Use mindfulness practices to support your health and well-being
1. Healthy Relationship Practice by Tara Brach.
Breath Awareness – concentration and self-awareness, see below.
Three-Step Breathing Space – working with difficult thoughts and emotions, see below.
Loving-kindness – extending kindness to self and other, see below.
Self-Compassion Guided Audio Practices by Paul Gilbert
Soften/sooth/allow – self-kindness, see below.
S.A.F.E. – working with vulnerability, see below.
P.O.I.N.T. Adapted from practice (by Elisha Goldstein)
P.A.I.N. – working with physical, psychological and emotional pain, see below.
1. Healthy Relationship Practice (by Tara Brach)
Tara Brach and her husband, meditation teacher Jonathan Foust, have developed a regular practice for keeping the lines of communication open and maintaining a deep, loving connection. They engage in the practice two mornings a week. Here’s how Tara suggests going about it.
Practice: Keep the Lines Open
1) Begin by sitting silently together for 10-20 minutes, as time allows.
2) Next, take turns telling each other what you’re grateful for, what’s enlivening your heart at present. “This is called gladdening the heart and serves as a good way to open the channel of communication,” Tara says.
3) After individually expressing gratitude, take turns naming any particular challenges you’re dealing with that are currently causing you stress. These are difficulties you’re facing apart from your relationship.
4) Then, deepen your inquiry by taking turns noting anything that might be restricting the sense of love and openness you feel toward your partner. First, you might ask yourself: “What is between me and feeling openhearted and intimate with my partner?” This is potentially the stickiest part of the practice, as well as the most rewarding.
“What is between me and feeling openhearted and intimate with my partner?” This is potentially the stickiest part of the practice, as well as the most rewarding.
“Naming difficult truths is the best way to bring more love and understanding into a relationship,” explains Tara. For example, she says, “There are times when I get busy and Jonathan takes on a larger portion of the household responsibilities and ends up feeling unappreciated, and I need to be reminded to express my appreciation. When we acknowledge what could cause resentment if left unsaid, it brings us closer together.” But, she cautions, for this step to be productive, it’s essential for both partners to practice speaking and listening from a place of vulnerability, without blaming the other person.
5) Next, expand your inquiry to see whether there’s anyone in your wider circle of family, friends or society at large who’s important to you as an individual or as a couple, and who also calls out for your attention. Take turns identifying them, and sense what might serve well-being in this larger domain of relationship.
6) Lastly, enjoy some moments of silent appreciation together, ideally in a long, tender hug.
2. Breath Awareness (by Philip Jones)
- Settle into your sitting position.
- Close your eyes, either partially or completely.
- Soften the muscles in your face and around your eyes, your shoulders, arms and hands, your legs.
- Sit with an erect but relaxed posture.
- Take several deep breaths to help you be aware of the sensation of breathing. Then allow your breath to flow in its normal, ever changing manner.
- Choose to pay attention to your breath in the abdomen, feeling the abdomen rising and fall with each inhale and exhale.
- Continue to keep your awareness focused on the sensations of the breath flowing in and flowing out. Continue to rest awareness on the abdomen, notice the rising and falling or in and out movements.
- Sometimes it is helpful to silently count the breaths, as a way of settling the mind. Counting one on the in-breath, two on the out-breath up to ten and repeat several times until the mind feels more stable and less distracted.
- Just try to follow one in-breath as clearly as you can, and then one out-breath. Don’t get overly ambitious and expect yourself to follow more than one breath. Expecting to be mindful for more than one breath sets you up for discouragement. Expecting to follow one breath helps train you to stay present with each moment of your experience.
- When your attention wanders away from the breath and you notice it, appreciate that moment of noticing, of waking up and being mindful. Then gently return your attention to the breath and continue to follow it.
- When you are able to stay in contact with the sensations of breathing, you may notice when you are breathing a short breath and when you are breathing a long breath.
- As your awareness of the quality of each breath becomes clearer, you may also begin to notice for yourself whether the breath stays the same or whether it is constantly changing.
- And, as your concentration develops more deeply, you may follow the sensations from the beginning of the in-breath through the middle to the end and then you follow the sensations of the out-breath in the same way.
- Continue to follow the sensations of breathing.
3. Three-Step Breathing Space (by Mark Williams)
The three-step breathing space is used as the first step in responding to whatever challenging situations and feelings arise in a particular moment. Intentionally separating an unpleasant experience into thoughts, feelings, and body sensations allows the mind to respond more creatively than it would to the perception of an event as monolithic, impenetrable, and overwhelming.
