What comes to mind when you think of a “clear conscience”?
To many people it’s just the absence of guilt. You know you did the right thing, so you can rest easy.
But I think it’s much more than that…
Imagine a feeling of lightness in your chest. The sensation of an open, spacious mind. Thoughts are pleasant to entertain. If anxieties or stressors arise they are acknowledged, even given compassionate consideration, but are not allowed to begin steering the whole ship. Most prominently, before anything else, is a steady attention to the experience of the present moment.
Sounds pretty damn nice, huh?
Guilt isn’t the only thing that mucks up our conscience. Over time the mind accumulates residue from all our experiences. The way we feel on the inside, the way we experience the world, is molded in response to the course of our lives.
Somewhere along the way, most of us lose the “freshness” of conscience that we had as children. We live in mostly an amalgam of remembering the past or imagining the future. Our ability to stay present wanes into a small sliver or what it once was.
Mindfulness practice can help us reverse this process. Even better, it can be a path to growing in the other direction. Not only can we recover the present-moment orientation we had when we were kids, but we can turn it into a matured conscience capable of fully appreciating the joys and resiliently facing the challenges of the real world.
A Few Benefits of Mindfulness
For the sake of acknowledging how sweet this practice is, here are some more things mindfulness can bring to your life:
Calming the Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system is a collection of structures that induces our fight-or-flight response — at times called the “stress response”. It is intended to give us a big adrenaline rush so we can hunt or avoid being hunted. Unfortunately, in the modern world many of us have our stress response on low-activation all the time, causing chronic stress and other health problems in the long run.
Mindfulness practice has been shown to reduce activation of the sympathetic nervous system. It teaches us to turn off the stress response when we recognize it isn’t needed. We get better at chilling out, and that happens to make us much healthier people.
Relaxing Muscular Tension
More and more mindfulness is being used in the medical world to treat chronic pain and aid injury recovery.
As mindfulness brings you to the experience of the present, your attention is often called to the sensations in your body. While at first this may cause you to confront pains you’ve been ignoring, those who stick with the practice report developing an ability to let go of tension in a way they never could before.
Whether you want to recover from a hard workout more effectively, or improve a habitual posture that causes you pain, mindfulness can help.
Deepening Your Appreciation for Experience
Mindfulness, most essentially, is a practice in staying present. Meaning you get better at really being there for nice moments, important people, and challenging situations.
How often are you engaged with a task, maybe at work, thinking about what you’ll be doing later? How often do you talk to someone with your mind halfway in the past or future?
Living in the present lets you wholly drink in the richness of day to day experience. You just can’t do this the same way if you’re distracted by a thought and fantasy world about things other than what’s occurring in the moment.
Mindfulness will help you give people and tasks your full focus. It will help you appreciate things like music and food. It will help you tune in to your body as you exercise or lay down to sleep. It will make life more vivid.
Making You Aware of Your Inner Habits
This practice will also flush out your inner habits. We all have patterns of thought and emotion that we play out in our minds — over and over and over again.
After your attention wanders from the present for the millionth and a half time, you may find yourself noticing: “Damn, I’ve thought about that SO MANY TIMES. My mind is like a broken record.”
Our thoughts and feelings have a tendency to return to the same topics all the time. We normally don’t notice this throughout the course of the day, because each pattern is buffered by so many other thoughts and feelings. The patterns get drowned in a sea of stimuli: more thoughts, more emotions, sounds, sights, conversations, and everything else in life.
But when the mind is quiet, it gets a lot easier to see how we repeat stuff. Imagine playing “Where’s Waldo?” Normally it’s kind of a pain in the ass. Now, if someone were to erase most of the distractor-characters for you, finding Waldo wouldn’t be so hard anymore. Mindfulness does this for your inner life, thus helping you get to know yourself and your habits.
