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Why do this?

Sometimes our thoughts and feelings are very troublesome.  Often, our minds are like a hot, bubbling, churning cauldron, with bad memories and unpleasant feelings boiling up to the surface and remaining in consciousness, causing anxiety, feelings of panic and tainting day to day life with stress confusion and unpleasantness. 

Often enough, I find that people can spend much of their time lost in a fog of unpleasant past memories.  They churn around and around in these recollections of unhappy past events, becoming depressed and fueling their own unhappiness.

Or, they can spend much of their time worrying and stressing by imagining future disasters and picturing themselves being harmed, or disadvantaged, lost, abandoned, financially ruined etc etc.

A third alternative, is that we can expend our energies by occupying fantasy realms of anger, death, destruction, fights, replaying of old arguments or generating new ones, or perhaps imagining a blissful fairy-tale existence in which we are always victorious and our every need is met and yeah, I should be so lucky!

Whichever of these paths we walk down, we are not living in the present and inevitably we set ourselves up for unpleasant consequences: anxiety, panic attacks, stress, chronic unhappiness, anger, poor self-esteem, self-harm and despair, as we realise that our lives are slipping away into a meaningless state.

If you have experienced any of the above, you will be aware that they are not pleasant or happy states of mind.  By using a simple technique of mindfulness, however, we can begin to gain control of troublesome states, which after all, our own minds are creating.

Ok – How do I do it?

Find a quiet place where you will not be interrupted.  Sit in a chair, or on a cushion – anything that keeps your back reasonably straight and your head erect.  (If you can sit in the lotus position, I envy you, but this is not necessary.)  I suggest you don’t lie down, or you are likely to drift off to sleep. 

Be aware of your breath.  Don’t try to control it, just be aware of the sensation of breath, flowing in and out.  Be aware of the feelings of breath, the coolness of the in-breath, the warmth of the out-breath.  Be aware of the feelings of rising and falling of your chest, the movements of your abdomen.  At least in the beginning of the practice of mindfulness, it can be helpful to count breaths.  Breathe in, and on the out-breath, count “one.”  In again, and on the out-breath count “two.”  Count up to five, then start again at one.  If you lose count, just start again at one. 

As you sit breathing and being aware of breath, you will almost certainly be interrupted, or distracted by a thought.  When this happens, simply label the thought – “I am having a thought about my finances” (for example.)  Try to avoid “getting into” the thought.  If, for example, you have a thought about your finances and it leads to – “I’ve got bills to pay, the electricity is overdue, how am I going to pay it, and then there is the car, I’m going broke, I can’t cope, I’m getting upset,”  then the thought has got you, it is controlling you and it has become distressing. 

Best to forestall this by labelling the thought, then mentally “watching it” as you return your awareness to your breath (and counting.)  As your awareness returns to breath, you can notice that the thought fades away.  Doubtless it will shortly be replaced by another thought, or a sensation (an itch on your nose,) or a sound (rain on the roof, the cat scratching the sofa!)  Label these too and return each time to your breath.  Be aware of the stream of your thoughts, feelings, sensations, arising in consciousness and passing as you continually bring yourself back to the constant of your breath. 

If you become lost in a chain of thought and thoroughly distracted, bring your awareness back to your breath as soon as you become aware that this has happened.  Don’t berate yourself – in fact you can feel a sense of satisfaction that you have noted the distraction and “returned to base.”

Why the breath?  No reason of great significance for the purpose of this exercise, but mainly because of its simplicity and because it is always there.  (If it isn’t, you’ve got problems!)  (What is important, however is that breath oxygenates our body – too little, or too much causes problems and a steadiness of breathing has a great effect on calmness and well-being.) 

I tried this and my mind raced all over the place!  I couldn’t control it for more than a few seconds.  I must be doing it wrong?

No – you are not doing it wrong.  In fact, well done, you have made an important discovery.  You have become aware of the nature of your mind (it tends to flit all over the place) and you have become aware of the constant stream of your thoughts.  Trying to “control” the mind can be like trying to pin down a blob of mercury by using the tip of a pencil.  Remember, the purpose of this technique is mindfulness by awareness.  With even a little practice, you will notice that you have more control.

OK – so what’s the point?

There are several points to doing this.  First, when we are focused on the simplicity of breath and keep returning to breath when we become distracted, we are living very much in the present, rather than the past (which is gone,) or the future (which is undetermined,) or in fantasy-land (which is… well…. fantasy-land.)

Second, after we have been practising for a while (perhaps even in the course of one session) we can notice that the stream of thought slows down.  It becomes more manageable, less chaotic, more in control, calmer.  You are starting to become more in control of your thoughts, rather than your thoughts being in control of you. 

Third and vitally important, we begin to notice that our thoughts, feelings and sensations are just things that arise and fall in our conscious awareness.  They arise and fall in a constant stream and they continuously pass – if we let them.  With this awareness comes the realisation that we can choose whether or not to focus on, or respond to a thought, feeling or sensation.  We don’t have to believe everything we think!

Fourth, our breath is always there and when we practice as outlined above, breath can become an “anchor” for calmness and control.  I suggest that as you go about your day-to-day life, that you make a habit of regularly “re-connecting” with your awareness of breath.  Be aware that it is there and be aware that you can re-connect with the calmness and control that the practice of mindfulness brings.  The more you do this, the more helpful it becomes.  Particularly in times of stress and distress, it can be helpful to say: “I am aware that I am becoming upset – I can re-connect with calmness just by breathing.” 

The more you practice, the more adept you become at directing your attention.  You may wish, for example, to direct your awareness, to tension within your body, or your face, ease it away, then return to your breath. 

The more you develop a base of stability and control with mindfulness, the more you can expand that base to positively manage difficult aspects of your life.

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