What is mindfulness? And how can we do it? In these excerpts from Claire Gillman’s book “Five minute mindfulness: Parenting” she explains the basics as well as taking you through a couple of practical exercises:
Mindfulness is a way of being. It is about being aware (or mindful) of what is happening around you and bringing your attention to that moment and that experience, without bestowing any sort of judgment on it. In mindfulness, you use all the senses to become aware – so you listen, you sense, you notice details, and you feel. And in doing so, you become present, living moment by moment. In mindfulness, you also become aware of, and take note of, your emotions and then you let them pass without acting on them. It’s not that you ignore distracting thoughts and feelings exactly – rather that you acknowledge them without judgment or worry.
In mindfulness, techniques and exercises can be used to help you to better understand yourself and others. Meditation and contemplative thought are just some of the ways in which you can make sense of the thoughts and emotions you observe when you are present.
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism and it is just one of the many practices that make up the Buddhist philosophy. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the mindfulness element of Zen and Buddhist teachings was made available to the masses as a way of managing stress. Now there are several mindfulness-based therapies, such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, that are used to benefit psychological disorders and illnesses such as anxiety, trauma, addiction, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
The principles and practice of mindfulness can be applied to good effect in every aspect of life from breathing to walking to eating. Yet, it is when mindfulness is used by parents in relation to their children that it really comes into its own, because mindful parenting benefits not only your children – enormously I might add – but also yourself. Through mindful parenting, you can help your child to grow and develop in a safe, nurturing environment and, in the process, you will learn so much about yourself.
Exercise 1: Mindful Breathing
Recognizing the signs
With regular practise, mindful breathing can train your brain to focus on the breath in response to stress, so that you then respond to stress mindfully and reflectively, rather than on impulse or with anger or panic.
But first you and your child need to recognize what happens to the breath when you are stressed or anxious. The following exercise is great for that.
Next time you watch a scary movie or a cartoon thriller together as a family, wait for a high-drama moment to pass and then ask your children if they noticed what happened to their breath in the heat of that moment. “Did you hold your breath while you were hiding behind the cushion? Was your breathing very shallow or restrained as the tension mounted? What do you think that means?”
If your children get used to noticing their breath, especially at tense or scary moments, they will come to recognize that they take quick, shallow breaths when they become tense. Next time a film is scary, perhaps they will be able to breathe more deeply during particularly tense scenes, and then they can come to recognize how deep breaths can relax them.
Three-Part Breath (Dirga Pranayama)
This is an excellent yogic breathing exercise that can be practiced sitting in the lotus position or cross-legged, or lying down in shavasana (the corpse pose). It really helps you to focus on the present moment and to get in touch with the sensations in your physical body.
Start by drawing your attention to your natural breathing.
Now deepen your breathing.
Breathe into your belly, then let the in-breath expand your ribs and finally the upper chest all the way up to the collarbone.
At the top of your in-breath, pause a moment in the still point.
Then exhale fully, letting the air go first from the upper chest, then from the rib cage, and finally from the belly.
At the bottom of the breath, when there is no more air left, pause momentarily in the still point before repeating the round of breathing another nine or ten times.
Exercise 2: Mindful Walking
Walking is a wonderful way to integrate mindfulness into your everyday life and has been practiced as a meditative technique for thousands of years. Paying attention to the body as you walk will help you to enjoy simply being alive. This meditation is best done outdoors and even a five-minute mindful walking meditation is beneficial, although it is best to build up to 20 minutes when possible.
Before you start walking, bring your attention to your body. Take a few deep breaths and focus your awareness on your breathing. Then allow your breathing to settle back into its natural rhythm. Now draw your awareness to how your body is feeling.
As you start to walk at a relaxed pace, continue to be aware of the sensations within your body. For once, you are not noticing what is going on around you, but you are drawing your attention inwards. How relaxed are your muscles? Notice the way you place your foot heel-first and then toe. How does the weight change from foot to foot as you move? Are your arms swinging? Do your shoulders drop as you relax? What’s happening with your breath now? If you feel tension anywhere in the body, let it go.
It is easy to become distracted by your surroundings. If your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your body and the simple act of taking one step after another. Gently placing your full attention on the alternating steps of your left and right feet naturally brings about a meditative state.
An indoor variation of this exercise – or one for the garden (I like to do it barefoot) – is to go through this process but slow it down even further and take ten extremely slow steps in one direction before turning round and retracing your steps at the same pace, all while drawing your awareness to the sensations within your body.
Claire Gillman, “Five minute mindfulness: Parenting” © Quarto Publishing