Beginning Mindfulness Exercises

As usual, we’d like your feedback on how these exercises work for you and what other material we might include.

Attention: Observances and Abstentions
Many traditions practice doing and not doing things. That is, many spiritual and religious traditions encourage observances and abstentions.
In their most basic form, practicing abstentions means to stop doing things that weaken you, distract you from mindfulness or necessary tasks, or are just plain bad for you. Typically, most traditions call for abstention from “vices”. These include actions that most societies agree are negative, such as lying, gossip, theft, and violence, and general excess, such as gluttony, drunkenness, and sexual promiscuity. Most of us would agree on the obvious destructive consequences of habitual dishonesty, theft, or violence. However, when it comes to excess, people have widely varying standards as to how much is too much. This book is not concerned with comparing moral standards. For our purposes, one simple rule of thumb is sufficient in regard to any action that might be deemed excessive; are you serving it or is it serving you? If you can truly say that a given action gives you real pleasure (as opposed to relief, distraction, or numbness), then that’s all fine and good. However, if your indulgence in something, such as alcohol or drugs, pursuit of sexual partners, or even online gaming prevents you from accomplishing goals that are truly important to you, then you are serving your habits more than they are serving you.

Observances are the complimentary opposites of abstentions. Simply put, just as one should stop doing things that are self-destructive or hold one back, one should practice doing things that are good for you. The most obvious observances are thing that you were probably taught when you were growing up; practice cleanliness, exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep, and take time to relax or enjoy yourself. In addition, many traditions have ritualized healthy practices, partly to make them regular habits, but also to make them more conscious and to place them in a sacred or spiritual context. The blessing of food and drink, ritual cleansing, and short prayers or affirmations are all examples of this sort of observance.
Now obviously, it’s good to do things that are good for you and to avoid activities that are bad for you, but oddly enough, that’s not the main point of observances and abstentions. Self-control –doing anything that requires controlled, willful action – requires finite neurological resources. In other words, in the short-term, people have limited amounts of attention. The amount of self-control we expend on one task diminishes the amount we have available for the next task.

Luckily, we can increase our reserve of willpower. Exerting self-control, though it is exhausting in the short term, can help improve willpower over time. Just the act of slowing down and thinking clearly about an impulse instead of automatically denying it or giving in can help increase self-control. Less obviously, watching or even thinking about someone perceived to have good self-control makes people more likely to exert self-control. This holds true whether the person imagined is an actual acquaintance or a spiritual entity such as Jesus or Buddha.

Observances and abstentions are useful exercises to increase mindfulness. That is, consciously exercising self-control helps cultivate awareness and increased self-control.

The bottom line, however, is that while doing or not doing a given activity may have value in and of itself, exercises performed to increase mindfulness are effective until the activity (whether doing or not doing) becomes habitual. As soon as the exercise no long requires your attention, it is time to switch to a different exercise, since it is the attention — the mindfulness — that you are trying to cultivate.

This is not to say that mindfulness is the only reason to do this type of exercise. For example, there’s no reason to stop exercising once it becomes a habit, since exercise is good for its own sake. From a mindfulness standpoint, however, it is important to alter and adjust your observances and abstentions periodically so that they continue to require you to pay attention!
Some Simple Observances

Physical Cleansing I
In the morning, immediately after waking up, brush your body with a soft brush until your skin turns slightly red. Next, wash your whole body with cold water and rub it with a rough towel until you feel quite warm. This exercise is very helpful if you are going to practice other exercises first thing in the morning, particularly if you are getting up early in the morning to make time for practice. It is also helpful because it opens your pores and can help you clean out toxins.

Get Some Exercise
Practice a routine of morning physical exercises. While it is certainly worthwhile to spend real effort on a physical program, the main point, as far as the exercises in this book are concerned, is to train the will and to develop your body to the point where it does not distract you from making further progress. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that training the body can also train you to get in touch with how it feels and what messages it is trying to tell you. Physical exercise starts you toward this kind of connection, because it shows you how to start listening to your body when you do the exercise.

