Being a Human Doing: A Blog Post about Mindfulness and the Benefits of 'Resting in the Middle'
The last time I checked I was a human being, yet most of my life I've spent my time doing, doing, doing. It was exhausting and it lead to burn out and sickness numerous times... until being inspired to give meditation and mindfulness practices a try over three years ago by a yoga teacher and friend. This is a blog post about mindfulness practices, taking a pause to 'just be' and the benefits of 'resting in the middle'.
Jen... What on Earth is Mindfulness and Mindfulness Practices?
I'm so glad that you've asked the above question! This is an area that has profoundly changed my life, I'm a passionate advocate for and am now privileged to teach and facilitate mindfulness classes. There are a lot of different ways to practice mindfulness and no wrong way to do so (which, is a relief for me as a recovering perfectionist!). According to Jon Kabat-Zinn (Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School):
"Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally"
For a New Zealand definition, check out the Mental Health Foundation's definition here. For me, it is a practice where I put my attention/awareness to what is happening in the present moment (sounds, sensations in my body, my breath), compassionately. By 'practice' I mean that it is something that I do every day, just like training for a sport or a musical performance. It is one of my personal 'non-negotiables' (as Marie Forleo so wonderfully calls them). If I do not practice it for a day I notice the difference, just like some guy friends notice when they don't lift weights at the gym for a while.
What are the Benefits of Mindfulness and Mindful Practices?
If you're anything like me you may have noticed more and more articles coming out on BBC, Stuff and other sources about the benefits of mindfulness. Either that, or the Facebook algorithm really understands my interests in a scarily accurate way! I'm mindful of this not being an overly long post, so I'll list below a few of the benefits below with links to articles for those curious souls who want to know more:
- it can literally change your brain - see Harvard Medical School 'Now and Zen' 2016 Seminar Notes
- stress reduction - see Psychology Today article and also Harvard Medical School 'Now and Zen' 2016 Seminar Notes
- boosts to working memory - see Harvard Medical School 'Now and Zen' 2016 Seminar Notes (recommended for the curious)
- focus - see Forbes 2016 article
- health - see Journal of Psychosomatic Research 2004 paper (meta-analysis)
- stress management - see Headspace website
- emotion regulation/less emotional reactivity - see American Psychological Association 2012 Featured Article
- relationship satisfaction - see Psychology Today 2009 article
- and many, many more
I like the sound of Mindfulness, but... do I need to sit on a cushion in lotus position saying "ommmmmmm"? That's not me!
No need to worry, I wouldn't introduce you to something that I haven't personally tried numerous times or experienced the benefits of. Promise. Mindfulness is NOT about sitting on a cushion levitating (although, if you know how to levitate... kudos to you! And if you can: can you PLEASE teach me how??!) I think I can hear some audible breaths of relief being expelled.
Some people may like sitting in a chair in a comfortable seated position and listening to an application like 'Smiling Mind' or 'Headspace' or some calming music from a Spotify playlist. I've personally used the Headspace 10 minutes for 10 days free trial for a good 3 months and have recommended the same thing to other friends who are curious and saw the benefits from me practicing mindfulness. Others may prefer a moving practice, like yoga or tai chi. These are also great! Others still may like to do a creative mindful activity like journalling, colouring in, knitting or painting. I've personally tried all of the above, including tai chi (once), and recommend them highly if you don't feel like you want to sit and do nothing. It's an individual practice, so I encourage you to experiment with different mindful practices until you find one that really works for you.
Mindfulness is a way of pausing in the middle of things, rather than after 'x, y and z' are finished, or when it's too late. Which brings me to...
Pausing in the middle rather than at the end
Every 3-4 months (when I've been in New Zealand) for the last year I've attended a 2.5 day Mindfulness for Change 'hui'/gathering that has helped to re-centre me. Essentially, "Mindfulness for Change is a network of people and communities committed to improving human experience by facilitating relationships with self, other people and the world. We support each other to develop projects and relationships that benefit the wellbeing of all". I can't rave about this community of people enough! At the last Mindfulness for Change Community Hui in September, I attended a powerful open-space session about Frank Ostaseki's 'The Five Invitations'. Ostaseki is an internationally respected Buddhist teacher and the visionary co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco. Decades into co-founding the Zen Hospice Project, he experienced a heart attack followed by open-heart surgery. This thrust Ostaseki into a confrontation with his own mortality. In The Five Invitations he distills the lessons gleaned from death and a life of service. Maria Popova of the excellent 'Brain Pickings' website summarises beautifully: "his most impassioned insistence is how we need not wait until we ourselves hover on the precipice of death in order to apply its clarifying force to how we live our lives".
Ostaseki outlines five central "invitations" - habits of mind, orientations of spirit - from his work with the dying and the healing of his own life:
- Don't wait.
- Welcome everything, push away nothing.
- Bring your whole self to the experience.
- Find a place of rest in the middle of things.
- Cultivate don't know mind.
Ostaseki's fourth invitation, i.e. 'rest in the middle', is where I believe mindfulness is especially valuable and fits in beautifully. Mindful practices allow us to rest and pause in time-effective ways so that we can be more present in our lives. A mindful pause or rest could be as simple as sitting in a chair in a comfortable seated position, closing your eyes and noticing your breath for 1 minute... or it could be doing some journalling ("talking to the paper") ... or going for a walk outside around the block and paying attention to how you feel, the sounds and sights around you (and not checking your phone!) For me, I've found taking a few deep breaths and then doing a 'brain dump' onto a piece of paper when my mind feels especially busy to be really useful.
Will I Look Strange If I Do a Mindful Pause?
Another great question! I can answer that one for you in about a minute... Okay, I'm back. I just closed my eyes and took in 10 deep breaths while sitting in my seat at the Wellington City Library, and... no-one shouted out to me "are you okay?!" or "what are you doing?!" or even noticed. In my mind I felt like I was being as subtle as a ninja. #ninjaskills #sneakingapause
And, taking those 10 deep breaths felt great. Really great. Dare I say it... it may even be on a par with the coffee that I drank this morning (!).
Being a Human Being, Not a Human Doing
One of my favourite quotes is said beautifully by Dr. Wayne Dyer. Maybe it'll speak to you too:
"I am a human being, not a human doing. Don't equate your self-worth with how well you do things in life. You aren't what you do. If you are what you do, then when you don't...you aren't."
For me, mindful pauses and carving the space in each day to 'just be' gives me a greater sense of calm throughout the day. No matter how much craziness happens during the day, I know that I always have practices that will guide me back to a place of centredness.
If you're curious, I encourage you to give mindfulness a try. Mindfulness is an individual practice, so I encourage you to experiment with different mindful practices until you find one that really works for you. This practice can help you to be more of a 'human being' rather than a 'human doing'. I'd love to hear your reflections if you've already got a practice, or, when you have given this a try. What did you notice?