When we arrive back home after a mountaintop experience, often we are required to deal with the maddening routines of life. Laundry has to be done, dishes have to be washed, professional work needs our attention, lawns have to be mowed, pets need to be cared for, and our families need our attention; all of these aspects of our lives may have paled to insignificance for a time.
We may feel intolerably hypersensitive and irritable about what we previously regarded as a simple, even reassuring, routine. At the same time we may feel a sense of joy and expansion from our discoveries - especially if we can anchor our new awareness by finding ways to honor the details of daily life within the broader context of our larger lives.
Instead of feeling the glow of our adventures fade as time goes by, we can find ways for that sensation to permanently benefit our daily lives. Instead of wishing we were back on the mountaintop or indulging our irritability about what we would like to change from our new perspective, we can carry forward the gifts of our journey and integrate them into our daily lives.
One way to do this is by practicing mindfulness during our ordinary tasks. With mindfulness a person promotes intentional awareness of his or her thoughts and actions in the present moment, without attaching any judgment to those thoughts.
Although this practice was initially associated with Buddhism and sitting meditation, many Western psychotherapists, as well as several hundred hospitals, have adopted it for its healing benefits. In addition, a number of research studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine are currently focusing on the benefits of mindfulness.
The traditional practice of mindfulness meditation is to focus on your breath, following it in and out. On the in-breath, you can imagine energy moving up your back and above your head. On the out-breath, the energy moves down the front of your body to your belly. Focusing on the breath's circular pattern becomes like an anchoring tether bringing you back to the present moment.
By residing in the present moment, you begin to notice interesting things about both the inner and outer aspects of reality. Thoughts will interrupt your focus on the breath - the ride that morning, your horse's willingness to move through previous hesitation past a large rock, the shopping trip planned for later in the day, an upsetting conversation with the boss, sorrow over a friend's illness, or plans for next week or next year.
The mind continually chatters with commentary or judgment. Before long, this commentary can spread a fog over the gifts from the time spent in the realm of amplified power, compromising our sense of its power and promise. We can end up with only fond memories and some good stories to tell of bygone times.
However, by noticing these habits of the mind, we gain the ability to decide whether those thoughts have value. We begin to notice that the intruding thoughts have no particular value or substance. They are just thoughts. We can set them aside for a time as we go back to focusing on the breath. In doing so, we realize that the thoughts are not concrete reality. We become free to observe our own lives without getting caught up in the commentary. Even better, we become much more acquainted with ourselves. Mindfulness is a wonderful way to become a good friend to our own selves.
As we more closely observe inner reality, we find that happiness is not a quality brought about by changes in outer circumstances. Instead it is the product of releasing an attachment to a particular thought about an unpleasant feeling or situation.
Many people find that sitting meditation does not suit their active lifestyles. In fact, mindfulness can be practiced anytime and anywhere. It's an especially interesting way to make valuable time out of standing in a line or waiting for an appointment. Any activity can become the focus of mindfulness practice.
A good place to start is by walking and focusing on each step in minute detail. Walking down the aisleway, you can slow your pace and notice how the right foot goes forward, the leg swings from the hip, the heel touches the ground, then the rest of your foot touches the ground as your weight shifts forward onto the right foot. Then the toes bend, the hip continues to extend, and your weight moves off the right foot.
After a few steps of focusing on the right foot, shift to the left foot, noting each detail as you slow the pace. Then after a few steps, focus on each foot, moving your attention back and forth as each foot contacts the ground. Speed up the pace and then slow it down. Other thoughts will interrupt your focus, and it is important to avoid chastising yourself for those interruptions. Simply set them aside and return your focus to walking. Doing this for five minutes now and then throughout your day can significantly incorporate mindfulness processes into your day.
Once you feel some sense of how to do a simple walking mindfulness exercise, it helps to connect specific words to each step. Again, start doing this by slowing your pace, and as you take each of three steps, mentally say to yourself, "Yes, yes, yes." Then with each of the next three steps, say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you." As extraneous thoughts arise, ask them to step aside while you focus for those few minutes on your walking and your words. Now the fun begins. You can take this practice to your daily routine.
This activity is just something to practice regularly for a set period such as five to ten minutes. As your mind wanders and other thoughts intrude, it is enough to notice this without scolding yourself, and immediately return to the practice of alternating, "Yes, yes, yes" and "Thank you, thank you, thank you." It will be easier on some days than others, but the practice is what is important.
