Mindfulness as a Body Practice

To make a choice. This is the most difficult statement that I have ever made. We make choices every day, even every moment in our lives, and yet when it comes down to making the responsible choice, the one that is the most beneficial for our wellbeing, it seems so daunting. So damn difficult. For me, this is called starting from scratch. When the realization sunk in that I have to make changes in every aspect of my life, I made the choice to start from scratch. And here I am, every time a crisis emerges out of the mechanisms of control I try to re-establish in my life, out of habit, I find myself delivered back to a space of starting from scratch.

Interesting, I find the practice of mindfulness most useful in this space. Where does one find it easiest to start from scratch? Where do choices for well-being originate from?

Most of the time, I believe we spend our days in labor of some kind. If you like hard work, then you may perform physical labor duties; if you prefer work born from intellectual pursuits, you perform a labor of the mind. Just because you are sitting at a desk instead of pushing heavy loads does not mean you are not working just as hard. There is a physical strain to sitting at the desk as well – it’s called carpal tunnel, or back aches from bad posture due to the burden of stressful load over your shoulders. Our bodies take a beating from the work we do, and so in the process of starting from scratch, I have come to realize that to begin healing I must make a choice to stay aware of how my body, my physical self, is talking to me.

When I am in a space of a mental health crisis, there is still a physical component. I feel a great pressure in the right side of my face and head. My muscles tense up, frown lines appear and my jaw clenches. My heart races and my eyelids grow weary. It seems like my hands are on another frequency I can’t quite hear, they shake. My legs shake, I am restless. And there is such a pulsing headache from both the pressure I experience and from the fact that I pull out my hair until my scalp bleeds. This is how my body feels during a mental health crisis, during the exertion of stress on my nerves and my mind and my spirit. And as I discovered, being aware of the physical components of my labors in recovery is just as important as it was when I worked at a labour-intensive job and when I worked at a desk job.

How exactly does this relate to making a choice? One of the crucial aspects of a mindfulness practice is to practice with intention. That is to say, to make a choice to stay aware of the present moment. Body awareness is making a choice to be aware of the physical components of every experience, even if your mind wanders off. In fact, if you first make the choice to bring your attention back to your body, there is a greater likelihood that your mind will stay present with it as well. Using the tactical sensation of your bodily experience assists in maintaining focus on your awareness as it is experienced in the present moment.

Staying present with my body, over and over again, is how I begin each day now. I begin the day with a 15-minute yoga practice. You do not have to begin this way; I choose yoga because it forces my mind to focus on the different postures of my body. There are other ways you can bring your senses into your body. If I am having a bad morning, or making the choice to move is difficult (or I am in a hurry), I will perform a simple body scan. It may sound silly, but even asking each part of your body how it is feeling this morning brings your attention towards it. If you wish to practice with energy, explore the chakras and practice feeling those spaces, asking those spaces how they are, what they are experiencing in this moment.

Notice, how you feel most like yourself when you can feel yourself living inside of your body.

Waking Up on the other side of Mindfulness

Wake up!! I feel as though I need to shake myself awake most days and repeat to myself: feel my feet, feel my feet, feel my feet. If you find yourself drifting off in the world, remembering to feel how your feet touch the ground is a great strategy for grounding yourself in the moment. After the lazy doldrums of summer, there comes a burst of cool air reminding me that autumn is on its way, school has begun again, and it is certainly time to get back to work. September is like a second ditch attempt at a new beginning when January’s resolve has long passed.

Funny how new beginnings occur in times when the season is clearly reflective of endings. Autumn, the world wilts and sheds itself. January, it is deathly cold, shrill and far too bright in contrast to the lull of sleep and hibernation. Another sort of ending; a continuation of the dream within the ending, really.

Nothing new here to read, we all have been around this bend again and again. This bend in the road is another chance to WAKE UP! By waking up, I do mean grounding, grinding, and getting back into the pace of moving, working, learning, growing, and giving back until it comes back to you and you start again. Depression becomes abhorrent of this spiral, a feeling that it never ends, the world keeps sending despair back into yourself. Other shades of illness spiral outward, an audacity that is happening again. A sense of crazy making and a loss of control around every bend. Then suddenly, and maybe you are not here yet, my attitude has changed.

This is the reason for having taken so long to get to the point today. Every day seems to take forever and more to get to the point when illness is lagging and the wires are not connecting. And yet, my attitude has changed!! I am waking up. And in all honesty, even though I want to say my doctors have saved me, and I had nothing to do with it, this is not true. What it came down to was patience and practice, and although my doctors have quite literally saved my life – I still do the work.

Every day of my illness it seemed as though I was doing nothing. Just wallowing and screaming and crying and acting out; and certainly not acting like the person I knew myself to be. It seemed as though I did nothing, yet it wasn’t true. I learned, very slowly, how to practice mindfulness again and again, one fraction of a second at a time. This I did take seriously, for I felt the clarity occur most when I could bring myself to wake up, observe and create distance. Not judging myself came a bit later, when I became ready to accept compassion.

What I like to tell people who feel the need to DO SOMETHING, to gain a sense of dignity and self control, when it seems like there is nothing left inside of themselves. Even though this is not part of the definition of mindfulness, and certainly not even representative of it, in order to find motivation to practice mindfulness as a way out of crisis consider mindfulness as Something to DO while you wait.

Kind of like sitting in the waiting room, waiting for your doctor to tell you what to do. When all else fails, focus on the silly child entertaining the crowd; notice how the woman’s head across from you is shaped like a pumpkin; and by all means smile as you watch the suit shift uncomfortably in his seat, trying to politely stifle a cough while sitting next to the hard and unmoveable homeless man. Remember, every person becomes ill, and every person deserves health.

A little bit of humility can go a long way in healing. Forget about doing it perfectly, just practice mindfulness as you understand it, it is as natural as breathing. Eventually, your practice will shift, your attitude will evolve and the bend in the road will no longer seem foreign and unforgiving. This is waking up, and feeling your feet on the ground.