Wiggle your toes. Feel the way they push against your shoes. Feel the weight of your feet on the floor. Think about what your feet feel like right now – their heaviness.

Congratulations. You have just done a few moments mindful meditation. It’s not so hard. And yet, sustaining the habit of it is.

Presence and mindfulness is our theme of the month for June. In your Journey Groups you’ll be sharing and reflecting about presence and mindfulness – what it means -- and what it might mean -- for you. Today: some reflections that may help prepare the way for your further explorations in your journey group.

Mindfulness is a technique extracted from Buddhism in which one tries to notice present thoughts, feeling and sensations without judgment. The aim is to create a state of “bare awareness.”’ Mindfulness is now a key concept in psychology, referring to a psychological quality that involves:
  • “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally;”
  • “a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.”
Mindfulness is paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is. So it has two aspects:
  • bringing attention to immediate experience – particularly, noting mental events as they happen.
  • being open, curious, and accepting of whatever it is that you’re noticing.
From a calm awareness of bodily functions, of sensations, of emotions, of thoughts as these things arise, wisdom emerges.

That's easy to say. It takes a lot of practice to develop the habit of doing it.

First, though, a personal confession. Fourteen years ago this month, I began a meditation practice. Almost every day – on average about six days out of seven – I sit down cross-legged and straight-backed, and I am still and silent for 25 minutes. Thoughts arise; I notice them, and let them pass. During those years I’ve also been on, I count, 45 meditation retreats, for a total of over 250 days. For many of those 14 years, I’ve led one or another small sitting group that once a week sits together, and I give a talk. In that context I have talked about mindfulness more than any other topic that you’ve heard me address.

I’ve been carrying on about mindfulness, directly and indirectly, for a dozen years, and I have to tell you that there’s a peculiar phenomenon that afflicts career preachers. We get so we can talk about certain things fluently, and earnestly – sometimes even persuasively – and forget that the message still applies to us. This is where preachers get a reputation for being hypocrites. We’re so familiar with what we’re saying that we aren’t ourselves paying attention to the message. It’s not just evangelical or Christian preachers. Any counselor or professional advisor is susceptible to this: the discovery that they’ve been giving out guidance to others for so long that they fail to notice that they themselves have slipped into habits contrary to their own advice. After 14 years, I have to confess that I am often distracted.

On the plus side, I have noticed the emergence of an abiding calmness. Anxiety or fear or anger occasionally arise – they always will – but I do experience them as visitors, as companions who have come to be with me for a little while, not as the all-consuming dictators that take over my life for periods, as they used to.

Scientific American reported one year ago:
“MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s 'fight or flight' center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker. The 'functional connectivity' between these regions – i.e. how often they are activated together – also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.” ("What Does Mindfulness Do to Your Brain? 2014 Jun 12)

My own experience is consistent with that.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Mindfulness"
See also
Part 2: Mindfulness in Unlikely Places: Congress
Part 3: Just Keep Noticing

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