The practice of mindfulness is a time honoured method for improving the quality of our life... and relieving stress. InPart One of a new series, Olivier Lejus shows us how.
Probably one of the most useful meditation exercises practised by Buddhists today is called mindfulness. From the very beginnings of this oriental philosophy, Buddha was asking his disciples to learn to be fully aware of every moment of their lives. They were reminded of the importance of focusing their energy on the present, instead of the future and the past. Today, mindfulness is being practised all around the world. It has been shown to be very effective in a variety of areas, from improving students' ability to learn, focus and memorise when practised in the classroom, to helping patients suffering from terminal illnesses to deal with chronic pain. In this column during the next few months, we will explore this fascinating form of meditation in depth, with practical exercises, which can lead to long lasting improvement in our quality of life.
In ancient times, followers of Buddha lived in a very simple way close to nature, in an environment, which was conductive to meditation and insight. Two and a half thousand years later, the world has changed beyond anyone's wildest expectations.
Nowadays, we are being constantly overstimulated with noise, images, advertising and new technology.
Consequently, many of us suffer from a chronic inability to attend to what we are doing. We have gradually adapted to this increased pace of living by dividing our attention, and multi tasking to get things done without even being aware of how strange our behaviour has become.
We start several tasks at once and leave them unfinished.
We eat while we scan the Internet. We send text messages while we are driving. We talk to a friend on the phone while we watch the news and try to remember what we need for shopping tomorrow. We fool ourselves into thinking that doing three things at once is a lot quicker, but we waste time and become stressed because we can't find our keys when we leave the house.
Mindfulness is about relearning to devote our full attention to every action that we undertake. If we reflect on the most satisfying life experiences that we have encountered, we find they have always occurred when we were totally absorbed. This is the aim of this form of meditation - to notice what is around and inside us, to observe our mind and change the way we respond.
Changing our behaviour does not come easily. In fact, mindfulness is surprisingly difficult to practise. But if we start focusing deeply for a few minutes several times a day on our actions and what is happening around us, we will experience small alterations in our behaviour, which will lead to big improvements in our emotional and physical wellbeing.
Every time we practise mindfulness, every time we concentrate deeply on the present moment - observe the light filtering through the curtains, the weight of our hands resting on the arms of a chair, the stream of our thoughts - we cultivate a thread of awareness that will gradually become stronger and stronger.
Soon, we will find that our life runs more smoothly, that we are more relaxed and satisfied and more in control of our emotions. Until one day, like the Buddhist masters, we can attain a permanent state of peaceful strength and harmony. This is what I propose to explore in the next few months. We will start today with a simple exercise for dealing with stress.
One of the earliest discoveries I made when I started meditating was how closely my mind and body were interrelated. I became aware of the numerous subtle physical changes that occurred as soon as my mind became affected. Next time you experience the onset of stress, which will come very quickly, I suggest that you immediately look for these physical reactions. It is important to catch these symptoms early, since the longer we wait the harder they are to control.
Try to feel how your body is reacting to this emotional change - maybe there will be a feeling of tension in your guts, a sudden tightening of your shoulder muscles, or maybe in your neck. Now, immediately stop whatever you are doing - it could be arguing, shouting, or banging on your computer screen - and concentrate on the lower part of your body for a few moments. Try to feel the weight of your feet on the floor, your toes pressing against the bottom of your shoes. You will also notice how your breathing has suddenly changed. It has become fast and very shallow, so reverse the action and extend your out breath for as long as you can with your lips slightly open, as if you are blowing through a straw. As a direct response, your in breath will become longer as well. I suggest that you repeat this action maybe five or six times, until you feel the storm has gradually passed, and that you have regained control of your emotions and body.
You have now planted the seed of awareness in yourself. Learn to nurture it in the next few months, and you will be amply rewarded.
Olivier LeJus MHSc(TCM) BHSc(Acup.) is an accredited acupuncturist practising in Sydney .