Mindfulness: a short course

(This is adapted from emails I sent to students, faculty, and staff in the course on mindfulness I’m teaching at the USC Keck School of Medicine, through our Mindful.USC.edu initiative:)

Mindfulness: A short course

Mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Jon Kabat-Zinn

First assignment: Get into a comfortable physical position in which you will be unlikely to fall asleep, and for 15 or more minutes daily, be mindful in particular of your body. What bodily sensations do you experience in the moment? What emotions are associated with these sensations? How do these emotions affect your breathing, as well? Remember: suffering = pain times resistance. So strive to carefully observe any physical pain you experience, stay open to it, surround it with loving attention, and gently release ideas or opinions about it.

Something that can help with this practice is “progressive muscle relaxation”. Progressively tighten and then relax your body’s muscles, one group of muscles at a time. You can this while being mindful of each of the sensations that result.

As part of your practice, try “urge surfing”. When you feel an urge to do something, take an action, solve a problem, etc, explore that urge by paying attention to it. Let the urge be: delay acting on the urge long enough to fully experience it. Where and how does the urge manifest in the body? What emotions go with it? What does this urge feel like? Ride it out for a while before acting on it. See what happens!

Once a week, I do sitting meditation with a group. But walking meditation is my daily practice of mindfulness. I start by silently chanting, one word per step: “Am I here? I am here. What is here?” Then I do an inventory of what is here, within and around me, as I walk. A tree. A bird. My urge to get home fast and make dinner. My urge to send an email to a colleague as soon as possible. The wind on my face. The scent of flowers. A car zipping past. That difficult conversation I had last week. All of these experiences, sensations, thoughts, memories, urges are here, in the moment, as I put one step in front of the next. I find this to be an effective but also difficult kind of mindfulness practice. It’s particularly challenging because of the barrage of sensory input, and the difficulty of staying in “observer mode”. When I lose attention, I go back to my inner chant: “Am I here? I am here. What is here?”, one word per step.

Second assignment: 20 minutes a day, focusing especially on emotions that may arise – and on the ways they manifest in your body and breath. We have emotions all the time: this discipline involves watching them. When one arises, observe it with “high-resolution perception”, as Chade-Meng Tan (Google’s Chief Happiness Officer) describes it in his introduction to mindfulness practice, “Search Within Yourself”. Observe the emotion, and its effects on the body, with openness and warmth. Let it play out naturally and then let it pass in its own time.

A mnemonic for what we’re doing in mindfulness practice: RAIN: Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Non-identify. Non-identifying means moving from “I am sad” to “I feel sadness”. How long does it take for you to move from sensing an emotion to being able to observe it in a conscious way, thus separating it from your core identity? For example, you become conscious that you are anxious. In that moment, can you look back and recall when the emotion of anxiety actually began – and how that anxiety manifested in your body? Very often there is a gap between the onset of an emotion and our full consciousness of it. It is this time gap that often brings us suffering and confusion. One of the fruits of mindfulness practice is shortening this time gap, giving us much more control over the way we respond to our emotions.

Third assignment: 20 minutes daily, in silent mindfulness meditation, turn your attention to someone you love very much, aim love toward that person, and savor and investigate the experience of it. How does it feel? Where does the love reside in the body, how does it affect your breathing? What is the emotional content of it? You can use the Center for Nonviolent Communication’s site to get a “periodic table” of feelings. This table is useful for identifying and investigating the emotions you experience in mindfulness practice, generally. How does this love “metabolize” – how does it flow from one experience to another? Then turn your attention to a person you don’t know well at all, and direct love toward that person, and investigate the experience. Then turn it toward the whole human race, the whole planet, and do the same. Then turn it toward yourself, and do the same. That’s the hard part, for most of us! We’re so much easier on others than we are on ourselves. But learning the discipline of deep self-compassion also turns the tap of of love for others all the way open.

Fourth assignment: 20 minutes daily of mindfulness practice focused on your thoughts. What are the colors, textures, tones, and qualities of your thoughts? Which ones are “sticky” and which ones pass quickly? What form do they take: are they voices? images? What emotions are associated with them? Where do these emotions reside in your body?

Some thoughts spin around problems we are anxious to solve. This can pose a challenge in mindfulness practice, as we lose our attention to the problem by becoming totally absorbed in problem-solving, which often leads to the experience of getting “stuck”. I cherish an old, wise book: HOW TO SOLVE IT by George Polya (1944). Polya was a celebrated mathematician who wrote the book to help improve math education. But it generalizes as a source of wisdom about problem-solving in many situations. It’s a contemplative approach to the study of mathematics. In his book, he repeated this phrase: “Look at the unknown!” This concentration on the problem itself, rather than on problem-solving, has the paradoxical effect of opening up a fresh awareness of the peripheral realm around the problem, in which solutions may be found. (For further reading: “Contemplation in Mathematics”, by Luke Wolcott) When you get stuck in your thoughts, go back to Polya’s mantra and “look at the unknown”. Contemplate the problem with loving, patient attention, while trusting that the solution will emerge in its own time.

At least in the context of mindfulness, wanting = having. To pay mindful attention to our desire for progress in mindfulness is to have a taste of that progress, if only for a fleeting moment. Savor your desire for this progress, as its own experience in the moment. Let it be a “seed” that you can trust to grow, in it own time and on its own terms. Mindfulness practice trains us to trust that our awareness of a problem or of a need for growth will activate our inner creativity and capacity for change. We don’t need to solve problems, fix things, in the moment as we practice: we learn to trust that solutions will bubble up from within, when the time is right.

Final assignment: Mindfully attend to all that arises in your daily practice: bodily sensations, the rhythm of your breath, your emotions, your thoughts; directing love toward each of these experiences… staying open and accepting toward them, releasing them as they pass in their own time and on their own terms.

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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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