In the context of meditation, the point of physical exercises is train the body so it is not a distraction. To learn to sit perfectly still for extended periods, some teachers have suggested that the student practice holding a cup of water on his or her head until stillness can be maintained for at least an hour. It is important that you don’t stay so still, however, that your limbs become numb. If your limbs are numb or fallen asleep, you should do just enough movement to decrease that sensation, as it usually indicates a loss of circulation, which can prove unhealthy.

In any case, it is important to practice a daily regimen to build your physical stamina, make your body more flexible, and increase your level of energy. If you do not already do so, try instituting a daily walk or bicycle ride.
It is outside the scope of this book to go into great detail concerning physical practices. If you want to start a significant regimen of physical exercise, such as weight lifting, hatha yoga, or a martial art, it’s best to find a competent instructor and, if you are unused to physical activity, to consult your doctor before beginning. Still, the following section (3 Physical Practices) does describe some basic exercises that may be helpful.

Conceptual Breathing
It can be very beneficial to imagine charging your inhaled breath with an intention or suggestion. Sit down in a comfortable spot. Relax and begin to breathe evenly and deeply through your nose. Imagine that with each inhalation, you are inhaling health, tranquility, success, or some other intention. It is important to imagine the quality or outcome you intend to inhale as completely and intensely as you can, visualizing and feeling its attributes as much as you are able. Imagine with utter certainty that your intention enters into you more fully with each breath.

When performing this exercise, remember that it is not the quantity of the inhaled air that matters, but the quality, the detail, and intensity of the idea you intend to inhale. Breathe slowly and calmly, without any strain or haste.

Start with seven breaths in the morning and seven at night. Increase the number of breaths by one each day until you feel like you intention is realized, up to a maximum of around one half hour per session. Make sure that your intention is something relatively simple. When you first begin, use the intention that your breath fills you with health and energy. Later on, you can experiment with more complex or specific intentions. Do not imagine a new intention until you think your initial choice has been sufficiently accomplished.

Conscious Reception of Food
Just as you can charge your breath with an intention, you can use a similar technique with food.
Sit down in front of a dish of food that you are going to eat and imagine your intention being embodied in the food. Concentrate on your desire and imagine that it has already been realized.
If you happen to be alone, use your hands to make a gesture of blessing on the food and charging it with your intention. Imagine the quality or outcome you intend as completely and intensely as you can. If you are not alone, close your eyes momentarily and charge your food purely by intent and visualization. Then eat your food slowly with the firm conviction that your desire is passing into your whole body.

This technique can be used with any kind of food or beverage, but any food or drink impregnated with an intention should be consumed entirely, leaving nothing.

Do not read or converse during a meal when you are performing this exercise. Maintain your intention the whole time you are eating. Start with the simple intention of health, nourishment, and energy. When you move on to other intentions, concentrate on the same intention that you are using with your intention breathing exercises. Under no conditions should you use an intention that is in any way in opposition to your breathing exercise intention.

Combining Physical and Mental Cleansing
Whenever you wash your hands or take a shower, imagine strongly that you are not only washing the dirt off your body, but also the impurities off your character and the uncleanliness off your soul. Imagine failure, trouble, dissatisfaction, and illness all being washed off, dissolved in the water, and running down the drain. If you have only a washbowl, be sure to throw the water you wash with away immediately so that nobody else comes in contact with it – that is, treat the water as if you are literally, physically dissolving your negative traits and influences.

You can practice a similar technique by dipping your hands into cold water and concentrating on all weaknesses ad negative influences being out of your body and your soul as the water draws warmth from your hands. Maintain a firm belief that all failures and faults are passing into the water. Be sure to throw this water away at once.

This sort of practice can be particularly effective when bathing in a flowing river, especially if you can immerse your entire body beneath the water. The strong sense of flow and the sound of moving water can both contribute to the effectiveness of the practice.

This exercise can be reversed by concentrating on charging or impregnating water with a positive trait, and then imagining that this quality is passing into your body while washing.

If you have the time, you can combine both forms of the exercise by cleansing negative influences under a tap or shower and then washing on a positive quality using water from a basin.

If you practice a tradition that assigns symbolic meanings or magical qualities to herbs and essential oils, you can use the qualities you believe reside in these substances to add to the effectiveness of the washing exercises.

