The four pillars of mindfulness are powerful tools. By anchoring you in the present moment, mindfulness helps you weather all manner of storms, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant they appear to be.
“Feel what it’s like to be in your body,” guides Bryony. Even though my eyes are closed — pratyahara if you follow the eight limbs of yoga — I can feel kindness, compassion and warmth radiating out of this yogini/mother/business owner who is our mindfulness teacher this morning.
We’re called The Breakfast Club. Every Sunday morning for a month we roll out our yoga mats, sit on a bolster and breathe. We learn about the four pillars of mindfulness so we can cultivate a deeper relationship with the closest person in our lives: ourselves.
Week 1: mindfulness of the body
Bryony Lancaster, co-founder of yoga studio and wholefoods cafe Egg Of The Universe, guides us through our mindfulness journey. We begin with a body tapping exercise to get into a “feeling state” within the body.
She reminds us that mindfulness and meditation don’t eliminate anxiety and stress — or, in Buddhist terms, suffering. Rather, mindfulness is a powerful anchor to bring you back into your body, to the present, with loving-kindness and a lack of judgement.
This morning we do two sits of six minutes, a fragment of the Ghatika 24-minute period. We learn breath counting: inhale through the nose to the belly, counting 1 as you exhale, all the way to 10. “If you lose count or get distracted, gently bring yourself back and start again,” we’re advised. The mindfulness process itself is the purpose of the experience, as opposed to the outcome. “Did your mind wander?” Bryony asks after our first sit. After many nods, she reminds us this habitual pattern of the mind is within us all and doesn’t necessarily change as you become more adept at meditating — you just get more effective at noticing and managing it.
Week 2: mindfulness of feelings
This week we dive into feelings, or vedana. Feelings can be physical sensations like a throbbing knee as well as mental emotions like pain in your heart. Bryony encourages us to notice if our feelings are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and to see if, during our sits today, they shift. “We can only experience one feeling at a time,” as they are transient. Mindfulness teaches us how to “stay awake to each feeling as it arises, peaks and falls”.
“Take off your boots and crawl into the cave that is your heart space,” she counsels. We’re encouraged to gently tap the heart space with our fingers and ask ourselves, What’s going on beneath the surface?
You’d be familiar with a feeling from the heart if you’ve felt heartbreak (unpleasant) or fallen in love (pleasant). Your heart houses every feeling in the human experience.
Buddhists use mindfulness to acknowledge everything is transient. Even if you don’t notice a feeling shift by placing your awareness on it, you will become aware of its impermanence, like a storm journeying through clouds. “As we see the transitory nature of whatever feelings arise, we become less identified with them, less attached to the pleasant ones, less fearful of the unpleasant ones,” suggests Joseph Goldstein in Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening.
“Notice the way each feeling arises, peaks and falls away,” Bryony says. I notice I’m distracted by my mind. The feeling tone is there, which is peace (pleasant), but a memory from the past hijacks me from presence. “Go into [the feeling] to explore the way it feels in your body and observe its transitory nature.” I find this challenging. “Keep coming back to your breath, as an anchor to a ship,” Bryony continues, which helps me to return to presence and my experience in the body of peace. It’s a simple practice but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Bryony uses the metaphor of storms for feelings. The more we place ourselves in the centre of the storms, the less we fear them and the more resilient we become at weathering them. Clouds journey through the sky quickly as they move, shift and evolve. The more we allow our storms to exist without resisting them, the quicker they will pass.
Week 3: mindfulness of the mind
In week three we cultivate awareness though the practice of non-attachment: aparigraha, in yoga philosophy. “What’s happening right now, in this moment? What is the attitude of the mind?” We’re guided to enquire internally with curiosity and kindness and let go of any desire to manage or manipulate what’s there.
Focusing on the body then moving into the breath creates a steady foundation to enquire about the mind. Through self-enquiry you can notice with presence then ultimately alleviate the mind from tension. We’re invited to feel into our mind-state. Eg, if you’re experiencing restlessness, is it contractive? “Where do you feel it?” asks Bryony. “Remember that the mind-states themselves are not the problem and can be useful as a gateway to our more still states. Keep coming home to the breath.”
Bryony advises, “Notice the body, the breath … What else is there?” The more painful or negative, the better; these states of mind provide feedback about what’s going on, “perhaps something you’re resisting”. By tuning in, and listening, Bryony says we can “provide a balm or remedy for this disquiet”.
Week 4: mindfulness of dhamma
There are many layers to the final pillar: mindfulness of phenomena or dhamma (the world, environment, sounds and sensations etc). Bryony describes it as using your “sense doors”: eyes, nose, mouth, ears and sensations. It’s about tuning into the moment as it’s happening around you and within you. By using the stimulus of the moment — what you taste, hear, see, feel and smell, as well as your reactions to them — you can anchor yourself in this exact moment, as you are.
“You gain insight with mindfulness to investigate your body, feelings, thoughts and phenomena and the tools to become at peace with all parts of yourself,” she explains as The Breakfast Club winds up.
I feel more kindness and self-compassion towards both others and myself, which are powerful gateways to cultivating balance. Yin and yang, or light and dark, play equal parts in an authentic life. By growing your mindfulness toolkit and anchoring yourself in the moment with breath and awareness, there is more space and ease available for you to help weather whatever storm is passing through you and around you.
Ally, the editor of WellBeing, was a guest of Egg Of The Universe. W: eggoftheuniverse.com