Feeling good has to do with a lot of things. Eating well. Not being in pain. Having strong and secure relationships with your family, friends and partners. Working a job that feels worth it. Being in control of your debts and financially stable. But sometimes it's the case that we have all of these things in place but still feel dissatisfied.
The more time I spend working with others at the naturopathic clinic and through my own personal issues, the more evident it becomes to me that developing mindfulness and awareness in our day to day lives is the thread connecting each of the individually good parts. And while I am referring in part to a sense of gratitude for what you do have and maybe even a sense of awareness of your privilege, I actually am even more so referring to a literal sense of being aware of yourself. Your thoughts, your emotions, your reactions, your habits, your senses, your physical body...
This idea of just being aware, present, conscious, of yourself has, as you likely know been termed mindfulness. Mindfulness has most of its roots in Buddhism, but has been popularized independently of religion in North America. This is thanks to people like Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has written a number of great books on the subject including Wherever You Go, There You Are, an incredibly straightforward and easy to read primer on incorporating mindfulness into your life through meditation.
I'm calling mindfulness the last frontier of being well because, well for most of us, it is. We've changed our diets, added in exercise, changed jobs and started to say 'no' when necessary, but our days (and often nights) remain clouds of nonstop and repeated anxieties, judgments and plans for the future. We experience near constant stimulation with most of our downtime spent in front of some kind of screen and very little time giving our concerns and emotions the space needed to process why we are having them.
Meditation and general awareness are connected in your daily life in this way: developing the habit of regular meditation based in mindfulness is called a practice because essentially that's what you end up doing - practicing mindfulness. You dedicate 5, 15, 45 however many minutes to practicing shutting off your never ending mind chatter to just sit and observe yourself as you are, sitting, breathing, staring at a wall, with eyes shut or however you do it. Like anything, with practice you improve and with time you develop the skill of being aware. More plainly, turning off constant stream of judgment and commentary running through your mind becomes a habit and happens even when you're not trying. And because of this, you become infinitely more aware of the times when that stream starts flowing again and have the new capability of noticing this and if necessary, asking yourself: Why did that just happen? Maybe also, what brought this on? What emotions is it leading me to feel? How are these emotions influencing my behaviour?
The tool of mindfulness is very similar to the practice of CBT, and unsurprisingly it has become popular in psychology and integrative medicine thanks to Kabat-Zinn and others as another tool to help with anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, diabetes, HIV, fibromyalgia, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, general stress reduction and so much more. It's by no means a 'cure-all', though recent research has demonstrated that the role of mindfulness in health and healing has been underestimated in the past.
Meditation is a practice that works extremely well for developing mindfulness and if you put in the time (might be 21 days, might be longer...), meditation can become the habit you form that improves your life. There are so many ways to get started if you're interested. For one, you could just try sitting for 10-15 minutes every day and trying to be mindful - for most, this usually begins with focusing on your breathing as it naturally occurs. But for a lot of us, just starting to meditate without any support, isn't going to cut it.
I had my first meditation experience at the Toronto Zen Centre through their introductory course and I thought it was really pretty incredible. In fact, I had kind of a strange experience right after doing it that made the value of meditation immediately obvious to me. After a full day of meditation and discussion I left and met a friend at a talk downtown. Halfway through the talk I noticed my attention drifting to the haircut of the woman in front of me and before I got too far into dreaming of cutting my own hair off, a voice inside my head said, "Emily! Pay attention to the talk you're here to see!" and the haircut daydream turned off like a television. Then about 2 minutes later I got distracted again because I was like, "Uh...what just happened there." It was such an unusual experience to so quickly switch from being distracted to focused again, without being fully conscious of doing so.
Now meditation is something that seems to float in and out of my life as its needed. In fact, I'm kind of writing this post as reminder to myself of the important role mindfulness should be playing in my own daily routine. A recent personal experience served to remind me that being mindful and aware is not automatic for me right now, and working in a regular meditation practice again would serve me well. When I was still in classes at CCNM, I would go up to the meditation room (aren't naturopathic medical schools great?) during the 1/2 hour breaks between classes and sit for 20 minutes. And you know what it felt like? A really sweet nap. I mean, sitting isn't easy, but after I'd finish I would feel like I was waking up from the most restful nap I'd ever had without the grogginess and sandy eyes.
Besides the Zen Centre, there's the Toronto Mindfulness Centre, which offers regular Intro to Mindfulness courses. Many people choose the intense 10-day Vipassana retreat as their gateway into meditation. Wherever You Go, There You Are is designed to be used as an intro to meditation, if you prefer to read books to learn things. Deepak Chopra offers many free meditations online if listening to guidance appeals to you. So does the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Centre, Palouse Mindfulness, and Mindful.org has a great list of other resources.
Still haven't settled on a new year's resolution? How about exploring mindfulness and meditation? Let me know what you think!
This post was featured in Food Renegade's FIght Back Friday. Check it out for some great links from other renegaders!