the practice of mindfulness

What is Contemplative Practice?

There are many definitions of contemplative practice but essentially a contemplative practice quiets the mind in the midst of the chaos and distractions of every day life and develops insight into our innermost nature and an attitude of unconditional friendliness towards our self and others.

Examples of contemplative practices are found in most religions and also now within secular therapeutic settings. Examples include contemplative prayer, sitting and moving meditations and really any activity that is done in such a way that we are entirely present within that activity, moment to moment, without distraction.

As such rituals, ceremonies, the arts, gardening, almost everything, may be used to develop presence when done within a contemplative, or mindful, perspective.

Breathing in, I have arrived
Breathing out, I am home
Thich Nhat Hanh

 

How amazing that without being fabricated, this mind, which is unborn and primordially pure, Is spontaneously present from the beginning! This self-awareness is naturally free from the very first. How amazing that it is liberated by just resting at ease in whatever happens!
Shabkar Tsokdrug Rangdrol, The Flight of the Garuda

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a term used principally in Buddhism to describe being entirely present with our experience of what is happening inside and outside of us in each successive moment. As such it is a contemplative practice. What is important in mindfulness meditation is not what we concentrate on so much, for instance our breath, or an object, or a physical sensation, but rather the quality of being present without distraction.

Below are instructions given by Jack Kornfield in "A Path with Heart" on how to start two mindfulness practices.

Mindfulness of the Breath

First select a suitable space for your regular meditation. It can be wherever you can sit easily with minimal disturbance: a corner of your bedroom or any other quiet spot in your home. Place a meditation cushion or chair there for your use. Arrange what is around so that you are reminded of your meditative purpose, so that it feels like a sacred and peaceful-space. You may wish to make a simple altar with a flower or sacred image, or place your favourite spiritual books there for a few moments of inspiring reading. Let yourself enjoy creating this space for yourself.

Then select a regular time for practice that suits your schedule and temperament. If you are a morning person, experiment with a sitting before breakfast. If evening fits your temperament or schedule better, try that first. Begin with sitting ten or twenty minutes at a time. Later you can sit longer or more frequently. Daily meditation can become like bathing or tooth brushing. It can bring a regular cleansing and calming to your heart and mind.

Find a posture on the chair or cushion in which you can easily sit erect without being rigid. Let your body be firmly planted on the earth, your hands resting easily, your heart soft, your eyes closed gently. At first feel your body and consciously soften any obvious tension. Let go of any habitual thoughts or plans. Bring your attention to feel the sensations of your breathing. Take a few deep breaths to sense where you can feel the breath most easily, as coolness or tingling in the nostrils or throat, as movement of the chest, or rise and fall of the belly. Then let your breath be natural. Feel the sensations of your natural breathing very carefully, relaxing into each breath as you feel it, noticing how the soft sensations of breathing come and go with the changing breath. After a few breaths your mind will probably wander. When you notice this, no matter how long or short a time you have been away, simply come back to the next breath. Before you return, you can mindfully acknowledge where you have gone with a soft word in the back of your mind, such as "thinking," "wandering," "hearing," "itching.' After softly and silently naming to yourself where your attention has been, gently and directly return to feel the next breath.

Later on in your meditation you will be able to work with the places your mind wanders to, but for initial training, one word of acknowledgment and a simple return to the breath is best. As you sit, let the breath change rhythms naturally, allowing it to be short, long, fast, slow, rough, or easy. Calm yourself by relaxing into the breath. When your breath becomes soft, let your attention become gentle and careful, as soft as the breath itself. Like training a puppy, gently bring yourself back a thousand times. Over weeks and months of this practice you will gradually learn to calm and centre yourself using the breath.

There will be many cycles in this process, stormy days alternating with clear days. Just stay with it. As you do, listening deeply, you will find the breath helping to connect and quiet your whole body and mind.

Walking Meditation

Like breathing meditation, walking meditation is a simple and universal practice for developing calm, connectedness, and awareness. It can be practised regularly, before or after sitting meditation or any time on its own, such as after a busy day at work or on a lazy Sunday morning. The art of walking meditation is to learn to be aware as you walk, to use the natural movement of walking to cultivate mindfulness and wakeful presence.

Select a quiet place where you can walk comfortably back and forth, indoors or out, about ten to thirty paces in length. Begin by standing at one end of this "walking path," with your feet firmly planted on the ground. Let your hands rest easily, wherever they are comfortable. Close your eyes for a moment, centre yourself, and feel your body standing on the earth. Feel the pressure on the bottoms of your feet and the other natural sensations of standing. Then open your eyes and let yourself be present and alert.

Begin to walk slowly. Let yourself walk with a sense of ease and dignity. Pay attention to your body. With each step feel the sensations of lifting your foot and leg off of the earth. Be aware as you place each foot on the earth. Relax and let your walking be easy and natural. Feel each step mindfully as you walk. When you reach the end of your path, pause for a moment. Centre yourself, carefully turn around, pause again so that you can be aware of the first step as you walk back. You can experiment with the speed, walking at whatever pace keeps you most present. Continue to walk back and forth for ten or twenty minutes or longer.

As with the breath in sitting, your mind will wander away many, many times. As soon as you notice this, acknowledge where it went softly: "wandering," "thinking," "hearing," "planning." Then return to feel the next step. Like training the puppy, you will need to come back a thousand times. Whether you have been away for one second or for ten minutes, simply acknowledge where you have been and then come back to being alive here and now with the next step you take.

After some practice with walking meditation, you will learn to use it to calm and collect yourself and to live more wakefully in your body. You can then extend your walking practice in an informal way when you go shopping, whenever you walk down the street or walk to or from your car. You can learn to enjoy walking for its own sake instead of the usual planning and thinking and, in this simple way, begin to be truly present, to bring your body, heart, and mind together as you move through your life.

Continuing Meditation Practice

Although it is perfectly possible to start practicing mindfulness alone, our practice is none-the-less strengthened and deepened when we practice with others and have guidance from a more experienced practitioner. A variety of places where we can find such help is found within the resources section of this website.