In these times, how much awareness can you allow yourself? Too much awareness can feel alarming.
Recently, a friend told me mindfulness does not work for him. He has asthma and the last thing he wants to do is focus on his breath. Asthma can be so frightening and painful. But focusing on the breath is only one possible point of focus for mindfulness practice. There is a whole universe to focus on.
You can focus on something that is easy or enjoyable for you to think about, like the feel of your hands resting in your lap, or your butt touching the chair as you sit in it, or your feet resting on the floor. Or noticing whatever sensation is arising in your body or thought in your mind. You can focus on an image of your favorite tree or what it means to have a favorite or to be favored. You can focus on an image of a clear and open sky or what it feels like to have an open mind. You can focus on what arises in you when you think of a particular person, or what happens inside you when you are in love.
Instead of focusing on awareness of the breath, for example, you might examine your response to simply being aware in that particular moment. What is the quality of your awareness now? Is it jittery or calm, tired or deep? When you have painful memories, you not only fear the object remembered—you fear the feeling that accompanies the memory. You fear fear. Whatever it is that has caused pain in the past is not the primary cause of your suffering. The response to the memory is the primary cause. So make your response your focal point.
Fear is both an emotion that can save your life or turn you away from it. It can shake you, but a shaken being either opens its eyes wider or closes them, depending on how vigorous the vibration and how you interpret it.
When anything is too frightening or difficult to focus on, you can shift your focus to analyzing the components of the emotion. You then shift your mind from being fearful to being analytical. Notice where in your body you feel what you feel. Notice if any sensations or thoughts arise. Notice how the feelings come and go. Certain thoughts might increase the fear, while others, or the absence of thought, might quiet the fear.
When you think you can’t do something, and fear or self-doubt is doing the thinking instead of more rational appraisal, practice how to shift from “I can’t,” or “I am not open to this,” to being open. Bring up in your mind the sense of “I can,” and the sense of open observation. Ask yourself: Was there ever a time that I felt I could overcome any obstacle? Was there ever a time that I openly examined some object, person, or idea? What did it feel like to openly observe or think about something? Or: What does it mean, and what does it feel like, to be courageous and able to face whatever arises in your life?
Mindfulness means clear observation, or moment-by-moment awareness of whatever arises for you. It is about letting things be whatever they are so you can know whatever is there. It is to treat your own thoughts, perceptions and feelings as valuable sources of learning. Thus, to say mindfulness does not work for you is to say observation does not work for you, or knowing your own mind or world does not work for you.
A Mindfulness Practice:
Sit up in a chair in a comfortable and stable position, in a place that feels safe for you. Close your eyes now or in a minute or so, or let your eyes rest on the floor a few feet in front of you. Place your attention on your feet resting on the floor. Feel how heavy or light your feet feel, how hot or cold. You might sense your feet gently expanding, and then contracting, pressing against your shoes or socks, then letting go, relaxing, just resting where they are.
And then let come to mind an image or memory of a courageous action, maybe one of your own, or one you witnessed or read about. What was the courageous act? Who did it? What made it courageous?
Think about what courage means to you. Does courage have to be dramatic, like in some movies? Or can it be something simple, like sticking up for someone, speaking out, or doing something you never did before?
What does it feel like to be courageous? Imagine feeling courageous. Imagine feeling that you could face whatever it is that arises in your life. Just sit for a moment with the feeling of courage.
You can practice this exercise on your own or with others. You can record yourself slowly reading the above as a script and then play it back for yourself. If you’re a teacher or a parent, after researching and practicing this and other mindfulness techniques on an ongoing basis, you can lead your students or children in the practice.
This exercise is a simple form of mindfulness combined with inquiry. It can help you be more aware of your thoughts and feelings, of how your mind works, and how to more deeply engage with and enjoy the world. I hope it works for you.