Step 1. Becoming Aware
Begin by deliberately adopting an erect and dignified posture, whether you are sitting or standing. If possible, close your eyes. Then, bringing your awareness to your inner experience, ask: What is my experience right now?
- What thoughts are going through the mind? As best you can, acknowledging thoughts as mental events, perhaps putting them into words.
- What feelings are there? Turning toward any sense of emotional discomfort or unpleasant feelings, acknowledging their presence.
- What body sensations are here right now? Perhaps quickly scanning the body to pick up any sensations of tightness or bracing.
Step 2. Gathering
Then redirect your attention to focus on the physical sensations of the breath breathing itself. Move in close to the sense of the breath in the belly…feeling the sensations of the belly wall expanding as the breath comes in…and falling back as the breath goes out. Follow the breath all the way in and out, using the breathing to anchor yourself in the present.
Step 3. Expanding
Now expand the field of your awareness around your breathing so that, in addition to the sensations of the breath, it includes a sense of the body as a whole, your posture, and facial expression.
If you become aware of any sensations of discomfort, tension, or resistance, zero in on them by breathing into them on each in-breath and breathing out from them on each out-breath as you soften and open. If you want to, you might say to yourself on the out-breath. “It’s okay…whatever it is, it’s already here: let me feel it.” As best you can, bring this expanded awareness into the next moments of your day.
4. Loving-Kindness Practice
- The practice of Loving-kindness meditation is a beautiful support to mindfulness practices. One recites specific words and phrases evoking a “boundless warm-hearted feeling.” The strength of this feeling is not limited to or by family, religion, or social class. We begin with our self and gradually extend the wish for well-being happiness to all beings.
- Brief Instructions for Loving-Kindness Meditation: To practice loving-kindness meditation, sit in a comfortable and relaxed manner. Take three deep breaths with slow, long and complete exhalations. Let go of any concerns or preoccupations. For a few minutes, feel or imagine the breath moving through the center of your chest – in the area of your heart.
- Loving-kindness is first practiced toward oneself, since we often have difficulty loving others without first loving ourselves. Sitting quietly, mentally repeat, slowly and steadily, pausing for 5-10 between phrases. Let the words deeply impact your being noticing thoughts, emotions or body sensations as they arise. A sample set of phrases are offered below, additional phrases can be found on the next page. You can create your own phrases if you like. May I be happy/May I be healthy/May I be peaceful/May I be free from suffering
- While you say these phrases, allow yourself to sink into the intentions they express. Loving-kindness meditation consists primarily of connecting to the intention of wishing ourselves or others happiness and well-being. However, if feelings of warmth, friendliness, or love arise in the body or mind, connect to them, allowing them to grow as you repeat the phrases. As an aid to the meditation, you might hold an image of yourself in your mind’s eye. This helps reinforce the intentions expressed in the phrases.
- After a period of directing loving-kindness toward yourself, bring to mind a friend or someone in your life who has deeply cared for you. Then slowly repeat phrases of loving-kindness toward them:
- May you be happy…May you be healthy…May you be peaceful…May you be free from suffering.
- As you say these phrases, again sink into their intention or heartfelt meaning. And, if any feelings of loving-kindness arise, connect the feelings with the phrases so that the feelings may become stronger as you repeat the words.
- As you continue the meditation, you can bring to mind other friends, neighbors, acquaintances, strangers, animals, and finally people with whom you have difficulty. You can either use the same phrases, repeating them again and again, or make up phrases that better represent the loving-kindness you feel toward these beings.
- Sometimes during loving-kindness meditation, seemingly opposite feelings such as anger, grief, or sadness may arise. Take these to be signs that your heart is softening, revealing what is held there. You can either shift to mindfulness practice or you can—with whatever patience, acceptance, and kindness you can muster for such feelings—direct loving-kindness toward them. Above all, remember that there is no need to judge yourself for having these feelings.
5. Self and Other Compassion – Guided Audio Practices (by Paul Gilbert) (click here to listen to recordings)
What is Compassion?
When people hear the word compassion, they tend to think of kindness. But scientific study has found the core of compassion to be courage.
A standard definition of compassion is, “a sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it.”
The courage to be compassionate lies in the willingness to see into the nature and causes of suffering – be that in ourselves, in others and the human condition. The challenge is to acquire the wisdom we need to address the causes of suffering in ourselves and others.
