The practice of mindfulness is available to everyone. And as the definitions and descriptions in my April 20th post show, mindfulness is not complicated. Still, it isn’t easy to do, for three reasons:
1. It requires strong intentionality and clarity of purpose.
2. It requires enormous self-discipline on a daily basis.
3. It requires practice. No amount of academic study can substitute for actually doing it because it is not a concept or a philosophy; it is a way of life that can only be practiced from moment to moment.
For people living with cancer or any type of chronic illness, mindfulness can reduce suffering by reducing cognitive fusion with fear-based thoughts and by reducing fusion with all manner of unhelpful thought processes. As mentioned before, it is not a cure for any medical condition and may not even improve it. However, although it is not the primary goal, mindfulness practice certainly reduces emotional distress, which reduces physiological stress, and is therefore conducive to improved physiological functioning. Also, mindfulness practice helps people to deal with the vicissitudes inherent in living with a chronic medical condition. The practice itself leads to greater happiness and any increase in happiness is good for health.
The Importance of a Teacher
Although it is possible to maintain a mindfulness practice on one’s own at a certain point, in the early years, one needs a teacher. Despite the simplicity of mindfulness practice, it is almost impossible to stay on the path without ongoing guidance and support. The best way to get started is to attend a workshop at any mindfulness-based meditation center, such as Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre California. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes are a wonderful starting place and are offered in almost every major city in the developed world.
Deepening the Practice
Residential retreats are the usual way of deepening the practice following initial instruction, commonly beginning with a weekend retreat and then attending longer ones. Some people are able to create their own solitary retreats instead of attending an organized retreat. The advantage of the organized retreats includes the guidance of an experienced teacher and the support of going through the process in community with others. I know one integrative medicine physician who spends his vacation time camping in the desert by himself, far away from any sign of civilization as a way to deepen his mindfulness practice. Both types of retreats offer the advantage of having extended, uninterrupted time away from all the distractions of daily life. This allows us to come face-to-face with the workings of our minds—including all our thoughts, sensations, and emotions in ways that are not possible in or normal daily lives.
The most important practice
The single most important practice happens to be the most difficult one. It is the informal mindfulness practice of mind-watching as we go through the day, every day. The daily formal sitting meditation practice and occasional retreats make it possible to persevere with the daily informal mind-watching. This informal practice involves being fully present in every aspect of every activity during every waking moment. Almost no one is able to do that. For most of us, our goal is simply notice when our minds wander from the activity at hand, and to simply return our full attention to the activity of the moment.