Practicing Mindful Awareness
Just as you need to work out on a regular basis to develop and sustain your physical fitness, you also need to strengthen your “mental muscles.” You need to train your mind through the practice of mindful awareness.
You are training in order to:
- Pay better attention to what you are doing.
- Maintain that attention for longer periods of time.
- Notice more quickly when your attention wanders.
- Return more sharply to the here and now.
Take Your Seat
Find a place where you can sit uninterrupted for as long as you intend to practice. For a beginner, it is helpful to find a quiet place, and practice for short periods of time.
While this is traditionally done sitting cross-legged on a cushion, most people find it easier to sit on a chair or footstool. If you use a chair, sit in the center of the seat without leaning against the back. It’s helpful to have your knees level with or lower than your hips, to prevent strain on your legs and back. Your feet can be flat on the floor, or loosely crossed in front of you.
Good posture makes it easier to stay attentive, and easier to breathe. You’ll want your spine to be upright but not strained. Imagine that your spine is like a tent pole and the rest of your body is the canvas hanging loosely from the top of the pole.
Let your arms hang straight down from your shoulders. Place your hands palms down, on top of each thigh just behind your knees; or palms up, one upon the other, in your lap.
Phases of Mindful Awareness Practice
[Please note: Persons with respiratory issues should consult a health professional before doing any breathing exercise.]
Phase 1: Grounding
Gently close your eyes. Let any excess tension, other than what you need to hold your posture, flow down and out of your body.
Let your awareness fall into the deep core of your torso, with the same feeling as letting yourself fall into the back and arms of a big, soft easy chair.
Taking slow full breaths, imagine that as each breath goes out, you sink deeper and deeper until you feel like you are merging with the earth. That’s as grounded as you can be.
Phase 2: Closely Placing
Open your eyes halfway, so that your eyelids block the upper half of your field of vision. Focus your attention only on your posture and the sensation of your breathing, the feeling that your torso is filling with air as you breathe in, and then emptying as you breathe out.
When you realize that your mind has wandered into a series of thoughts, just think, “Back to here and now.” Return to focus on your posture and breathing, without judging or criticizing yourself for becoming distracted.
Phase 3: Sensing
Open your eyes fully. Focus your attention on your vision, hearing, and bodily sensations, one after the other. Notice as much as you can, without mental commentary. You will discover that when one sense is in the foreground of your awareness, all the others move to the background.
Phase 4: Environmental Awareness
Leave your eyes fully open. As your breath moves out into the space in front of you, be open to the environment around you. Your mind can move to different objects of attention—sights, sounds, smells, sensations, and even thoughts—as long as they are in the here and now.
Again, when you realize that your mind has wandered into a series of thoughts, just think, “Back to here and now.” Return to focus on your posture, breathing, and environment, without judging or criticizing yourself for becoming distracted.
Continue the practice of opening out and resting in spaciousness with each outbreath. In that way, you can experience thoughts and other sense perceptions clearly and distinctly as they arise.
Phase 5: Expansive Awareness
With eyes wide open, looking straight ahead, be aware of the environment around you. With each successive outbreath, expand the scope of your awareness. Imagine that your aware- ness opens out to the horizon, then to the sky, and then beyond the sky into outer space. Finally, imagine that your awareness extends in all directions, farther than the farthest star, and rest in that infinite openness for as long as you can.
Phase 6: Ending the Practice
Traditionally, each session of mindful awareness practice concludes with an aspiration. In your own words, affirm that you will be as mindfully aware as possible throughout the rest of the day or evening. You can also aspire that your practice will benefit both yourself and others.
“When you practice, fix your posture and align it so your body is a lightning rod between sky and earth. Then relax. Let your past dissolve into the earth, let your future dissolve into the sky, let the present moment dissolve with your breath—and then let go of everything you just did. Stare directly into space and relax your mind. Whatever happens, don’t be concerned.”
—Vajra Regent Ösel Tendzin,
Chariot of Liberation
Mindful Awareness in Action
A young man was traveling through the countryside. He stopped at the monastery of a Zen master with whom he had studied many years earlier. He was looking forward to having the master see how accomplished he had become in his practice, and that he was now himself a teacher.
It was monsoon season, and he wore rain shoes and carried an umbrella. He left them in the vestibule and entered the sitting room to meet the master. After exchanging greetings, the master asked, “Out in the vestibule, did you leave your umbrella on the right or left side of your rain shoes?”
Not being aware of how he had left his belongings, the new teacher realized he had more work to do in cultivating his practice of mindful awareness.
Mindful awareness in action means being completely present and attentive to whatever you are doing, and bringing your attention back to the task if your mind wanders. You can practice mindful awareness in many simple daily activities. Brushing your teeth, making your bed, getting dressed, setting the table, doing the dishes, sweeping the floor—any of these is a great opportunity to practice mindful awareness in action.
Eating, drinking, and exercising with mindful awareness will be the foundation for success in your weight-loss program and for your overall health and well-being.
By becoming more fully aware, you can recognize your patterns, enabling you to reinforce your successes and learn from your mistakes. Since mindful awareness is the ability to fully experience the present moment without self-conscious judgment, it provides an opportunity for discovering things about yourself that you may not have noticed before.
Mindfulness of your actions gives you more self-control. With mindful awareness, you can hear yourself but choose not to believe what you’re saying.