Compassion is one of the most important declarations of strength and courage known to humanity. It is difficult and powerful, infectious and influential. It is a universally recognised motivation with the ability to change the world.
6. Soften/Soothe/Allow (by Chris Germer)
You can practice this exercise whenever you feel stress in daily life. First discover where the stress or a difficult emotion manifests in your body. Then try the following:
- Begin softening into that location in your body. Letting the muscles be soft without a requirement that they become soft, like simply applying heat to sore muscles. Softening…softening…softening… Remember that we are not trying to make the sensation go away—you are just holding it in a tender embrace.
- If you wish, letting yourself just soften around the edges, hands, feet, face and shoulders. No need to go all the way in.
- If you experience too much discomfort with an emotion, just staying with your breath until you feel better.
- Now, starting to soothe yourself because you struggle in this way. Perhaps putting your hand over your heart again and feeling your body breathe. Perhaps bringing kind or encouraging words to mind, such as, “Oh, it’s so hard to feel this. May I be kind to myself.” “May I hold myself in loving awareness.”
- If you wish, directing kindness to an uncomfortable part of your body by placing your hand over that place. Maybe even thinking of your body as if it were the body of a beloved child, and gently soothing…soothing…soothing.
- Finally, allowing the discomfort to be there. Letting go of the wish for discomfort to disappear. Allowing the discomfort to come and go as it pleases, like a guest in your own home. Allowing…allowing…allowing
- Softening…soothing…allowing. Softening…soothing…allowing. Repeating these words like a mantra, if you wish, reminding yourself to incline with tenderness toward your suffering.
- As you do this exercise you may find that the emotion moves in your body, or even changes into another emotion. Try staying with your experience, continuing to use the technique of soften-soothe-allow.
- Slowly open your eyes when you’re ready.
7. S.A.F.E. The Power of Vulnerability (by Elisha Goldstein)
How do we heal insecurity and feel safe again? Our most fundamental need in life is to be safe. When we feel safe, the body relaxes, we become more flexible in the way we see life and are generally happier. But throughout life we all suffer different traumas and feel vulnerable. Maybe we were made fun as a child at school, were a child of divorce, felt inadequate as a parent or perhaps suffered more severe traumas such as some form of physical or sexual abuse. All of these are now reference points for your brain to bring up from time to time arousing feelings of insecurity and vulnerability. The acronym for this practice is S.A.F.E:
Soften – When a vulnerability arises, whether it’s a feeling of sadness, anxiety, grief, anger, or shame, take a moment to gently soften awareness into that area of the body. At this point you are just resting your awareness into this area. If it helps you can say, “Breathing in, I am aware of this vulnerability, breathing out softening into it.”
Allow/Accept– We’re not striving to change this feeling, or make it any different, we’re just allowing and letting be. Acceptance doesn’t imply that you are okay with it or want it there, it’s simply acknowledging the reality of its existence. Here you are just saying to yourself, “allowing, allowing, allowing.”
Feel into it with kindness – Now we have the opportunity to deepen our awareness and investigate the feeling. You may choose to put your hand on your heart or wherever you feel the sensation in your body. This applies love or kindness to the feeling which may shift it all by itself. The brain also has to map the sensation of the touch with is inversely correlated with mental rumination, turning the volume down on negative thinking. As you feel into it you might ask:
- What does this feeling believe?
- Does it believe you are unlovable, unworthy, or perhaps that if you allow it to be, it will consume you?
- What does this feeling need right now?
- Does it need to feel cared for, to feel secure, to feel a sense of belonging?
Whatever the answer, see if you can wish that for yourself. For example:
- May I feel loved
- May I feel secure
- May I feel a sense of belonging
Make this personal to whatever your needs are. Expand awareness and wishes to all people – Whatever your vulnerability, it’s important you know you’re not alone. Feeling vulnerable is part of the human condition and millions of people struggle with the same source of vulnerability that you experience. But when we’re feeling vulnerable with anxiety, depression or shame, it becomes all about us, we need to also impersonalize the experience and get out of ourselves. Now is the opportunity to make that realization real by imagining all the other people who struggle with this same feeling of vulnerability and to wish them all the same prayers that you just wished yourself. For example, May we all feel loved, may we all feel a sense of safety and security, May we all feel that sense of belonging, etc…
8. P.O.I.N.T. Adapted from practice (by Elisha Goldstein)
Step One – Pause –Simply pausing to step into the present moment, into mindfulness, a space between stimulus and response. This doesn’t mean we need to stop moving (although that can be helpful at times), but we’re pausing the auto-pilot.
