What is Mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally to the unfolding experience, moment by moment. In other words, mindfulness is sustained attention to the present moment experience; observation of your sensory experience, or your thoughts, or your emotions with unwavering attention and disregard for whether the experience is positive or negative.
When striving for mindfulness in an experience, approach it with fresh eyes, as if you are seeing it for the very first time even if you are considering something you see or do every day. Be non-judgmental, bringing kindness and friendship to yourself and to your experience. The antidote to any judgment that might creep in is curiosity. And experience the object of your mindfulness as if you are flowing with the current down a river. Just go where it takes you, without any effort on your part. Don’t try to swim upstream, just go with the flow.
I like to experience Ai Chi with mindfulness of our basic senses, focusing on touch, sound, sight and smell. Our nervous system coordinates our actions and sensory input. The autonomic nervous system controls functions like heart rate, blood pressure, digestion and respiratory rate. It consists of two components: the sympathetic, fight or flight nervous system balanced by the parasympathetic, rest and digest nervous system, which we want to activate for relaxation. We have already looked at how the type of breathing you do can call in either the sympathetic or parasympathetic system, influencing blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol production… Well, our senses can have the same sort of influence on the nervous system.
For all of the basic senses, function dependent sensory receptors transmit information to the sensory cortex of the brain. Importantly, this information is routed through the limbic system~ the amygdala (our emotion center) and the hippocampus (the active memory site). The sense of smell is particularly influenced by these centers, which is why smells often conjure memories, but sound, touch and vision can also trigger memories or emotion. The sensory information is then processed in various sites across the brain.
A good place to bring sensory awareness into Ai Chi practice is with the sense of touch or feeling through mindful movement. In our busy lives, we tend to think about movement to or from someplace… We are going “to work” or coming “from home.” In mindful movement the focus is on the sensations that arise from movement itself, right now in the present. When you move mindfully as you do Ai Chi, give attention to the sense of the feelings you experience in your muscles, joints and skin as you move. When you get into that stable position for the first 5 steps of Ai Chi, notice how that posture feels. What do you feel in the balls of your feet, your gently bent knees, your flattened back, your shoulder blades as you draw them together, your neck as you draw your ears back over your shoulders… And when you return to those postures later on, circle back to check in on how it feels. Notice how your breath feels as you breath in and let the air flow out. Pay attention to how buoyancy makes your limbs feel. What the resistance of the water feels like as you move through it. How the air feels on your face and the temperature and sensation of the water on your immersed body.
As you direct your focus on your experience during movement, there are no worries about how it looks, if it is right or correct. The experience is yours. However it turns out is how it was meant to be.
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