The modern world is overcrowded, fast, stressful, and exhausting. Traffic, noise, flashing screens, crowded sidewalks, and twenty four hour news (most of it bad) test our stone-age nervous systems to the limit. In response, many are turning to yoga and meditation, especially mindfulness. Cynics may sneer, but practiced regularly it can quite literally save lives.
So what is mindfulness? In essence, it means controlling your thoughts rather than allowing them to control you. Much thinking is repetitive, useless, and self-destructive; yet most people have little or no control over it. Indeed, many pass through life unaware that such a thing is even possible. Instead of allowing thoughts to carry you where they will, you learn to observe them. For many, this is true liberation.
1) Lie down on the floor with your eyes closed. Become aware of your body as a single entity — feel it ‘from within’. Be aware of the sensations in your toes, your feet, your ankles, up through your body to the top of your head. Now, breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, then out, slowly and deeply, through your mouth. Become aware of your feet: are they hot or cold? Is there any sensation in them? Do they ache? Do they tingle? Focus all your attention on them. Now breathe in deeply through your nose. As you breathe out, imagine your feet dissolving into nothing. Now focus on your ankles, and then do the same. Move up through your body in this way: your left leg, then your right leg, all the way up to your head. This should put you into a deeply relaxed state.
2) Now, become aware of your breath again. Focus all your attention on the in-breath, then the out-breath. Observe the rise and fall of your chest.
3) Become aware of your thoughts. Do not resist them. Do not try to stop thinking. Simply be aware of them. Become the witness; you are ‘witnessing’ your thoughts rather than allowing them to carry you away. Instead of yelling for someone to stop the roller coaster of thoughts and emotions, you have simply and gracefully ‘stepped off’. Observe your breathing once again. As soon as thoughts crowd in, simply observe them, acknowledge they are there, and return to your breathing.
4) Do this regularly, and make a habit of observing repetitive thoughts. Most humans carry a great deal of regret, guilt, trauma, and fear. And much of their thinking revolves around these things, keeping them trapped in the past and future. Try identifying patterns of thought. Give them a name. If you carry a huge amount of regret, and if much of your idle, day to day thinking involves past failures and ‘what ifs’, give these thoughts a silly label: your ‘pining nymph’ state, for example. When you go into it, visualize a wistful nymph from a Renaissance painting. Or if you torment yourself with thoughts of passing time, label this your ‘gripping state’ and visualize a fat man on a slide, desperately trying to stop himself from falling. In doing so, you detach yourself from the thought and the emotion and transform it into something ‘out there’.
Becoming aware of your thoughts seems a simplistic answer to the anxiety, fear, and pain that ruins so many lives. But try it before you dismiss it. You needn’t be a spiritual seeker, nor a person of faith, to benefit. Many people turn to alcohol, drugs, or some other kind of addictive, destructive behavior to relieve them of painful emotions. But these are no more than symptoms of poisonous thought patterns, much of it barely conscious. Nothing will give you greater control of your life than control of your thoughts.