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Practicing Mindfulness

We like to say that "mindfulness" is the conscious awareness of your actions and why you do them. Though this isn't the whole story, it is a great place to start if you want to learn about the power of mindfulness and what it has to offer.
In our current society, people have grown acustomed to going about their lives on a kind of auto-pilot. They may think about their actions to a certain degree, but by and large, they are ruled by lesser impulses and thought-patterns borne of the ego-mind. In short, they are not completely in control.
practicing-mindfulness-control
Mindfulness is about more than controlling your own thoughts and actions though - it involves the cultivation of the awareness of others' actions as well. This spatial awareness is what allows you to better understand your environment and react in a more holistic manner, taking all relevant points into account and doing the least harm and / or making the best decision for yourself as well as others.
To be mindful is to also live in the moment. Cultivating awareness and "living in the moment" go hand in hand, they are faculties that tend to grow together. To live in the moment is to be conscious in your actions, so that nothing is done wantonly or without seeing how it fits into the bigger picture. It also means appreciating events as they happen, and not dwelling on the past obsessing over the future.
A balanced life is a mindful one. The awareness that you achieve through practicing mindfulness brings peace and understanding. Part of the fear and anxiety that many people have regarding day-to-day events is due mostly in part to their lack of awareness. The more aware you are, the more fear you shed. This is an important truth. Wake up to what is happening around you, and inside you as well, and you will find that there is nothing to fear or fret over. There is only the now, and what you make of the choices you have available to you at any given moment.

Starting Down the Road

So how do you start being mindful? Perhaps the easiest exercise to begin with is simply stopping whatever you are doing and bring the focal point of your attention to your body. Scan your entire body from head to toe, acknowledging any tension or tightened muscles, and allowing those muscles to relax. The average person is wound up like a knot all day, which is extremely unhealthy. The psychological crap we are forced to deal with every day puts most people in a perpetual "fight or flight" mode, which keeps the body in a state of constant, prolonged stress. This can literally cut years of the lifespan, but in the short term, it leads to any number of issues, including fatigue, anxiety, poor digestion, inflammation, and malaise. Just let it go, all of the tension and pent up emotion you are keeping in the body. You have no use for it.
Another way to cultivate mindfulness when first starting out, is to become appreciative. Observe the nice gardens you see on the way home, animals that cross your path, hellos from strangers. Digest these occurrences the way you might enjoy a delicious food. Savor them, contemplate them, let their effect on you linger. Being appreciative of what is happening around you forces your mind to cut out distractions and keeps it from dwelling on past and future. Observe the now, what is in front of you, what your senses are picking up. The more you continually do this throughout the day, the higher your awareness will become.

Avoid Awareness Traps

We all know what an awareness trap is, even if you haven't really thought about the concept before. A few of them are easy to spot, such as zoning out to mindless television, but may also include any kind of event or situation where your awareness is being taken away or it becomes difficult to thrive in the moment. Some other examples could include some kinds of large social gatherings, pointless or low-rung arguments, hardcore multitasking, gossiping, substance abuse, wallowing in self-pity or anxiety, and all forms of "beating yourself up."
Your awareness is your lifeline to the real world. If you ever feel like you have no control in your own life, or overwhelmed by what is happening around you, it is likely you have given your awareness away. Awareness is control, and the peace of mind that brings is in itself a gift, let alone what it can do for you in terms of health and balancing your life.
Learn to spot awareness traps. Often, especially when you are first starting out, you may not know something is an awareness trap until you are already in it. But there's nothing wrong with this. Gently bring your attention back to the moment, and quietly excuse yourself from the situation. Better yet, wrest control of the situation by being mindful of everything that is happening around you, digesting it, and playing the role of the "quiet observer," which we will touch on more momentarily. Even if the situation directly involves you, seek to understand why certain moods or emotions are being thrown your way, or why a certain situation has lent itself to being chaotic, pointless, or lacking in awareness. Don't run, find a solution, but in your own time.
Our present society can be likened to one giant awareness trap to a certain degree. This is often why, as people grow in their awareness, they often seek solitude away from the goings-on of the masses. This is not to say you have to become a monk just to be mindful - quite the opposite is true in fact. You can be just as mindful in a storm or a party as you can be sitting atop a mountain, meditating. Your capacity for inner peace and spatial awareness rests on your ability to focus on the moment and "act" instead of "react" to what is happening around you.
However, you may find that it is far easier to cultivate awareness and grow (evolve) apart from these awareness traps. It is important to have a place where you can think and not be disturbed. Seek out such a place if you believe you need one - there is nothing wrong with feeling as if the goings-on in your life are overwhelming. Our bodies and minds were not exactly designed to take on continual stress and emotional burdens. To grow strong, sometimes what we need is simply the space to be, just as many plants cannot grow to their fullest potential if they are planted in too small a pot.