Recruiting Your Subconscious as an Ally — Autosuggestion
It can be very useful to practice repeating phrases, such as affirmations or mantras, in order to engage your subconscious. These affirmations or mantras should be phrased positively. For instance: “I can succeed” as opposed to “I cannot fail” which places a negative emphasis on the affirmation and can end up sabotaging the positive effects. When creating affirmations or auto-suggestions, say the statements in positive terms and in present tense. Instead of saying “I will not snack between meals”, say “When I want to snack, I exercise” or instead of saying “I will stop smoking”, say “When I want to smoke, I will go for a walk”. With these two last examples, notice how the one behavior we want to change is replaced with the suggestion of another behavior. We relabel one behavior, and refocus our attention on a healthier behavior. This allows the person to change the neural firing pattern that supports the prior behavior by imprinting a new behavior over it. It’s important to remember that after you do an affirmation, you act to follow through on the affirmation.
When using autosuggestion, it is important to remember that you are attempting to communicate with part of your mind that works somewhat differently from your normal consciousness. To your subconscious, there is only now and there is no negative state. Use phrases that fill your mind with what you want in present time, not what you want in the future or what you don’t want. You probably heard the example of “try not to think of an elephant”. This is impossible because you have to access the idea of “elephant” in order to know what not to think about.

This type of practice is most effective just before falling asleep and immediately upon waking up. The reason this practice is so effective then is because you are in an altered state of consciousness, where you are very receptive to auto-suggestions. The conscious mind is less resistant to the suggestions, and so can be conditioned to accept the affirmations. This is one reason why it is best to avoid, if possible, going to sleep while angry, worried, or depressed. When you go to bed with those thoughts, you are conditioning yourself to accept those feelings as a normal state of being. Try to always go to sleep with in a positive state, with pleasant feelings, and thoughts of success and health. This will motivate you to manifest those feelings and thoughts in your life on an everyday basis.
You can also practice repeating a phrase or affirmation over and over until you are no longer conscious of the meaning, as is done with prayers or mantras in some traditions. Autosuggestion can be used in more sophisticated ways by inducing a trance, but this will be discussed more later on.

Use of the Rosary, Mala, or Prayer Beads
Buy or make a small chain of beads. The beads can be wood, stone, pearls, glass or any other kind of beads as long as they are basically round, large enough to manipulate easily, and on a slightly loose string so that there is slack to move the beads around. The string should have at least 30 beads but can have more if you want. If you have trouble obtaining a string of beads, you can take a piece of plain string and tie thirty or forty knots in it. The only thing that’s important is that you have a way of counting repetitions without consciously counting, so that you can repeat an affirmation, prayer, or mantra a set number of times (at least thirty or forty) without thinking about the number of repetitions. Note that this technique can also be used while performing concentration and visualization exercises to record the number of distractions or times you slipped in concentration without interrupting your practice.

Practice this exercise for at least a week or two. Select an affirmation or suggestion. This can be something general, such as the French hypnotist Émile Coué’s affirmation “Every day, and in every way, I am becoming better and better.” Later, if you want to continue the practice, you can experiment with more specific intentions. This practice works best if you combine it with the same intention used with the previously described breathing and eating exercises.

Each day when you wake up and go to sleep, grab your string of beads and repeat your suggestion. You can repeat the phrase in normal voice, softly, or just mentally, depending on your surroundings. With each repetition, move one of the beads on the string until you come to the end of the string. As with similar practices, imagine your intention as fully and with as much detail as possible, imagining that your intention is already realized and in actual existence. When practicing at night, if you don’t feel sleepy after repeating through the entire string of beads, continue through another set. Optimally, you should fall asleep with your intention still in your mind. It is perfectly all right if you fall asleep while repeating your suggestion. In the morning, when you are not quite awake, reach for the string of beads and repeat the exercise. If you get up during the night, you can repeat the exercise then as well.
Perhaps you are wondering what kind of intentions can be accomplished by autosuggestion. Recent theories of quantum physics, as well as ancient concepts of philosophy, suggest that it is possible that our physical world is much more influenced by our consciousness than is normally apparent, but this is a discussion beyond the scope of this book. Let’s just say that while it might be possible to influence external physical reality by changing the focus and content of your consciousness, it is definitely possible to change yourself, and through that change, change how you interact with the world around you. You are, of course, free to experiment with any intentions that you desire, but you will almost certainly more readily and quickly accomplish intentions related to changing your character, personality, personal abilities, and health than you will accomplish generating a winning lottery number. In any case, choose wisely, since you should not move on to a new intention until you are absolutely satisfied with the result of the first one.

