Mindfulness Practice and Stress Reduction
by Leslie Carter Rawls
Take away my trouble, take away my grief,
Take away my heartache, I go right to sleep.
“Crazy Love,” Van Morrison
How many of us long for a magic formula to do what Van Morrison’s lover does for him in this song? But a full night of restful sleep for a conscientious lawyer? “Preposterous!” we chuckle. Our legal careers and our responsibilities weigh too heavily on our minds and bodies. Yet we yearn for respite from the worries, pain, and pressures of our careers and our lives. We grasp at myriad promises of comfort and relief, however fleeting: 20-year-old Scotch, a nicely-rolled joint, a new boat, a computer program, the right vacation. . . . The promises seem endless and nearly all involve running away from the present, from the feelings of stress generated in our lifestyles. Mindfulness practice makes no such promises, but invites us into awareness of the present moment. Too often, our regrets and plans, our worries and hopes rip us away from enjoying the here and now. To live mindfully is to be present, in body and in mind, with every bit of pain and pleasure in our lives. The results of mindfulness include reduced stress, greater focus, and increased productivity, as well as a sense of stability, peace, and happiness.
So what is mindfulness? It is the practice of concentrating our awareness on the present, of being fully alive in this very moment. Elements of mindfulness are found in many other programs. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous encourage people to focus on the present by living one day at a time. Participants are also encouraged to be aware of situations that cause stress, fear, or suffering and may lead to ingesting intoxicants. In mindfulness of consumption, we are aware that what we take in may lead us to negative behavior, including our “ingestion” of situations that encourage use or abuse of intoxicants. Mindfulness compels us to consider the effect of everything we consume, including television programs, books, films, magazines, and conversations.
Without mindfulness, we are easily distracted by the incessant internal chatter of our minds, the barrage of shallow advertising, the seduction of consumption. Mindfulness allows us to be aware of these things, but not caught by them. It allows us to touch the miracle of life instead of thirsting for things we hope will bring us happiness.
In mindfulness we develop awareness of four principle elements: body, feelings, mind, and objects of mind, (e.g., thoughts and perceptions). We may focus on any of these four elements. We need not sup-press or deny negative thoughts and feelings, but neither do we need to act on them. For example, when aware that impatience is arising, I am aware of my habitual reaction to the feeling: sharp speech, tension in my shoulders and forehead, clipped brisk movements. I also know impatience is an impermanent feeling. I can watch it rise and fall. I do not need to judge whether the feeling is justified or feel guilty for experiencing it. Not judging our thoughts and feelings is also part of mindfulness. Non-judging does not give us permission to act on feelings or thoughts in ways that cause suffering to ourselves or to others. Non-judging simply means not condemning ourselves for feeling what we feel. When I am impatient, I know that I am impatient and I know that patience will return. In mindfulness, I may respond to my impatience by practices which calm the feeling without suppressing or condemning it. I am able to recognize that the impatience will pass and my stability will return.
There are no drugs that will make you immune to stress or to pain or that will by themselves magically solve your life’s problems or promote healing. It will take conscious efforts on your part to move in the direction of healing and inner peace. This means learning to work with the very stress and pain that is causing you to suffer. Jon Kabat-Zinn
“Mindfulness” has become a term of art meaning a combination of techniques, strategies, and practices that enhance our ability to connect body and mind in the present moment. Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs have proliferated in the years since Jon Kabat-Zinn began the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte offered a mindfulness-based program for lawyers through the Mecklenburg County Bar in the spring of 1997. Duke University Medical Center also developed a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. A search for mindfulness on the Internet yields many websites. Even the National Institute of Health recognizes the value of mindfulness practice within the context of mind/body healing and psychoneuro-immunology.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs train people to live in the present by focusing their attention on simple acts. Cultivating our true presence in the here and now is key to mindfulness programs. Stress reduction is a by-product of living in the present moment rather than in the turmoil of our minds. Mindfulness is not grasped with the intellect, but practiced with the entire being. The practice of mindfulness involves discipline and commitment. The theory is simple; the practice profound.
In daily life, we often focus on the past and the future rather than the present. Drinking a cup of coffee in the morning, our thoughts are on the Motion due by 5:00; we are barely conscious of the coffee. Wolfing down a sandwich at lunch, we re-live our direct-examination that morning; the sandwich is gone without our ever being fully aware we are eating. Driving, we realize that our thoughts were on a project and we passed the turn. We miss the present because we are reliving the past or dreaming about the future. In truth, the only way to take care of the past and the future is to take care of the present, to really be here. Mindfulness encourages us to be aware of each moment, instead of letting life go by while we make other plans.
The practice of mindfulness does not mean ignoring the lessons of the past or failing to plan for the future. Living deeply in the present includes thinking about the past and the future. To ignore the past is foolish; to not plan for the future is reckless. In mindfulness, however, one is not preoccupied by or day-dreaming about the past and the future. Living in awareness, the mindfulness practitioner knows she is thinking about the past or planning for the future without becoming lost in the thoughts. It sounds simple, but how often are we swept away from the present when thinking of the past and the future? When swept away like this, we miss the present. We miss life.
Life is not a particular place or a destination. Life is a path. . . . Our appointment with life is here and now. We should not miss this appointment. Thich Nhat Hanh
Mindfulness is engaged meditation. Meditation is the act of focusing and concentrating, not of closing oneself off, trying to alter one’s consciousness, or trying to reach “enlightenment.” While sitting meditation nourishes the ability to focus and concentrate, mindfulness also involves focus and concentration in action. The act of mindful walking, for example, can be quite profound. (See Walking Mindfulness in the Mindfulness Exercises at the end of this paper.) Often, we think of where we’re going and what we’re going to do rather than focus on walking. Focused on walking itself, we are truly present as we walk. As a result, we will also be truly present, focused, and aware when we reach our destination.
