Healing the mind is just as important as healing the body. Incorporating strategies from different disciplines can help lead to a healthy and balanced life. If you have ever been interested in the practice of mindfulness and meditation, then this post is for you.
Breathe, breathe in the air,
Cherish this moment,
Cherish this breath.
Tomorrow is a new day for everyone,
Brand new moon, brand new sun.
When you feel life’s coming down on you like a heavy weight,
When you feel this crazy society adding to the strain,
Take a stroll to the nearest water’s edge,
Remember your place
Many moons have risen and fallen, long before you came.
So which way does the wind blow?
What does your heart say?
-Xavier Rudd, Follow the Sun
In the song, “Follow the Sun,” Australian artist Xavier Rudd explores the topic of mindfulness, illustrating how attention to the present moment can help us develop introspection and strength in the face of life’s challenges. I love the lyrics to the song because they depict the breath and nature as non-judgmental teachers.
Mindful consciousness involves paying attention to and becoming aware of one’s internal experience from moment to moment. Although it’s a practice rooted in Buddhism, it’s important to note that mindfulness is a universal human ability. You do not have to identify with Eastern religion to use it. If you are interested in mindfulness and meditation, there are thousands of books written that delve deeply into the subject. This blog post is designed to serve as an introduction for those who are interested in mindfulness and a short guide to developing a sitting meditation practice. Much of this information is drawn from the excellent book Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana, so if you enjoy it, I highly recommend picking up the book.
Mindfulness. Because Life is Stressful.
Stress is a constant in life that can take on many forms. It can be overt or insidious. It can come from our external environment such as from traffic, people who frustrate us, or a difficult work project. It can also come from our own thoughts, such as when we believe we are not good enough. It can lead to chronic tension and unhappiness, and ultimately culminate in disease. Often, people try to avoid their problems, escaping into substances or media, or creating walls, repressing their emotions in order to protect themselves. Unfortunately, avoidance strategies have been shown to lead to a worsening of stress over time. Remaining curious about mindfulness and meditation can help us shift towards conscious living and give us the tools to confront our suffering directly. In doing so, we activate a power deep within us to heal and change.
What is Mindfulness?
Although Mindfulness can be described in words, it’s actually an experience that lies beyond words or symbolic thought. In normal perception, mindfulness is the pure, non-conceptual awareness that exists before you objectify something, label it, think about it, or put it into words. Mindfulness is holding interest in the present moment without judgment, bias, or preoccupation with the past or future. Mindfulness looks impartially at your experience, without reference to the self, or attaching to “good” or “bad” mental states. In this way, one who is mindful simply watches the basic nature of passing phenomena of the internal experience. Mindfulness is only one side of the coin, however. Vipassana meditation practice helps you experience mindfulness directly.
If you are interested in learning about mindfulness and meditation, Vipassana (insight) meditation is a good place to begin. Vipassana is the original vehicle of mindful living that was introduced by the Buddha 2,500 years ago. It’s not simply a tool for relaxation, although tranquility is a byproduct. It is specifically designed to produce prolonged awareness of the present moment, and in doing so, produce insight. This clear vision helps you tune into emotional changes more readily. Rather than running away from reality, or attempting to suppress your issues, you work to see yourself exactly as you are, fully accepting your true nature. This is an observable reality. Because you have experienced this state within yourself, you absolutely know it to be true.
Vipassana requires both mindfulness and concentration to be effective. In his book Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Gunaratana uses the analogy of sunlight and a lens to illustrate the relationship of these concepts. Sunlight alone can warm a surface, but sunlight that is directed through a lens, becomes powerful enough to start fire. The lens here represents concentration, while mindfulness selects the object of focus and then looks through the lens to see what is there. Together, one can look deeply into the recesses of the mind. Now that we’ve had a crash course in mindfulness theory, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of sitting meditation.
To stay interested in mindfulness and meditation, approach your practice with an attitude of curiosity. Don’t expect anything, don’t strain, and don’t rush. Accept everything that arises, be gentle, investigate, and view all problems as challenges.