Step Two – Open, Curios and Allowing – After pausing we’re opening to what’s here with a Curios and Allowing awareness of what is in the moment. Maybe it’s a person in front of us that we’ve been neglecting to listen to, or maybe we’ve been on a hike busy in thought and we’re opening to the nature around us, or maybe we’re feeling stress, anxious, sad, or some other uncomfortable feeling and we’re opening to the reality that, that is what’s there.
Step Three – Inquire with Kindness – Here is where we go beyond just opening to what’s here, but now begin getting curious about it. We put on our beginner’s mind cap and inquiring into the experience. We can get curious about how thoughts and emotions are manifesting in the physical body: and the physical expression of it:
- Is there tightness, constriction, pain?
- Changes in heart rate, breathing, perspiration?
- How big is it?
- What is the shape?
- Does it have a color?
As we do this and just allow it to be we might also notice if it stays the same or shifts around. We can investigate deeper by asking it what it’s believing. If it’s a negative emotion does it believe that:
- I’m not good enough?
- Something is fundamentally wrong with me
- I’ll never be able to get better at (you fill in the blank)
This could be any number of negative beliefs. We can even inquire into the thoughts themselves now with these four questions in Uncovering Happiness that I adapted from Byron Katie’s four questions.
- Is it true?
- Is it absolutely true?
- How does this thought make me feel?
- What would things be like if I didn’t hold this belief?
Step Four – Don’t Take the Emotional State Personally/Natural Awareness – As we begin to Pause, Open and Investigate, we get space from the experience itself. We’re practicing settling deeper into a sense of awareness viewing the experience. The awareness is not wrapped up in the experience of being a separate isolated self, the sensations, emotions and thoughts are arising within a wider awareness. There’s a sense of freedom in this, we’re not so identified with it anymore, it’s our natural awareness.
Step Five – Truth – As we settle into this natural awareness we come to recognize the truth that fundamentally this is our refuge and is who we are beneath the ever-changing flux of daily experiences. We start to see that everyone has this same natural awareness beneath the masks they wear. Most importantly, we start to sense the truth that we are all connected in this way. Or as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “we inter-are.” This is a truth of humanity.
9. P.A.I.N. Process and (by Vidyamala Burch)
This process summarizes the “Five-Step Model of Mindfulness,” found in chapter 5 of Living Well with Pain & Illness by Vidyamala Burch. It is similar to the “STOP” One Minute Breathing Space and the R.A.I.N. process.
Awareness – Bring yourself into the present moment by bringing awareness first to Thoughts (what are you saying to yourself), then to Feelings (enjoying, upset, excited, sad, mad, etc.) and finally to Physical Sensations (tightness, holding, lightness). You might also notice where you are, sensing the world through all your senses, touch, sound, smell, taste and sight. Take a breath – to become aware of breath, not necessarily to change it.
Move toward the Unpleasant – We normally react to pain in one of two ways: (1) to try to block or distract from the discomfort, or (2) get swallowed up in it, drowning in the discomfort and its associated fears (what if this continues, etc). This step offers a third choice that may sound like option (2), but is actually quite different. Rather than drowning in it and the associated fears, you move your attention away from the story line and fearful interpretations, and instead, observe precisely the sensations corresponding to the discomfort.
- What precisely are the sensations (burning, cutting, tingling, aching, etc)?
- Where are they precisely?
- What is the shape of the discomfort?
- Where are the boundaries?
- How thick, thin, deep or shallow is it?
Seeking the Pleasant – At any moment, there are thousands of places we can put our attention, and emotional or physical is a siren call to pay attention to a particular set of inputs, whether physical sensation or our thoughts telling us how bad we feel. This step invites you to explore your inner and outer world, looking for something pleasant in your experience. As Vidyamala puts it in her book, “Seeking the pleasant is like being an explorer searching for hidden treasure. It might be as simple as noting the warmth of your hands or a pleasant feeling in the belly, or seeing a shaft of sunlight streaming through the window.”
Broadening Awareness – Here you broaden your awareness so that it includes both the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of your experience, including your whole body, your surroundings, so that you are much bigger than a specific unpleasant or pleasant aspect of your experience.
Choice: Responding Rather than Reacting – (Slow rise to a standing position with arms raised over the head in a relaxed manner) You let your attention now move into the world around you, letting yourself naturally respond rather than react habitually to the situation you are in, curious and open, with perhaps more possibility and choice than you might have had before this exploration. You may even be surprised by what happens next after creating this pause…