The practice is a meaningful way to befriend yourself, to give the same consideration to yourself that you give to others. You will find that you get intimately acquainted with yourself by simply noticing the thoughts preoccupying your mind every day. As you notice these thoughts, for this set period you choose to set them aside for the opportunity to focus mindfully during your tasks. You begin to create a new subtext for your outer life.
Instead of allowing this subtext to be driven by essentially fearful or negative thoughts, you can begin to anchor your life in positive thoughts. You find that you have a choice. And the easiest way to start is through simple, routine tasks, so that they no longer are peripheral to the more important, dramatic times of our lives. They become meaningful by giving us practice in making even our daily work into an opportunity for something new in our lives.
Molly DePrekel and Tanya Welsch have taught mindfulness for years in their animal-assisted therapy called Minnesota Linking Individuals, Nature, and Critters. They find that, for their students, learning mindfulness begins at the barn in the process of learning to work around the horses. The procedures for placing the grooming buckets in a certain location and for grooming and tacking up the horses all become opportunities for practicing mindfulness, even though they are not labeled as such.
When mindfulness is lost, for instance, in the daily feeding and stall-cleaning routines, the horses often become reminders of mindfulness with a stamping foot, a nicker, or a kick to the side of the stall. "Pay attention," they seem to be saying. Come back to the here and now. Be present.
When you practice mindfulness during routine daily matters, you are then free to choose how to incorporate helpful changes into your thinking and daily living. The gleanings of your mythic journey give fertile new directions for your daily life. You find ways to move away from past habits into something new. Positive change becomes more possible.
Mindfulness does not need to address dramatic incidents to claim its power to enable us to live richer lives. It is in the quiet moments, the ordinary activities of our days, that mindfulness enables us to do the extraordinary, step by daily step. It frees us from our habitual ways of being and doing in the world, so that we can pave new pathways, seeded by the gifts from the adventures of our lives. This activity can help make mindfulness a part of your daily life by asking you to commit to twenty-one days of practice. If you perform any particular activity for twenty-one days, you have a good chance of setting a new habit into your body, without conscious effort.
Time: Five minutes a day for twenty-one days
Preparation and Equipment
Choose a way to practice mindfulness for the next twenty-one days. You can walk or do some other routine activity mindfully.
Set aside any thoughts that intrude upon those five minutes of mindfulness. The task is simply to empty your mind of everything except your focus on your chosen activity and the words that go with it. As thoughts carry your mind in other directions, simply set them aside and return to your original focus until the five-minute period has passed. Even if you succeeded in being mindful for only a few seconds, that is enough for that day; it is an accomplishment.
Regular patterns for both the body and mind are helpful. For example, if you choose to walk mindfully, mentally say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you" with one set of three steps, and then switch to saying, "Yes, yes, yes" for the next three steps. You may want to vary the speed of the walking by going faster for a few paces and then slower.
For each of the next twenty days, take at least five minutes to practice mindfulness in the same way as on the first day. You can vary the details of the activity you've chosen, but make the activity the same each day. If you miss a day in the twenty-one days, then start the counting over so that you do twenty-one consecutive days.
It is usually a good idea not to practice at the end of the day, because the practice often tends to energize and awaken you, making it difficult to sleep easily.
Once the twenty-one days have passed, decide for yourself how often you wish to practice mindfulness - daily, weekly, or whatever works for you. Make a mental note to use mindfulness more often when under stress, because an upsurge in mind chatter often accompanies such times, which can be exhausting. Practicing mindfulness allows the mind to relax and often find new, more effective approaches to a situation.
Practicing mindfulness allows you to return to yourself so that your innate power emerges for taking on the artful orchestration of your life in all its complexity. Mindfulness allows you to stay present to the mythic journey that encompasses your daily life.
Riding into Your Mythic Life: Transformational Adventures with the Horse
by Patricia Broersma.
Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. ©2007/2008 www.newworldlibrary.com
A certified therapeutic riding instructor, Patricia Broersma has founded and directed therapeutic riding programs in San Antonio, Texas, and Ashland, Oregon. She has been a certified instructor with North American Riding for the Handicapped (NAHRA) since 1977. She is currently president of the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association. She lives in Ashland, Oregon. Her website is www.trishbroersma.com