Some Simple Abstentions
The “I” Avoidance Exercise
A good example of an awareness- and will-developing abstention can be seen in the “I” Avoidance Exercise.” This is a seemingly easy exercise that is performed to increase mindfulness, develop the will, and to diminish the ego and sense of self-importance. Try to spend at least one day without using any first person pronouns in conversation. …and it’s no fair practicing this exercise while dog-sledding through the arctic or solo sailing across the Pacific ocean. Choose a day when you will actually be talking to a few people. Keep your working journal with you or carry a small pad and make a mark each time you forget and use the words “I”, “I’m” “we”, or “me”. Keep practicing until you can go at least one day without using any first person pronouns. If you are anything like most of us, this is a lot harder than it initially seems.
One technique you can use to train yourself to avoid saying I or other first person pronouns, involves using a rubber band. Wear a rubber band around your wrist. Every time you say a first person pronoun, snap the rubber band. The pain that is caused by the rubber band will remind you not to say the first person pronoun.

The benefit of doing this particular exercise is that it provides you an idea of how an abstention works. By choosing to make an attempt not to say a first person pronoun you can become aware of just how conditioned you are to say the first person pronouns as well as how hard it can be to break the habit. Applying that understanding to choosing to abstain from a habit such as cigarette smoking can actually make the abstention process easier, because you’ll be more aware of how you attempt to rationalize your choices to indulge in the habit.

An additional benefit of this exercise is that it can provide you a different perspective on how you language, how you think of yourself, and how you perceive your interactions with others. The choice to not use the first person pronoun challenges you to be creative with how you use language and explain concepts to people, while also serving as an excellent discipline exercise in focusing your mind on a task.

Other Abstentions Worth Trying
If you like, you can take this even farther by trying a short vow of silence, one of the traditional western monastic abstentions. Try to go without saying anything aloud for an entire day. For the sake of practicality, it’s probably better if you try this on a day when you aren’t working, going to classes, or have other commitments that might require speech. As with other practices, pay attention to how this makes you feel and write down any impressions in you working journal. In some versions of this practice, it is acceptable to write notes to others on a small blackboard or note pad. This is an excellent way to become more aware of your speech, since it takes considerably more time and effort to write a conversation than it does to say it aloud. It can also help you be more aware of how you express your emotions and thoughts in speech. Of course, considering the quality of thought and good judgment demonstrated on some chat rooms, perhaps typing is too quick a medium for this rule to hold true.

Abstention is also practiced in various traditions as a form of sacrifice and a method of increasing awareness. For example, Orthodox Judaism forbids work on the Sabbath. Since the bible (Exodus 35:3) includes kindling fires as work, some observant orthodox Jews also avoid the use of cars or electricity. Another example of this sort of practice is the Christian tradition of abstaining from red meat on Fridays. Many traditions periodically practice a day or even several days of fasting, as in the Moslem observance of Ramadan when no food or drink is consumed between dawn and dusk.

You could try fasting from sun-up to sundown once a week for a couple of weeks. If you feel inclined, try a several day fast with only water mixed with lemon juice (necessary to maintain your body’s electrolyte balance). Now, use common sense – you shouldn’t try either of these things if you are diabetic, hypo-glycemic, have a physical job in a hot environment, and so on. Don’t hurt yourself. For more information about fasting practices, see the chapter on metabolism and fasting.

The Working Journal II — Inventory of Negative Traits
Set aside a section of your working journal for self-criticism. Spend some time each morning and each night for at least a week sitting quietly and listing all of your behaviors, traits, passions, and desires that you consider to be negative or destructive. Remember that your working journal should remain private, so it important to observe yourself as clearly as possible and accurately record your weaknesses and deficiencies. However, if you happen to notice, during the course of your day, that you tell yourself certain negative beliefs, don’t hesitate to note those negative beliefs at the time they occur. When you do spend some time that night, record what you observed during the day along with the rest of the traits you consider negative.
Think back on different times in your past where you acted in ways you would like to have changed, remembering as much as possible about your mistakes or failures in various situations. Nothing should remain hidden, however insignificant or great your faults may be.

