillness can offer us further information and/or a new vantage point from which we can know, more fully, who we truly are at the core of our being.
We can (hopefully) begin to recognize the ways in which we ourselves contribute to our own discontent and can decide with more agency to make a real and lasting change.
Mindful Living course overview
From the first session, we were asked to maintain seven foundational attitudes as best we could. Tim even gave us a laminated card with these seven attitudes printed on it:
- Beginner’s Mind
- Letting Go
These are the attitudinal foundations of mindfulness practice—no small potatoes here; a lifetime might be spent on any one of these.
We also received a binder for the class, and each week we had new readings that were really impactful. They were some of the best articles we’ve ever read on living mindfully. The binder also included a wonderful booklist/bibliography.
Each week, we explored a different topic in mindfulness, including something new to try (often accompanied by an audio file of a guided meditation or lecture) and readings to complement the practice.
Breathing and your brain
It’s almost become a cliché: “Just take a deep breath.”
Obviously, we did some different varieties of breathing with Tim; some were familiar and some were very new to us.
Why breath? Our breath can function as an anchor to bring us back into the present and help us tune into a state of awareness and stillness. You have your breath with you everywhere you go.
One thing that expanded Jen’s thinking about the breath quite a bit was the idea that even within the cycle of a breath, there is action and non-action. There is doing but there is also pause/rest.
For example, you have heard of four square breathing: INHALE for four, HOLD for four, EXHALE for four, REST for four. But one day as Tim was walking us through some breathing exercises, we started to put more attention on the space and stillness between the inhale and the exhale. We started to focus our attention on the stillness between the acts of inhaling and exhaling.
That was a completely new way of viewing the breath for us. We tend to be so focused on the action, the doing—all the time. Try doing some deep breathing on your own sometime, where you really place your focus on the nothingness between the inhale and the exhale. Because that nothing is something. This is also a good example of the foundational attitude of beginner’s mind. Even something as age-old as the breath can be viewed with fresh eyes, when we are willing.
One more thing that took the cliché right out of breath work for me was research. Deep abdominal breathing is a fundamental part of a relaxation response to stress. Stress is another one of those cliché concepts now. We don’t even talk about it much any more other than to throw out the occasional “I’m so stressed out right now.” But, somehow, “right now” in our culture has morphed into “all the time.” Stress is assumed. So, why bother talking about this constant state we all seem to have grown accustomed to as the new normal.
And if you are not “so stressed out right now” you might become stressed out that you are doing it wrong! We actually seem to link our stress levels with our level of importance or productivity at times. While on a personal level you might strive not to do this, it can be difficult when the culture around you is pointed in a different direction. It can become difficult to stay aware.
So, back to research. Many of us have heard of the stress response. What is actually happening in our bodies and our brains when we are “stressed out.” The stress response begins in our brain. Fight or flight mode. The sympathetic nervous system kicks in . . . bursts of energy to respond to perceived danger/threat . . . a flood of shitty bad hormones into the bloodstream: adrenaline, cortisol. You’ve probably heard it all before.
Chronic stress—for many of us a “normal” state of being—is a silent killer. It restricts our blood vessels, contributing to heart attacks, stroke, high blood pressure, weight gain. We know this.
But Tim gave us one article in particular that uses a very simple relaxation response to counter the stress response. The very first step of that simple relaxation response is, you guessed it: DEEP ABDOMINAL BREATHING. Deep abdominal breathing (just three breaths, in fact) can slow down the stress response and invoke the PARASYMPATHETIC nervous system. When coupled with physical activity and some social support, research has shown that people can actually reduce or sometimes eliminate their need for medication.
So, “take a deep breath” might be a little cliché. But now we can think about what is happening in the brain and body when we consciously choose to breathe deeply. By the way, the article also suggested that we focus on a calming word and/or visual a tranquil place. These are simple, free techniques that can be done absolutely anywhere at any time of day. And they may be life-saving, or at the least life-enhancing.