Eagle on a Mountain

A popular Zen anecdote refers to the chaos of the mind like a battle taking place in a valley. Down there, all manner of chaos is ensuing. Bloodshed, anger, pain, fear, loss, doubt, triumph, defeat. These are the warring factions of the mind, vying for attention, solidifying their existence by staking their claim on your awareness.
But you are none of those things down in that valley. You are a lone eagle, sitting far above on its perch, peering quietly down at the madness below without flinching. Your consciousness should be like the eagle - an observer of thoughts, not an internalizer. You watch, you contemplate, you allow to pass. Nothing more.
eagle-on-a-mountain
This comparison is usually used when speaking of the mind only. Our wayward and pointless thoughts are the battle, while the eagle is our consciousness. However, what is not said is as you cultivate this kind of mindset and reign in the ego mind, you will acquire this ability in the physical world as well. It is the essence of mindfulness.
Most people can be taken out of their comfort zones and made to anger quite easily. Their emotions are effortlessly pulled this way and that, by whatever events happen to be transpiring around them. Someone cutting in front of them in a line, or spilling a drink, can result in not only a mood change, but perhaps anger, yelling, insults, anxiety, and maybe even a physical altercation depending on how lost their conscious mind is.
Lack of awareness is the silent killer. You lose so much value in your everyday life by living it unaware. Every day is a drama-filled battle that leaves you fatigued and unfulfilled. You are certainly not the eagle in this picture. You are one of the poor foot soldiers below in the valley, "dealing" with life instead of living it.
To practice mindfulness is to make the transition from being one is controlled by outside events, to one who controls themselves at all times. Remember, action is the result of thought. What you do is what you think, and what you think is very often determined by how your mind interprets what it experiences. In other words, mindfulness is a filter. You take control by shifting what your mind internalizes.
It's easy to believe that the only way to live is in this chaotic, drama-filled state. Only monks and gurus are free of this torture of having to deal with fear of the future, anxiety, depression, and boredom (another trait of the unaware mind). This is not true. Anyone can, with a modest amount of self-discipline, can wrest control of their awareness, and in turn live a mindful, peaceful life.

Meditation Heightens Your Awareness

Simple exercises like bringing your focus to the present moment can go a long way toward becoming mindful, but meditation is what you need if you intend to really cultivate greater awareness.
Meditation in its most basic form is the conscious decision to bring oneself to a complete awareness of the now, while cutting out the distractions around and inside us. It can be an extremely powerful tool in this way, and can easily increase your awareness. It seems to happen almost naturally in fact, and this is no coincidence. Meditation is essentially the control of awareness. It is also the strengthening and fine-tuning of it.
One meditation that is beneficial to the cultivation of awareness is candle meditation. To perform this, find a comfortable spot and use any small stool, table, or object to place a candle onto, so that when you are sitting, the candle will be at about eye's height. Alternatively, you can sit at a table, provided the chair is comfortable enough to allow decent concentration.
Light the candle and engage in meditation as you normally would, breathing through your nose and allowing your diaphragm to fill completely before exhaling. Breathe slowly and rhythmically, focusing on your breath and nothing else.
After a few minutes, open your eyes and bring your attention to the candle. Let your attention meld with it. Attempt to "feel" it with only your mind. You will understand this sensation as you engage in the meditation. It is something akin to the fabled "sixth sense" - a means of feeling objects at a distance. Whatever you feel or experience, allow it to happen.
Continue to breathe deeply and evenly, but gently focus your awareness on the candle. Watch how it moves. Feel the heat and light of it on your skin. Watch the colors, how they change. Stare into the depths of the flame, letting your awareness naturally coalesce with it. Most importantly, don't perform this exercise with the intent that something will "happen." Don't seek any kind of different feeling or "ah ha" moment. Just allow yourself the freedom to be. The your awareness guide you. Take in only what you gather from the flame - no thoughts of past or future permitted.
Over time you may experience a preternatural calm, a kind of active serenity. Just allow it to happen. This is the peace many seek but few find, because they believe it is something that can be made externally. The flame is only a tool that aids the practitioner in associating their consiousness with their awareness, thereby allowing peace of mind and control over emotion and thought, nothing more. The feelings that arise from this state are what we would call balance, our natural state.
This meditation naturally increases awareness. You will be able to keep yourself in the moment better, and make better decisions. You will be more alert to your surroundings, and you will be able to better anticipate and understand the causation of events. (Nothing riles people up more than innocent happenstance. The mark of someone who has cultivated awareness is someone who never gets disgruntled or upset over day-to-day occurrences, especially events that have no integral meaning attached to them. This is because our awareness is stunted, and when that is the case, fear of the unknown and a feeling of helplessness as to why certain things occur overrides sense and reason, resulting in negative thoughts and emotions.) Ultimately, peace will be your default setting - you will be that eagle watching events unfold, and you won't be ruffled by them.