While performing this self-inventory, however, it is important not to indulge in guilt or self-pity. If you do feel pity, guilt, or embarrassment, briefly acknowledge it, and then continue with the exercise. The purpose of this exercise is to become more aware of behavior that you want to change, not to make yourself feel bad or helpless. Also, as you make your list, make sure that you only list attributes and behaviors that YOU think are bad. Don’t list something just because you think some authority or another person disapproves of the behavior. List the things that you truly believe interfere with you accomplishing your goals, waste your time and energy, or make you unhappy — things that keep you from living in the way you truly want to live.
Again, spend at least a week on this exercise. If you feel like you haven’t compiled a complete list, spend a second week. A good rule of thumb is to keep at this exercise until you have listed 100 negative traits or bad habits. Later on, you may find it helpful to work on your list every six months or so, to note new habits or to cross off old ones.

In the following week, examine your negative list and divide it into three groups. In the first group, place your greatest failures, particularly those that exert the strongest influence on you or happen most frequently. In the second group, place the negative traits that you exhibit less often or that have less impact on your life. In the third group, list the faults that you only exhibit now and again and those that are of little importance.
Once you’ve divided the list into three groups, pick one behavior from each group that you feel you can change. Write down how you will go about changing it. For instance, if one of your negative habits is a tendency to apologize too much and you wish to change it, think about how you would go about abstaining from the behavior and then follow through by taking the appropriate action for at least a week, preferably a month (it takes approximately 28 days to change a habit and keep that change).

To illustrate how this works, let’s return to the example of apologizing too much. To abstain from apologizing, you might ask yourself: What causes me to feel the need to apologize? What am I reacting to? What is the base emotion that informs my need to apologize? Answer these questions honestly. Each time you catch yourself in a situation where you start to apologize, pause and take a breath and use that moment to analyze the emotions behind your desire to apologize. If the emotions are similar to the reactive emotion, you might then stop yourself from apologizing and instead consciously focus on taking an action to handle the situation in a healthier way. Such an action could be standing up for yourself, or walking away from the situation, or some other choice.

The Working Journal III — Inventory of Positive Traits
After you have spent at least a week listing behaviors and traits you would like to change, set aside another section of your journal and repeat the process for your qualities and behaviors that that you think are good. Continue this exercise for at least a week, keeping at it until you have a list of positive traits and constructive behaviors that is at least as long as your list of defects.

Again, don’t get caught up in self-indulgence. Pride or complacency will only add to your negative list. Try to observe yourself as clearly and objectively as you did in the previous exercise. List everything you can find in yourself that you want to cultivate and expand.
Like the negative list, it is a good idea to revisit your list of positive traits every six months or so, adding new traits, deleting traits you have lost, or changing observations that may have been inaccurate.
By the time you are done, your lists should act as mirrors, one positive and one negative. One mirror reflects a self you want to change and one mirror reflects a self you want to nurture. As you progress, you may find observations in both lists that reflect more about your attitude towards yourself than your actual nature and behaviors.

In the following week, examine your positive list and divide it into three groups. In the first group, place your greatest successes, particularly those habits that seem to contribute most to your health and growth. In the second group, place the positive traits or habits that you exhibit less often or that have less impact on your life. In the third group, list the positive traits that you only exhibit now and again and those that are of little importance.
Pick a trait or habit from each list and determine a course of action you can do to enhance each trait. This is particularly useful with traits you only do occasionally. For instance, if you only show gratitude occasionally, it may be useful to focus on how you could nurture and enhance that activity within your life. Ask yourself: What makes me feel this way? How do I express this feeling? Are there other ways I could express this feeling? Once you’ve answered these questions, develop a course of action and follow it so you can nurture and enhance these traits. The benefit of creating such a course of action is that it shows you how not to take your positive traits or habits for granted, while also emphasizing the importance of investing in them, in order to make them more effective in your life.

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Copyright

All Content Copyright 2012 Bill Whitcomb and Taylor Ellwood