Find a secluded place where you a can be alone without distractions. It is important to feel comfortable in your setting. Sit when you are looking forward to it. Setting up a schedule helps you maintain structure around the practice. Make it reasonable so it can fit in with the rest of your life. Two good times to meditate are first thing in the morning or in the evening before you get too tired from the day. As a beginning meditator, a good time frame is 10-20 minutes. Setting a timer helps. You should be able to increase the length of sitting time with practice. Wear loose fitting clothing. Find a cushion that is at least 3 inches thick when compressed. Sitting close to the edge of the cushion will allow your legs to rest cross legged on the floor. The most common leg position has your right foot tucked under the left knee and the left foot tucked under your right knee. If crossing your knees causes pain, you can always sit in a chair. Your spine should be erect and in alignment, but your body should be relaxed. Rest your hands comfortably in your lap or on your thighs. You should attempt to remain motionless for the duration of the meditation.
The most readily available and easiest object to concentrate on is your breathing.
To begin, close your eyes and take 3 deep breaths and then breathe normally through your nose. Focus your attention on the rim of your nostrils. Notice the feeling of your breath as goes in and out. Notice the pause between breaths. Notice the feeling of a short breath; notice the feeling of a long breath. Simply notice the calm and peaceful feeling of your breathing.
If your mind wanders to certain thoughts or memories, or if you become distracted by a feeling in the body, external sound or smell for example, attend to this, acknowledge it, but then bring your attention immediately back to the breath and firmly anchor it there. If you are having difficulty concentrating on your breath, counting can be helpful. Breathe in, then out, count 1, In, out 2… and so on up until 5. Once your breathing is refined and your mind is quiet, you can stop counting. The goal is not to suppress thoughts, but to simply notice everything that arises without judgment. Instead of getting caught up in normal conscious thought, pondering, and following thoughts down a chain, you should aim to be aware of thoughts with bare attention, and watch them come up and pass away like a bubble. Eventually, you will enter in a space of deep concentration, thoughts will slow down, and you will be able to examine the subtle internal state of the body mind complex in detail. When your session comes to a close, slowly open your eyes, moving mindfully as you transition your awareness back to the external world. Take some time to reflect on your experience, and see if you can notice any difference in your mental and physical state.
Dealing with problems
First, try to get rid of existing pain before you sit down and meditate. If you are not used to sitting meditation, some pain will be inevitable. Common sources include clothing being too tight, poor posture, or your cushion is not supportive enough. If some pain persists, try to use it as an object of your meditation by going into the pain fully and exploring the physical sensation, as well as the mental resistance around it. Ultimately, if the pain is excruciating or you can’t fix it with the above strategies, you can move your position, although you should do it mindfully. One common occurrence is that your legs may fall asleep. This results from pinched nerves rather than lack of circulation and although it is uncomfortable, it will not cause harm. Watching this phenomenon mindfully will help you overcome it. Eventually, your body will adjust to daily meditation practice and the numbness will no longer occur.
Mindfulness involves remaining interested in whatever comes up during your meditation.
It is natural to feel discouraged. Meditation is hard work that requires consistent practice to see results. Try not to set unrealistic expectations for yourself. If you feel that you aren’t succeeding or not meeting your goals, examine this feeling with the attitude of interest. Despite perceived difficulties you may have in your practice, as long as you commit to sit mindfully, you cannot fail.
To close, great teachers have often compared meditation to cultivating the land. First you must till the soil, remove stumps and rocks that will prevent your garden from growing. Then you sow seeds, water and fertilize them, and eventually you are rewarded with a successful harvest. To act impulsively or in regrettable ways is human nature. Emotions such as greed, hatred, and jealousy are compulsive in that they often take over our thought processes in continual loops. Applying mindful practice over time helps us confront and realize these maladaptive thought loops and diffuse them. After clearing and tilling the soil of the mind, we direct our energy and discipline into the practice, leading to the growth of more positive aspects of the human experience such as love, friendliness, acceptance, tolerance, patience, and wisdom. Understanding of others and their perspectives naturally becomes easier because you have understood yourself. The journey towards mindful consciousness is lifelong and not easy, but the rewards are vast. If you are on the fence, get on the meditation cushion and try it out for yourself! Thank you for reading!
Mindfulness in plain English, Bhante Gunaratana
The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle
The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, Thich Nhat Hanh
Full Catastrophe Living, John Kabat Zinn
The Untethered Soul, Michael A. Singer