Practicing the Art of Mindfulness
Mindfulness generates compassion, and intellectual, physical, and emotional generosity. And, such expressions of mindfulness organically promote an intellectually, physically, and emotionally healthier world for ourselves and everyone else to live and work in. Naturally, we will not achieve perfection of mindfulness through these, or by any other means. Therefore, the emphasis is, appropriately, on the practicing. More specifically, the focus is really on purposeful efforts toward strengthening one’s very commitment to practicing living in an increasingly mindful way.
Here are five excellent exercises for practicing mindfulness:
1. Practice Being Gentle With Yourself
Being kind to others requires first being kind to yourself. It can be more difficult to care for ourselves than for others. Giving help and love seems more worthy to us than receiving it, or than believing we deserve happiness. It can feel more natural to expend more energy on:
- Worrying about the future
- Brooding about things you can’t change in the present
- Fixating on the past
- Comparing yourself with others
- Judging yourself
Imagine regaining all of that ill-spent good energy. Focus on developing a greater habit of caring for ourselves must be the first step.
- Spend a little time enjoying reflecting on your good qualities and acts that have benefited yourself and others.
- Resist tendencies to judge or disparage yourself.
- Visualize people who have been kind to you or inspired you by their loving manner.
- Think in terms of moving away from self-chastising and moving toward a more sustained kindness to yourself.
Caring for yourself is the necessary foundation for developing a character of more genuinely efficacious kindness to benefit others and contribute to bettering the world around you.
2. Practice Forgiving Imperfections
When we actively strive to generate within ourselves a sense of willingness to resolve conflict and make peace, inflictions of mental pain that feed anger and bitterness do typically become easier to forgive. Actively letting go, forgiving, opens up emotional space in which we can cultivate more advanced emotional skills and develop healthier emotional habits and mental states — states that are naturally aligned with the desire to change. And, forgiveness also relieves stress that is a side effect of judging ourselves and others.
The self-healing process starts by forgiving ourselves: Everything becomes forgivable:
- Bad habits
- Negative thinking
- Not exercising
- Not being perfect
- Hating yourself for not being perfect
Just becoming mindful of what about us is awaiting self-forgiveness is a major step toward greater mindfulness. So, if necessary, make a list of things you want to forgive yourself for. Sit quietly and start consciously reasoning on the importance of forgiving yourself. Forgive yourself for the minor flaws first; then work up to those you perceive as most serious. Practice forgiving yourself as often as necessary until you feel forgiven.
3. Practice Exhaustive Listening
When we’re convinced that we already know all there is to hear in a given instance, we have passed our opportunity to actually listen. When we focus on listening thoroughly, we can see previously unnoticed possibilities for different action to achieve optimal outcomes.
- We learn to actually hear another person’s circumstance, and we benefit from a new sense of shared perspective with the other person(s).
- Keep the perspective that, in fact, every situation at every moment of your life is utterly new. You’ve never been there before — even if you’ve performed the same actions many times.
- Dismissing input as being “just more of the same” reduces yourself and those you deal with to no more than objects, in effect. To act compassionately requires training our minds not to objectify, or perceive others as means only.
- From mindful listening, real change naturally follows. You discover that how you listen impacts how you’re heard.
Letting go of preconceived beliefs and judgments enables really hearing what’s being said. That requires wanting a deeper respect for others and curiosity about non-obvious possibilities. Consider the rewards of success:
- Negative stereotypes are replaced with concern and understanding.
- Barriers are toppled; parties become inspired to find common ground.
- People come to empathize with former adversaries.
- Parties feel validated, sensing that their counterparts want to understand their opinions.
- People self-explore, sometimes for the first time, their deeper feelings regarding social issues.
When called on to act compassionately, listen for the full truth in each circumstance, to better understand how and when to act or not to act. Listening is the most reliable basis of compassionate action that can prevent recurrence of suffering.
4. Practice Choosing Generous Interpretations
Practice encouraging generous conversations. Perhaps a high-stakes discussion has suddenly deteriorated into an adversarial interaction. All of your good intentions are lost on your counterpart, and your plans for a harmonious, productive encounter have evaporated. You are thrown a little off balance. Your focus instinctively narrows, per the fight or flight stress response, and perhaps you begin to retort. What to do?
To practice being mindful in difficult social interactions, by definition, necessitates being in a challenging interaction with another person. So, recognizing the instance as a self-development opportunity is the first critical step in a successful effort.
You can start by simply practicing cultivating a consistent way of thinking about your personal role in all discussions, which role to facilitate the best outcome for all parties. And, you can practice basics, such as:
- Visualizing yourself maintaining measured speech during the discussion, if your counterpart(s) become(s) contentious.
- Taking a moment at the start of the encounter to let yourself “fully arrive,” i.e., notice whether or not you’re still angry about some other recent instance, or distracted, feeling overworked, affected by your history with the other person in the discussion, or anything else that may impact the way you’re likely to perform in the situation.
- Reflecting afterward, to comprehend what you could do to help you more comfortably improvise in similar situations in the future. But, avoid letting yourself dwell on injustices or on justifying your words or actions.
- Listening with curiosity about the unfolding possibilities in the new encounter, even if you have already heard the information being conveyed many times prior to the meeting. Perhaps the other person may move in a new direction. If so, you will have well-managed your responses, and the other person will feel well-heard.
Modeling self-regulation often influences the other person to do likewise. This better equips you to prevent instinctively narrowing your focus and giving way to temptations to react impulsively — which shuts down possibilities for making skillful choices. Instead, you’ll be free to remain open to a generous interpretation of the other person’s words and actions.
Choosing a generous interpretation is counterintuitive, so it requires practice, according to Lili Powell, Ph.D., Professor of Communications, University of Virginia. Recognize that you and the other person are indeed co-creating a story and its outcome. For your own role in it:
- Practice imagining what generous interpretation of the unfolding events might allow the interaction to shift back onto a more constructive heading.
- Start responding as if the generous interpretation is the correct one, and notice whether or not your actions appear to be gradually improving the quality of the discussion.
Your ability to convey your good intentions through mindful action in conversations naturally will become more habitual over time. As with learning any new skill, you will just need to devote the requisite amount of effort to developing it.
5. Practice Appreciating Your Surroundings
Learn how to take a mindful walk or to do other physical activity mindfully. Both your body and mind benefit by frequently making a purposeful effort to pause and really observe and experience appreciation for your daily environment and activities.
We can miss so much of the opportunity to enjoy a satisfying, calming and grounding sense of our routine daily lives. Appreciating where we are and what we’re doing also deepens our sense of connectedness to the world. Spending time outdoors has mentally and physically restorative powers, including:
- Stimulating the senses
- Helping alleviate anxiety and stress
- Sharpening attention
- Enhancing the capacity to think
- Promoting creativity
Note: We cannot entirely keep thoughts about our lives out of our minds as we walk in silence. So, don’t bother with trying. Just take satisfaction in knowing that even patchy moments of focus on appreciation are powerful in calming the mind and body.
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