When I was younger, the word “meditation” would bring to mind images of Buddhist monks sitting in trances for hours atop the misty mountains of Tibet. Little did I know that I didn’t need to be in the Himalayan foothills or be trained by some ancient Zen master to tap into the awesome power to meditate that exists in each of us.
In these next few articles, I will discuss what mindfulness meditation is as well as some techniques and resources you can use to incorporate this simple holistic healing practice into your daily life. If you have ever been curious about what meditation is or have doubted that you can realistically implement a regular meditation practice into your busy daily life, I urge you to please read on.
With just a little bit of reflection, you may realize that there is an unconscious reflex to continually live either in the past or the future. As we make breakfast in the morning, we worry about our performance at work during the upcoming day or rehash yesterday’s shortcomings. Perhaps we sit down with our partner for a meal, but rather than staying truly present and focusing only on their company or the food in front of us, we sneak a cursory look at our smart phone or permit our thoughts to drift off and dwell on past or future events. We might say that we “need” to check our email as we watch a TV show or that mentally tackling some problem as we make our morning commute is beneficial, but the bottom line is often this: we are experiencing and seeking to escape some form of boredom, anxiety, or just plain unease when we do these things. We do not inhabit the present moment fully, and thus we feel constantly restless as the proverbial wheels in our head constantly (and most often fruitlessly) spin. The result is that many of us go through our days feeling some measure of constant worry. This “white noise” that unconscious unease creates in our minds can manifest itself in everything from impatience and short tempers, to addictive distractions (alcohol, sex, shopping, gossip), and finally to physical illness and nervous breakdowns in the most extreme cases.
Mindfulness meditation seeks to quiet the mind and stop the wheels of unproductive worry from turning in our heads. Quite simply, this style of meditation is the practice of bringing oneself completely into the present moment. It is NOT about trying to blank one’s mind, but is rather a continual process of focusing on and surrendering to the present moment.
You might say, “that sounds great and peaceful, but what does that even mean?!” Exactly what it says: you consciously focus on nothing except what is happening at this very moment and you stay with it, continually drawing your attention back into the present moment when it inevitably starts drifting off to obsess about past or future occurrences.
In reading several excellent books on mindfulness meditation and attending two separate courses on the same, I have learned several ways to focus on the present. Of these, I will discuss the three that I have found to be most beneficial to me. These are focusing on the breath, body sensations and sounds. For part 1 of this article series, I will discuss the first technique: focusing on the breath.
First, find a comfortable location where you can sit undisturbed for anywhere between five to 30 minutes. Make sure that no kids, partners, pets, cell phones, or other such distractions can realistically intrude on you during this moment. However, you might consider bringing some sort of timing device or alarm clock with you. This will prevent you from over meditating (most often this “meditation” takes the form of falling asleep!) or more commonly, stopping your meditation short of the time you committed to. Our overactive minds can get bored quickly, and thus the temptation to rationalize and tell ourselves that we’ve “meditated enough” can be overwhelming without a timer to keep us honest!
Once in your meditation spot, find a comfortable place to sit. A padded straight back chair works very well. Keep your back relatively straight - you don’t want to slouch and be so comfortable that you doze off to sleep, but you also don’t want to be rigid and tense. Simply sit naturally and maintain good posture. Put your feet flat on the floor, relax your shoulders, place your hands on your lap, look straight ahead, and close your eyes.
Now, begin to breathe naturally, inhaling and exhaling through the nose if possible. At this point, simply breathe as you normally would and do not seek to maintain any sort of particular rhythm or tempo. Mindfulness is about accepting the moment as it is, not about trying to control it. Focusing on your in and out breaths as they come without regulating or judging them is thus a great way to cultivate this mindset. Devote all your attention to feeling each breath as it goes in through your nose, fills your lungs, and gets expelled from your body. Notice how the air feels at each stage of the process. Notice the sound of the breath as you inhale and exhale. Notice the breath without judging it (e.g. “this is stupid,” “this is taking too long,” or “I feel uncomfortable and would rather be doing …”). As much as possible, simply observe the process and feel each sensation and sound associated with breathing without labeling anything as good or bad.
If you’re like me, you will have a few long and peaceful in and out breaths before thoughts start seeping in. That’s OK! When one such thought comes into your mind, don’t try to ignore it or deny its presence, because that will only strengthen it and cause it to linger or resurface. Simply acknowledge it, let it pass, and as soon as you are conscious that a thought has taken a hold of you, focus once more on your breathing. For me, this takes the form of “talking” to my thoughts in a script sort of as follows:
Thought to me: “You have so much work to do today, and you should have done more yesterday. When you get to work this morning, make sure you start doing x, y, and z as soon as possible!!!”
Me to thought: “I see you’re trying to get my attention, and I appreciate what you’re trying to tell me. Right now, however, I’m focusing on my breathing. I may deal with you later when it is appropriate. Breathe in, breathe out …”
OK, so I don’t say this word for word, but you get the point. Notice how the dialogue does not attempt to solve the problem or follow the thought to some sort of conclusion. It also does not attempt to deny that a thought has entered the mind, nor does it even label this as a “bad” thing. The meditative self simply acknowledges the thought and then lets it float away as it refocuses on the breathing. Much like a person sitting on river watches leaves float atop the water and get carried away by the current, the meditative self watches the occasional thought drift through the mind before his or her conscious presence lets it be carried away in order to continue focusing on breathing.
Let me share with you my most common breathing meditation routine. On days when I meditate in the morning, I wake up at around 5:30 because I have to be at work by around 7:00. I set my cell phone alarm for however long I commit to meditating, head over to my living room couch (in the winter) or my patio table (in the summer) and settle in (comfortably but attentively). I then gradually tune in to my breath for anywhere between 20-30 minutes. What I love about this time is that my wife is still asleep and it is early enough that there are very few ambient sounds to help distract me. An added bonus is that I can often catch a glimpse of the dawn sunrise, and its beauty puts me in a positive frame of mind as I start my day.
Over time and with practice, you may find that you are able to stay mindful of your breath for longer periods of time. Do not be discouraged if you often get distracted by thoughts or feel uncomfortable – simply do your best to keep bringing yourself back into the present moment via focusing on your breath. Be gentle with yourself: remember that as a society, we are used to multitasking and being entertained by fast, quickly changing visual stimuli (in one recent action movie trailer, I ruefully observed that the average scene duration was one-half second). Is it any wonder most of us have trouble focusing on one thing at a time for any length of time? Even if you can only do five minute sessions to being with, the key is to keep practicing.
In the next article, I will discuss another favorite meditation technique of mine: focusing on sounds.