Paying close attention

Practicing mindfulness relieves stress, benefits the body to boot

About the author:
He is the former editor of the CN&R.

Many years ago I attended a weekend meditation retreat at Shasta Abbey, the Buddhist monastery near Mount Shasta City. I’m still not sure what I expected to gain from the experience. As it turned out, I received a powerful lesson in mindfulness, one that has stuck with me ever since.

It came at meal time. We gathered in the zendo, or meditation hall, sitting on cushions arrayed in a large circle, each of us with a wooden bowl and a fork. A monk carrying a large pot came around the room and ladled out the soup or vegetable stew or oatmeal, depending on whether we were having breakfast, lunch or dinner. When our bowls were full, we put our hands together in the familiar prayer style and bowed.

Bowing was a big part of the meals. We were expected to put down our forks and bowls and bow before and after every bite. If we wanted seconds, we bowed to our server when he came by. There was no talking; we ate in silence.

And we ate slowly, chewing every bite until it was reduced to a sweet liquid in our mouths. I hadn’t savored my food so thoroughly since I was a child and tried to make my Fudgsicle bar last as long as possible.

The meals I ate at Shasta Abbey were the first I’d eaten while paying full attention to what I was doing. The experience made me realize that ordinarily I ate only half-consciously, taking large bites, chewing rapidly and incompletely, and eating more than was necessary in order to satisfy my hunger and my nutritional needs.

Later I would learn that paying such full attention to what is happening in the present moment is the very essence of mindfulness practice.

Aldous Huxley’s utopian 1962 novel Island is the opposite counterpart to his most famous work, the dystopian 1932 novel Brave New World. The people of the fictional island of Pala live peacefully and cultivate awareness of the present moment. Trees on the island are filled with mynah birds that regularly scream “Attention!”

When Huxley wrote his novels, the word “mindfulness” was not in common use outside of Buddhist circles. Since then, the practice of mindfulness has spread widely into secular society as people have realized that paying attention and calming the mind have profound health benefits.

Studies have shown that mindfulness—the intentional practice of paying nonjudgmental attention to your thoughts, feelings, breathing and bodily states—can relieve stress, treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep and alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties.

The most powerful form of mindfulness practice is sitting meditation. This is the act of sitting in stillness on a cushion, on a meditation bench, or in a chair and focusing on your breath—simply watching it go in and out—for a given period of time.

Walking meditation is another healthful practice and has the added benefit of being doable during much of the day. And mindful eating enhances your meals and improves your digestion.

In all three cases, mindfulness works in part by helping people to accept their life experiences with joy and equanimity. The more you practice mindfulness, the more you are capable of dealing with your problems without responding in a way that you later regret.

I have attended many mindfulness retreats since my visit to Shasta Abbey all those years ago. Each involved a variety of practices ranging from sitting meditation, walking meditation and mindful eating to deep relaxation and chanting.

These retreats are wonderfully refreshing. Spending several days in meditative silence offers me a rare opportunity to survey my life, to look deeply into what I’m doing in order to recognize what I can do to make life better for my family, my friends and society in general.

At Shasta Abbey I learned just how powerful mindful eating was. I continue to enjoy sitting down at a well-laden table to enjoy a meal with friends or family, but whenever I eat alone I practice mindful eating. I swear, the food tastes better when I pay close attention to it.

Mindfulness methods

The goal of any mindfulness technique is to achieve a state of alert relaxation by paying attention to thoughts and sensations without judgment. All mindfulness methods are forms of meditation. Here are five to consider.

Sitting meditation: Sit quietly and focus on your breathing. Allow thoughts to come and go without judgment and return to your focus on the breath.

Watch your body: Notice subtle bodily sensations such as an itch or tingling without judgment and let them pass.

Sensory: Notice sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches. Name them without judgment and let them go.

Emotions: Allow emotions to be present without judgment. Practice a steady and relaxed naming of emotions: “joy,” “anger,” “frustration.” Accept the presence of the emotions without judgment and let them go.

Cravings: Cope with cravings (for addictive substances or behaviors) and allow them to pass. Know that the craving eventually will subside.