4 Ways to Start Practicing Now
There are many good ways of practicing mindfulness. Any activity which promotes a focused, non-judgmental attention to the present moment is a mindfulness practice. Right here I’ll give you four to start trying out.
The practice that’s perfect for me may not work at all for you. Also, not every day is a perfect-practice day. Your sessions will go great sometimes and piss you off other times. But a consistent mindfulness practice over time is what really counts.
For those reasons I’d suggest being open to trying a variety of practices, but also to stick with one practice long enough to really know if it’s good for you.
Do your practice for five minutes every day. After a week or two you’ll have a sense of whether or not you like the practice you picked. If you do, keep running with it. If not pick another and give it a shot.
You can lengthen your practices as you go, but doing too much at first can make forming the habit seem daunting. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Purposefully do very little at first so you can form a solid, reliable habit of practice.
Above all, don’t let discouragement get the best of you. Keep trying when it’s hard. Mindfulness is difficult for everybody, because all of our minds are so thoroughly conditioned to look away from the present. Instead, keep turning towards the moment over and over again, and you’ll find a new richness in the everyday stuff we always take for granted.
Mindfulness of Breath
Every mindfulness practice needs an anchor. Your anchor is an object or experience to which you hold your attention. Our minds will always drift from the anchor; they are perpetually distracted by passing thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Mindfulness is the act of returning to the anchor.
Probably the most popular anchor of choice is the sensation of the breath. Anybody can breathe at any time, making this a very accessible mindfulness practice.
Find a comfortable way of sitting with your back upright but not stiff. Sitting on the edge of a chair, on a meditation cushion, or with your back supported by a wall behind you are all great ways to sit.
For this practice, simply feel your breath. Call attention to your nostrils, throat, chest, lungs, stomach, and back. Where in your body do you feel breath?
Don’t force the breath to go anywhere, and don’t worry if you can’t feel the breath in any of those places I just mentioned. Don’t try to breathe deeper. Don’t try to breathe more quietly or loudly. Just breathe. And feel what it’s like to do so.
Mindfulness doesn’t happen when you try to change something. It happens as you learn to notice what’s already there. Trying to change how you breathe will interrupt mindfulness. Giving the breath your dedicated attention will create mindfulness.
As I said, your mind is bound to wander. We all think. We all feel. We all see, hear, smell, and so on.
When you notice that the mind is no longer with your anchor, just come back. Come back to the breath. You’ll have to do this a million and one times in your meditation career. This is totally fine, does not mean you’re bad at mindfulness, and is actually an important part of the process.
Every time you lose your attention and bring it back, think of that as a rep for mindfulness. To get good at pushups, you can’t just sit there. You’ve got to do pushups over and over and over again. It’s the same deal with mindfulness. It gets stronger as you do it more and more.
Mindfulness is at times described as “wakefulness”. In the story of the Buddha, people often say he “woke up” upon the moment of his enlightenment. In everyday mindfulness practice, whenever you realize your attention has wandered is a “wake-up” moment.
Attempting to keep your attention in one place forever is futile. That’s why it creates opportunities for these “wake-up” moments. Your mind will always wander. The important thing is that you realize it’s wandering. Mindfulness is meant to wake you up to what your mind is doing.
Just sit there and feel your breath. Enjoy your breath and all the sensations that come with it. When you wake up to your mind doing something else, come back to the breath. That’s it.
Mindfulness through Counting
You can practice mindfulness through counting in much the same way as you do with breath. Just count in your head, and use that counting as your anchor.
I used to count breaths. I would count out ten breaths and then start over.
Practicing this worked for me because I found that just using breath, or just using counting, was too boring. Practice didn’t keep me interested. But when I combined them I could stay engaged.
Now I practice with just the breath, because after some time I’ve learned to enjoy the sensation of breathing enough to use that alone as an anchor. Similarly, your practice will likely change over time. If you feel the need to switch things up then do it! Don’t stay stuck.