Breath is the tool most commonly used to practice mindfulness. Our breath is always with us. You can’t leave your breath at home or in your other suit. It’s perfect! Use your breath as a tool to focus aware-ness. Do not alter your breathing. Simply become aware of the natural flow of your in-breath and your out-breath. Your breath should not be audible or strained.
A basic sitting meditation practice is to be completely aware of each in-breath and each out-breath, counting 1-in, 1-out, 2-in, 2-out. Try to count to 10 full breaths. Each time the mind wanders from the count, begin again with one. Although best practiced when you can be quiet and uninterrupted, this exercise can be used anytime you have a few moments to be still — waiting for your next client, waiting to go into a deposition, waiting for your case to be called in court. To focus for a full ten count is a greater challenge than one might expect. Not reaching ten does not mean failing, it simply means getting another chance to focus. And in a full practice of mindfulness, one continually has the chance to begin again, for the practice of mindfulness in each moment takes a lifetime.
Stephen Levine, renowned for his work with death and dying, says most people on their deathbeds remember not major life events, but precious single moments. Life is made of moments. We cannot make an appointment with life. To live in mindfulness is to live in this moment--the only moment available to us.
Leslie Carter Rawls is a sole practitioner in Charlotte, North Carolina concentrating on appellate advocacy. Leslie has studied Buddhism since 1970 and been actively involved in the community of practitioners in the lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh for nearly two decades. In the 1990’s, she was lay coordinator for many of Thich Nhat Hanh’s North American retreats. She edited the Plum Village journal, The Mindfulness Bell, from 1996 to 2001. Leslie helps maintain the online directories of Plum Village Sanghas around the world. (www.iamhome.org) She also leads retreats and Days of Mindfulness in Charlotte and the southeast, and facilitates inmate Sanghas in the North Carolina Department of Corrections. See www.charlottemindfulness.org for more information.
These exercises involve everyday acts. Focusing on these acts helps us focus in everything else we do. We use the breath to bring awareness to the present moment. Do not alter your breathing. Simply be aware of each in-breath and each out-breath. Your breath should not be strained or audible, but relaxed in its natural pattern. Becoming aware of your breath brings your mind and body together in the present moment.
This practice can be done anytime, anywhere, at any speed. If you can walk slowly, you will simply enjoy it more. If you are rushing to court, be aware you are rushing. As Zen master Lin Chi said, “The miracle is not to walk on water or in thin air, but to walk on Earth.”
Walk with complete awareness of each step. Pay attention to your breath and see how many steps you make for each in-breath or out breath. Watching your breath helps you focus on the act of walking. Pay attention to the contact of your foot with the ground.
Phone calls often interrupt us. We answer so quickly that we are still involved in the last task and not at all focused on the call even as we speak. Full telephone mindfulness uses the ring as an invitation to return to our breath and focus our attention, not as an invitation to pick up the receiver. In telephone mindfulness, even a telemarketer isn’t so bad. The unwelcome solicitation presents a welcome opportunity to return to the present moment.
If you can allow the phone to ring while you take three full breaths, great! You will pick up the phone focused and present. If three breaths are really not possible, even a single conscious breath is useful. You will be calmer and more present for the caller.
Before initiating a call, take three conscious breaths. You will be more focused during the call.
Are you gripping the wheel, figuring out how late you’ll be, glancing at the cross light, wondering if you should have taken the other lane? Forget it. You have stopped. Be grateful to the stoplight for a brief pause. You have no choice but to sit still and breathe.
Let go of the steering wheel. Allow your gaze to relax. Pay attention to your in-breath and your out-breath. If you get three or four full breaths sitting at the light, you will feel relaxed and refreshed. If you don’t quite get three breaths, you will look forward to the next stoplight for another chance. Here is a verse to help focus and relax at stoplights. (It’s useful other times too.) You can use the longer version with a line for each in- or out-breath or the shorter form with just a word for each.
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
Breathing in, I calm my body and mind.
Breathing out, I smile.
Breathing in, I dwell in the Present Moment.
Breathing out, I know it is a Wonderful Moment.
Present Moment, Wonderful Moment.
The smile is simply a half-smile to relax your face. The verses can be used anytime you want to bring your attention into the present.
When possible, begin your meal with three conscious breaths to return your attention to the present. Contemplate your food before you begin to eat. Looking at the food in mindfulness, you are aware that many things come together to bring you this food: rain, sun, nutrients from the earth, the labors of planting, tending, harvesting, and preparing the meal. Be aware of these elements as you eat.
Be aware of the preciousness of life. Know you are hugging your friend, your child, your loved one. Do not pat or speak. Just hug.
Breathing in, I know my [friend, child, lover, spouse] is alive and warm in my arms.
Breathing out, I am so happy to hold her.
You will find the quality of your hug changes in mindfulness. The person you hug will know you are really there, really hugging. What better gift could we give than our true presence?
A SHORT SELECTION OF READINGS ON MINDFULNESS
Moment by Moment: The Art and Practice of Mindfulness, Jerry Braza, Ph.D.
Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Wherever You Go, There You are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, Jon Kabat-Zinn.
A Year to Live: How to Live this Year As If It Were Your Last, Stephen Levine.
Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh.
Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh.
Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living, Thich Nhat Hanh.
The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh.