To complement “Mindful Movement: Master the Art of Slowing Down” in the October 2016 issue of MASSAGE Magazine.
You are probably familiar with the concept of mindfulness in the context of meditation—but mindfulness practice can help improve all daily experiences, even those in your workplace environment as a massage therapist.
Take this scenario, for example:
When Debra walked into her massage therapist’s office for the first time, Valerie greeted her with a warm smile and introduced herself in a soft tone of voice, all the while making direct eye contact with her. Several months since her first appointment, Debra always feels welcomed and comforted by Valerie’s presence, and looks forward to their weekly appointments.
The simple exchange described above is an example of interaction between a mindful massage therapist and her client. What makes someone mindful? Paying attention to what’s happening right now is where it begins.
Imagine if Valerie was previously distracted by news from a phone conversation and became so preoccupied that she forgot to introduce herself to her new client. That would not be likely to inspire trust and confidence in Valerie’s skills, and it would set the tone for a less-than-optimal consultation.
What is Mindfulness?
Author Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life). That definition involves three main elements: intention, attention, and a nonjudgmental attitude, which can also be framed as acceptance.
The formal practice of mindfulness meditation has been associated with a variety of benefits, including improved sleep, stress and pain reduction, and enhanced immune system functioning, as detailed in The Art and Science of Mindfulness: Integrating Mindfulness into Psychology and the Helping Professions, by Shauna Shapiro, Ph.D., and Linda Carlson.
Beyond the health benefits, mindfulness practice creates conditions for being present to yourself and others with acceptance, openness and a sense of calmness. Those conditions pave the way for creating a cooperative healing relationship with your clients.
Through an intention to pay attention, mindfulness practice trains you to be aware of what’s happening in the present moment with openness and acceptance.
Train Your Mind to Pay Attention
One of the simplest ways to strengthen your ability to pay attention is to focus upon the sensations of the inhalation and exhalation of the breath. I invite you to engage in the following mindfulness meditation exercise, which you can experiment with for several seconds, several minutes, or 20 minutes and longer.
- Begin by sitting upright in a chair or upon a cushion. Place your hands on your lap to create a sense of stability. Your eyes may be closed, or open and looking downward. Now, focus upon the sensations of the breath moving in and out of your nostrils or observe the feeling of the rising and falling of your belly as you breathe in and out.
- Breathe naturally, without trying to breathe in any particular way. Silently count the breaths by noting “one” after one inhalation-exhalation cycle, “two” after the next cycle, all the way up to 10 cycles of the breath before you begin again. If at any time you lose count of your breaths, begin at one again.
- As you strengthen your attention, you can let go of counting your breaths and just pay attention to the sensation of your breathing. When you notice your mind wandering away from the breath or getting caught up in distracting thoughts, gently bring it back to the breath. Mindfulness will tell you when your mind has strayed from the breath.
Most people will notice that their mind is like a wild horse or playful monkey roaming or jumping around freely. If that is your experience, know that it’s normal. Don’t try to make your mind blank. Don’t even try to relax.
Just accept the fact of your distracted mind, and with gentle acceptance return your mind back to your breath. In this way, you will train the mind to be attentive as well as accepting.
Attention, Concentration and Mindfulness Practice
Your attention is guided by your intentional choice to focus on one thing (for example, your breath) over another (your thoughts). When attention is focused on one thing for a sustained amount of time, it becomes concentration.
Concentration is an antidote to distraction. Mindfulness allows you to know the state of your thoughts, actions and speech. Mindfulness informs you when you are distracted, which will support your efforts to pay attention to what you choose to focus upon. Therefore, mindfulness supports the development of concentration.
Imagine a work situation in which a kind supervisor notices that an employee tasked with writing a report is instead surfing the internet on his smartphone. With calm acceptance of the situation, the supervisor gently tells her employee to return to focusing upon writing the report. In that scenario, the supervisor can be thought of as playing the role of mindfulness, while the employee embodies the role of distraction.
Mindfulness reminds the employee to focus on the task at hand. Over time, that focus will have an opportunity to develop into concentration.
Mindfulness can be cultivated formally through the practice of mindfulness meditation. Outside of meditation, it can also be cultivated by intentionally focusing your attention upon whatever you’re doing. Let’s now look at applying mindfulness to communicating with your clients.
Intention and Attention
Intention is the first step to becoming more mindful. A self-reflective question such as, “How do I wish to express myself to my clients?” is a way of clarifying what you value and how you would like to communicate.
Openly and honestly looking at how your behavior aligns with your intentions and values can help you stay connected to them with integrity. You always have a choice of adjusting your behavior so that it’s consistent with your intentions and values.
The next step is to focus your attention in a way that supports your intention. For example, if your intention is to communicate in a kind and caring manner, then paying attention to the words you say and the tone of your voice will support that intention. This is reminiscent of a popular story that is attributed to the Native American culture:
A Native American grandfather is speaking to his grandson and tells him, “We all have two wolves living inside of us. One wolf is gentle, playful, loving and kind. The other wolf is angry, violent and self-centered. Only one of these wolves will survive.”
Upon hearing this, the grandson says, “Grandfather, I’m afraid—tell me, what wolf will survive?”
The grandfather replied, “The one that you feed.”
In metaphorical terms, your thoughts, speech and actions determine what wolf you will feed. When you’re mindful, you will feed the wolf that supports your intention.
Paying attention to your thoughts, speech and actions can provide you with important information to make yourself accountable to your intentions. However, it’s important not to judge yourself when you don’t live up to your ideals. Simply observe your inconsistencies with an attitude of curiosity and openness, which will make your learning process much more enjoyable and effective.
Instead of letting self-critical judgments get in the way of your learning process, you can view your shortcomings as a sign you have left the path of your intention. When you have strayed from that path, you will sometimes come to a crossroads with two signs, one that says, “Self-Judgment,” the other, “Intentional Path.”
You’re encouraged to stay on the intentional path instead of getting lost in self-judgment—which always leads to a dead end.
When the mind, body and heart are not in alignment, they could very well be communicating things that are not intended. Just as good posture helps you and your clients stay in physical alignment, mindfulness is the posture that helps your mind, body and heart to be in alignment with your intentions.
In mindful communication, the mind is involved through the process of attention. Attention creates connection. The body expresses itself through physical posture, gestures, eye contact and tone of voice. The heart is involved in the sense that mindful communication is infused with acceptance, kindness and compassion.
Listening closely to what others are communicating is the foundation of mindful communication. Listening, not speaking, is the core skill. It’s also important to observe your thoughts and speech in the process of mindfully communicating to others. However, listening comes first, especially when you’re in the role of serving others.
The seeds of healing connection are watered through mindfulness and mindful communication.
The Key to Mindfulness
Mindfulness and mindful communication are keys that can open the door to a positive healing relationship with your clients. The process of remembering is the master key to mindfulness.
Remembering your intention, remembering to pay attention to what you would like to cultivate, and remembering to listen deeply with openness and acceptance will serve you and your clients well on the path of health and healing.
Larry Cammarata, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and instructor of qigong and tai chi. Through his company, Mindfulness Travels, he provides continuing education training to massage therapists and psychotherapists. His work on mindfulness and mindful movement has been presented at international conferences and retreats. He wrote “Mindful Movement: Master the Art of Slowing Down” for the October 2016 issue of MASSAGE Magazine.