Now, although I said I would count out ten breaths, if you want to try this practice I would recommend counting to three and then starting over.
You can count your breaths, or count seconds, or count a made up amount of time in your head. But count to three.
Most people struggle to count beyond three and still keep track of what number they are on. This can lead to frustration, which interrupts practice. Thinking about how I used to practice, this was true for me. I would have done better just counting three breaths.
Keep it simple. Count to three. Start over. When you lose track, as you will eventually, come back to counting. Focus on returning to your anchor.
The body scan, at times called progressive muscular relaxation, is great for grounding mindfulness in a physical way. It can make your practice more concrete and tangible. If other “in-your-head” ways of practicing aren’t working for you then try this out for sure.
Go through your whole body, one segment at a time, calling attention to how each part feels. Use your attention to seek sensation in the body.
You can start at your head and work your way down: going through the neck, shoulders, torso, abdomen, pelvis, upper and lower legs, finally finishing with your feet and toes.
Or the other way: start at the feet and come up. The important part is that you cover each section of the body. Take it slow and spend time giving attention to each individual body part, noticing and letting go of impulses to rush to the next.
When you encounter tension let your awareness stay with it. Mindfulness will bring any background or unconscious tension to the forefront of awareness, so if this practice brings you face to face with pain that’s completely normal and OK. It’s actually a great opportunity to learn how to work with pain.
Let be any soreness or tightness. See if you can stay with it long enough to let it relax on its own time. Don’t force relaxation; don’t think that you have to stay with tension until it’s gone. You can move on, but before doing so give it some of your dedicated attention.
This practice is perfect for developing mindfulness of the body and learning to relax. I find it very helpful to use an audio file of someone else narrating the scan so I can just follow along. You’ll find plenty of free guided body scans on youtube and elsewhere 🙂
Mindfulness of Eating
I had a college professor who used his meals as his mindfulness time. He was so busy and had such a hectic life he had to ensure there was a portion of time every day to practice presence.
He did something which I find extremely difficult: he would put his fork down after every bite.
I really don’t know how he did it; much of the time I find myself putting more food in my mouth before I’m done chewing the last bite!
The essence of mindful eating is slow eating. It’s about a deep appreciation for the taste and nourishment you’re receiving.
Take an orange. Start by just looking at it. Observe the patterns on the skin. Does it change color anywhere? Are there bumps or ridges? Run your hands over the orange to feel the texture. Start to open it, but not all the way. Take time to smell it. What’s the air around the orange like?
Finish opening it, and eat it one peel at a time. Before chewing, let each peel sit in your mouth for one or two breaths. Chew slowly. Eat as if each individual peel is the whole fruit, so that actually eating the whole orange takes a while. Savor every moment of taste you have the privilege of enjoying.
This is an extra-extra-mindful way of eating an orange. You do not need to slow down quite this much to be mindful with your meal. But you should try going that slow a couple times. It will give you a good feel for how different mindful eating is from our normal eating habits.
Taking time to observe how your food looks, smells, and even feels sets the stage for really paying attention to taste. It slows you down and prepares you to step out of your usual way of eating.
Not only is this style of slow and attentive eating a great mindfulness practice, but it will also teach you not to take your food for granted. You’ll learn to be thankful and present for your meals in a way you never were before.
There’s only so much you can actually know before you go and just do it. Learning more is great, but if you never practice then there’s no point.
If you’ve gotten this far in the article you definitely want to be practicing. If you don’t already have a practice, decide now what time you can do it every day. Make it the same time every day. Doing it at the same time each day helps the habit stick, since re-arranging your routine on the fly tends to result in inconsistency of habits.
I do mine in the morning, when I wake up, before anything else. On a work day that’s early, on a weekend I wake up later but still practice as soon as I get up.
Choose your practice time, and make a commitment to do it tomorrow at that time. Or today if that time hasn’t come yet.
Happy practicing 🙂 Let me know how it goes with a comment!