A Word about Self-consciousness
At first, many people think that observing your thoughts throughout the day must lead to self-consciousness, or a preoccupation with yourself. But the truth is that self-consciousness is caused by thinking about the self rather than actually experiencing it. Mindfulness involves stepping back from self-absorption and viewing your thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them. In mindfulness practice, you are not thinking about yourself; you are calmly and objectively observing your experience of self with kindness and curiosity—an entirely different quality from self-absorption.
Your Thoughts Are Not You
Self-consciousness diminishes when you stop claiming ownership of thoughts, sensations, and emotions. Mindfulness practice allows you to distinguish between thoughts and the thinker of the thoughts. Put another way, when you think about yourself as the thinker of the thoughts and judge yourself for having such thoughts, you increase self-consciousness. When you observe thoughts as simply products of the mind, and do not struggle to try to get rid of them, troubling thoughts cease to be troubling.
Is Formal Sitting Meditation Necessary?
Although a formal daily sitting meditation practice is considered the foundation of mindfulness practice and living a mindful life, not everyone who has practiced mindfulness has had such a practice. One of the most revered mindfulness teachers of the twentieth century, Jiddu Krishnamurti, never practiced or taught this method; in fact, he was very critical of formal sitting meditation. He wrote, “The meditative attitude must be directed toward the whole of one’s living, not invested in precious, encapsulated practices.” But he was quite unusual. It would be almost impossible for most of us to maintain a serious mindfulness practice without setting aside time each day for formal sitting meditation. Though I have occasionally met people who claim to be able to practice mindfulness without a formal practice, when I dig a little deeper it usually becomes apparent that they are really intellectualizing about mindfulness and mistaking this for practice.
Using Symptoms in Informal Mindfulness Practice
Because informal mindfulness practice involves noting all your thoughts and sensations, the symptoms of illness provide wonderful opportunities to practice noting the connection between thoughts and sensations. Symptoms often occur or worsen as a result of what’s taking place in the mind. For example, if you feel a bellyache, headache, or backache when you engage in certain thinking patterns, you can be assured that those patterns are not healthy for you.
Opportunity in Discomfort
Uncomfortable bodily sensations, like uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, are not only difficult to avoid, but attempting to do so results in a form of self-rejection. All forms of discomfort—physical, mental, and emotional—are opportunities to practice acceptance. Mindful awareness of bodily sensations is very important because it is through them that we identify emotions. Becoming aware of contractions in the shoulders, neck, chest, abdomen, or face can provide you with valuable insight into your emotional states. In fact, it is through the contraction of specific facial muscles that you know whether you’re feeling happy or sad. A rise in skin temperature of the face, neck, chest, or other places tells you of other feelings .
When you observe yourself sighing, groaning, tensing up, or feeling the first stirrings of pain, you can choose how to respond to them in the moment when they occur. For example, you can ask, Am I trying to avoid a thought or feeling? Avoidance of unpleasant thoughts and feelings often results in sympathetic (fight or flight) arousal, which, long-term, contributes to chronic physiological stress and disease. With practice, you can learn to note that you have just had a certain unpleasant thought or feeling, that you instinctively resisted it, and that you then experienced the sensations of sympathetic arousal.
I’m having the thought that…
Another way to respond is with a statement that begins I am having the thought that . . . For example, as soon as I become aware that I’m feeling tense, or that I’m experiencing a symptom that I associated in the past with a certain line of thinking, I take note of my thinking process. If I’m thinking something unhealthy—such as I’m just going to keep getting more decrepit and die a horrible death!—I can preface this thought with: I am having the thought that . . . The new statement is I am having the thought that I’m just going to keep getting more decrepit and die a horrible death. When practiced every day, this informal mindfulness technique of acknowledging even the most upsetting thoughts for what they are—merely thoughts—can be an effective antidote to cognitive fusion.