Mindfulness is a word we hear frequently these days.
It is deliciously vague and frustratingly ambiguous. We know we are supposed to practice it—but what exactly is it?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and one of the innovators of mindfulness teaching in the U.S., defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” Simple, yes? So what do you actually do to be mindful?
You observe the movement of your breath, in and out. You observe the thoughts, feelings and sensations that emerge with your breath. That combination—awareness of breath, awareness of self—is a perpetual practice, waiting for us whenever we are ready. This is why mindfulness is one of the easiest things in the world to start doing—and one of the most difficult things to continue doing.
Mindfulness has been around for ages—more than 2,500 years, by some accounts—and has its roots in various Asian traditions, particularly Buddhism. As psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., writes, its manifestations are numerous—and are found in everything from yoga to qigong, from chanting to centering prayer—since mindfulness, at its heart, is simply “cultivating an awareness of awareness and paying attention to intention.”
Today in the West, this ancient concept has been codified into various courses of instruction, most notably mindfulness-based stress reduction and other forms of conscious breathing or meditation.
From more than 100 studies, we know practicing mindfulness has a startling array of benefits: It reduces symptoms of chronic pain, increases psychological hardiness and improves the effectiveness of existing treatments for psoriasis, to name a few.
“Mindfulness can help to reduce stress and anxiety and conflict, and increase resilience and emotional intelligence,” wrote mindfulness teacher Gill Crossland-Thackray, in his blog for The Guardian newspaper.
There are many techniques and guides to getting started with cultivating mindfulness; I have found Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness for Beginners and Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher and author Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation particularly helpful.
Mindful Massage Therapy
In this article, I want to focus on why mindfulness can be particularly valuable to massage therapists. As a means of enhancing self-awareness, mindfulness can help us avoid one of our profession’s greatest pitfalls: taking care of other people more than we take care of ourselves.
When we think about self-care, we often prioritize body over brain. Those overused extensors of the forearm make their frustrations known a lot more clearly than the murky messages of our mind, and aches can seem much more concrete than emotions. But there is a larger problem lurking beneath our bias toward the body: We massage therapists, I suspect, are not very good at being mindful.
It seems like we would be masters at mindfulness. Being in the present moment should come to us instinctively, as easily as effleurage. But often, the reverse is true.
Yes, many of us entered this business because we are aware of our bodies, and because we know the importance of focus—but that focus too often is only on others. We become massage therapists because we have a lot to give, and because we gain great satisfaction from helping people.
And here is where we get into trouble: Too much helping, it turns out, is bad for our health. The power of mindfulness, by contrast, is it does not require us to take care of anyone else. Ultimately, mindfulness requires us to do nothing at all but be in the moment.
And in my experience, we therapists are terrible at doing nothing.
Temper Your Passion
Massage therapists are good at giving; but, ironically, our insistence on helping clients—giving everything we have: heart, body and soul—session after session is a big reason why that desire to give can gradually dwindle.
What if we could temper the passion we have at the start of our careers? What if we could transform passion into something slow and steady, like the conscious breath itself?
If we work with equanimity, with calm awareness, then our desire to give can perpetuate itself—as inevitable and constant as our inhale and our exhale. But to cultivate that awareness, we must not just give ourselves to others; we must give ourselves to ourselves.
Mindfulness offers a perpetual reminder of our ability to take care of ourselves, anywhere, at any moment. But here’s where it gets tricky, because what comes next goes against one of our most basic instincts: The way we take care of ourselves, ironically, is by doing nothing.
Or perhaps more accurately, the way we take care of ourselves is by doing nothing else. The goal is to just attend to your breath at this moment, and to do only what you are doing at this moment.
“While washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes,” Hanh wrote in The Miracle of Mindfulness.
Our Default Setting
Committing solely to a single task is more difficult than it sounds. Try doing nothing besides washing the dishes. Chances are, you’ll start by earnestly attending to the warmth of the water, the slip of the soap and the squeak of the rinsed glass.
You might even feel a little glimmer of delight at the sheer simplicity of what you are doing. And then, before long, you’ll start to calculate how many more dishes await you, and feel frustrated no one else offers to wash the dishes—ever!—and debate what you’ll have for breakfast the next morning, and so on. In other words, you’ll swing from that glimmer of mindfulness to its opposite—mindlessness—our default operating setting for much of our lives.
It is our habitual mindlessness, I believe, that spoils our great desire to give. Like all of the most important things we do, taking care of other people can be done with mindfulness, but it is far easier to do it mindlessly. Without conscious cultivation, our instinct to take care of others can become a mindless act, burdened by the inevitable obligations of life and a career.
Giving is Not Enough
If all goes well, I will give thousands of massages in the coming decades. And that means I will do thousands of loads of laundry, and make and re-make my massage table thousands of times, and explain again and again the way tight pectoral muscles can contribute to upper-back tension.
The sheer volume of these obligations is overwhelming.
When we acknowledge the inevitable repetition of our work—of life itself—it is easy to stop caring, to start working on autopilot, to live mindlessly. Our desire to help is dampened by the dawning realization that to be a good therapist, to be a real giver, we will have to help forever, minute after minute, session after session, shift after shift. With this perspective, our work no longer feels exciting, but depleting; giving no longer feels like enough.
The good news is this, the truth of this realization: Giving is not enough. Giving to others is never enough. And yet often, we forge ahead, insisting we can be better therapists if we just get through this shift, if we just ignore our doubts and focus on what the client needs. Instead, we need to adjust the way we are giving. We need to give to ourselves as we give to our clients.
Mindfulness is a means to give to ourselves, wherever we are, whatever we are doing—whether washing the dishes or meditating or giving a massage. We can attend to the movement of our breath no matter what we do, as long as we are doing nothing else. When we pay attention on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally, we reorient our perspective on all we have to do.
The obligations remain, but feel a little less like obligations. There is no endless line of duties stretching out before us, filling our lives with drudgery; instead, there is just the breath we are in right now, just the lone task before us.
We don’t need to be mindful to be good therapists; however, mindfulness offers a deepened awareness of and engagement in all aspects of life, including our work. As we notice our thoughts and emotions as they arise, we diffuse their cumulative power.
We don’t try to defeat our thoughts with rational counterarguments; we don’t try to suppress inconvenient emotions. We just acknowledge these thoughts and feelings as we continue to follow our breath.
We know interference will always bubble up, but it is less likely to build into something larger and harder to reckon with.
The breath anchors us, enables us to remain even. By being aware of our distractions and acknowledging our obligations, we minimize their soul-sapping strength.
If we are mindful, then we must attend to ourselves, following our breath in and out, as we attend to someone else. We must acknowledge the contents of our own body, mind and heart as we care for the bodies, minds and hearts of those around us.
If we can do nothing—or rather, do nothing else—we can sustain ourselves as we help our clients. When we cultivate our own capacity for mindfulness, self-care is indistinguishable from being self-aware.
We have no choice but to work. We have no choice but to breathe. With the perpetual practice of mindfulness, we can do both together—and in the process, we can embrace ourselves and our obligations.
Read two more articles about mindfulness in the July print issue of MASSAGE Magazine: “Mindful Bodywork: Bring Awareness to Your Touch” and “Get Unstuck! Pause, Stop & Appreciate the Present.”
David M. Lobenstine, L.M.T., is a massage therapist, continuing education teacher and owner of Full Breath Massage in New York, New York. He wrote “Ground Your Perception: Pour, Don’t Push” for the March 2013 issue of MASSAGE Magazine.