A Word on Spatial Awareness

Mindfulness is to a certain degree very much a personal experience. It is how we relate peacefully with our own thoughts and emotions. It is our ability to function rationally and in balance. However, with mindfulness also comes greater understanding of what is outside of ourselves as well, and this is perhaps more stark in its application.
There's something to be said about the importance of what we may call spatial awareness, or how we relate to objects and situations around us. Most would think this a non-issue, or redundant. Isn't how we relate to what's around us pretty much just life in general? Yes and no.
True awareness is not just interaction with the outside world, or even thinking about the outside world. It is absorbing the information one is receiving in a balanced and holistic manner, and using that information to make conscious, informed decisions. Now we're getting to the meat of what mindfulness truly is.
To be mindful is to take into account the ramifications of one's actions as they relate to what is happening around them, as well as using what information is around them to make decions that benefit them, produce further harmony, answer questions, solve problems, and in general maintain balance. To be mindful is to seek balance as a rule. When interacting with the enviornment, oftentimes balance is what is needed to produce a desired outcome. Through the practice of mindfulness, it is easier to see how to "balance the equation" of any given problem, so to speak. This is because, as was mentioned, the causation of events becomes apparent as you learn to take notice of what is happening around you and how it all relates to one another.
We've all experience interaction with someone who has very little spatial awareness. These people linger in the middle of hallways, drive around like no one else is on the road, talk about absolutely nothing for hours despite no one wanting to hear it, tend to lie incessantly because they have no fear of ramifications, are dreadfully forgetful, lack the capacity to dictate their own schedule or plan a day so it makes sense, tend to be obsessively compulsive, and are very prone to boredom (one of the surest signs of a weak mind). These are only a small selection of examples. More broadly, someone lacking spatial awareness tends to be that person who fills up more space than they ought to take, and seem to effortlessly obstruct the paths and activities of others, be it through bodily actions, loud talking, energy vamping, or emotional manipulation.
Mindfulness allows you to see how your actions impact the environemnt and everyone around you, and because you're constantly seeking balance, the net result of most of your actions will actually create more harmony around you, and will lessen the issues and problems of others. Basic mindfulness seeks to unobstruct, unburden, solve, open up, free, teach, and understand. Your actions will be based on thought rather than the events around you. In other words, instead of reacting, you will be acting. And these actions will be based on coordinated thought that is constructed of data being absorbed from your environment.
This is a surefire way to eliminate stress and aggravation in your life. A good portion of most people's stress is from lack of understanding these principles. Specifically, fear and anxiety over the future, the inability to control others, and repressed guilt over making bad decisions. Once you take these elements out of the equation, stress disappears naturally, and balance is what remains. This is mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a Journey

There is no race and mindfulness is not a goal. Don't rush into meditating or any other practice believing that you've found a solution to the problems you face. Instead, look forward to what you might learn and how you might grow while being mindful.
One method of cultivating mindfulness that exemplifies this is to go on nature walks. There is so much to see in nature, but it is never pressuring. Observe it at your own pace and allow it to be. Nothing is more inviting than nature, because it is where we belong. Find a trail that is at least rustic enough to where you are unlikely to see many signs of modern society (buildings, signs, etc.) and just walk.
Practice bringing your attention to animals that catch your eye, a flower that stands out starkly, the direction of the wind. Don't merely acknowledge these things, but feel them. Bring your awareness to your skin, how these things feel, how you see them, their colors and shapes. Allow your awareness to entangle the object of your observation, but remain apart from it, ever the watchful observer.
mindfulness-path

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