Pain and R.A.I.N.
Tim teaches his mindfulness course primarily in a hospital setting. His students are generally referred by their doctors. And the referral sometimes comes late in the game—after heart attacks and surgeries and drug therapies and whatever else hasn’t worked. Many of his students come with physical pain.
Living with chronic physical pain, however, creates a level of emotional/mental pain as well. So, we spent some time on the notion of pain. Even those of us who do not have chronic, physical pain have experienced aches and pains: broken bones, migraines, back issues.
But emotional pain can be just as challenging. Some of us have seen Tara Brach’s RAIN process before. It’s on the slide. This is a process that can help us navigate both deep physical and/or deep emotional pain. The steps are:
- RECOGNIZE WHAT IS GOING ON
- ALLOW THE EXPERIENCE TO BE THERE, JUST AS IT IS
- INVESTIGATE WITH INTEREST AND CARE
- NOURISH WITH SELF-COMPASSION
Does this take the pain away? Not necessarily. But it adds NO ADDITIONAL PAIN to our already painful experience. Rather than fight, we allow. Rather than rage against, we open to. Rather than blame/shame, we apply the healing balm of compassion. And these ways of being can transform the path, moving forward.
Everyone has N.U.T.S.
In one of our sessions, we focused on Negative Unwanted (or Unconscious) Thoughts, or N.U.T.S. We all have them!
In thinking about N.U.T.S. honestly, let’s admit that sometimes we really do want them. It feels GREAT to get rolling on a good bitch session. And if you can get someone to agree or join in, even better. We can build that negative momentum together like a snowball rolling downhill. Come on, that’s human nature.
But do N.U.T.S. ever add to our growth? Ultimately, they do not help us get to a better place. Because, even when wanted, N.U.T.S. are still negative. Still judging. They come from a place of disallowing and unacceptance. And quite often, they are just hurtful. Sometimes we direct our N.U.T.S.outward at others/at society—at those who have hurt us. Feels good. But, we can quickly shift into directing those same negative thoughts right back at ourselves, too.
It may not be as socially acceptable to rant about those self-directed N.U.T.S. We have therapists for that. We speak privately to paid professionals. OR, we suffer in silence. Maybe we tell a close friend.
One other point: mindfulness meditation can help us become more mindful, more aware of our N.U.T.S. They are most likely NOT going away. In class, we spoke a lot about the concept of self-compassion as a balm or medicine we can apply to our most painful N.U.T.S.
Mindful living exercises to try
Exercise #1: Sound meditation
Spend a few minutes listening to a selection from Golden Bowls by Karma Moffett (available to listen via YouTube or purchase via CDBaby). This is one type of mindfulness meditation we practiced in our class.
There is no goal. No right or wrong way to do this. Just breathe and clear your mind. The sound is there to give you a place to focus your senses.
Be at peace with the bowls and bells. Come back to the sound when your mind thinks a thought—which it will do (probably more than one). Just return to the sound and breathe. Enjoy.
Exercise #2: Body scan
You can practice an extremely powerful and healing form of meditation with the body scan. It forms the core of the lying down practices that people learn in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. A body scan involves systematically sweeping through the body with the mind, bringing an affectionate, openhearted, interested attention to its various regions. Listen and follow along with this 32-minute audio file of a guided body scan.
Exercise #3: Raisin meditation
One of the most basic and widely used methods for mindful living is to focus your attention on each of your senses as you eat a raisin. This simple exercise is often used as an introduction to the practice of mindfulness. In addition to increasing mindfulness more generally, the raisin meditation can promote mindful eating and foster a healthier relationship with food. Try it with a single raisin—you might find that it’s the most delicious raisin you’ve ever eaten.
Follow the steps as written on this Greater Good in Action page, or listen to this five-minute audio file to guide you through the exercise.
Jen Gillum and Susan Wenner Jackson are members of Harmony UU.