Last column, I introduced the notion of mindfulness and outlined how applying this way of being can decrease your stress level and improve your overall mood and ability to cope with daily life. Mindfulness, you may recall, is simply the practice of paying attention to whatever is happening in the present moment, with an open, accepting, nonjudgmental and kind attitude. It is simple, but by no means easy. In this issue, I’d like to provide specific instructions so you can begin applying mindfulness meditation in your daily life.
First I’ll address some common myths about meditation that might stand in the way of your practice.
Myth #1 To meditate, your mind has to be completely blank
Actually, for mindfulness meditation, it doesn’t matter what’s on your mind – your worries, plans, fears, aches and pains can all be the focus of your mindfulness practice. Your mind can be calm and placid or full of metaphorical storm clouds. To meditate, you simply have to be where you are and focus your awareness on your direct experience in each moment.
Myth #2 To meditate, you need to sit on the floor, twisted up like a pretzel and never move a muscle
Again, not necessary at all. You can sit in a comfortable chair, on a cushion or even lie down flat. The important thing about the posture is simply that you can breathe freely and remain relatively still and comfortable.
Myth #3 People who meditate are hippies, Buddhists or gurus
You don’t have to belong to any specific religious, philosophical or social group to practice mindfulness meditation. Most every spiritual tradition or religion has its own form of mind training or meditation – the practice can easily be integrated into whatever religious or spiritual practices you already follow.
Now that we’ve addressed the myths, here’s how to get started. Begin by setting aside a short period of time when you will not be interrupted – this can just be a few minutes at first, and gradually build up to 20- or 30-minute stretches.
- Take a seat, either in a straight-backed chair, on the floor with crossed legs with your buttocks elevated by a cushion or even lying down if you cannot sit upright comfortably. Allow your shoulders to drop away from your ears and your chest to expand as you breathe.
- Begin paying attention to your breath, without trying to change it.
- Note silently to yourself “in” with each in-breath and “out” with each out-breath.
- At the same time as your are noting “in” and “out,” notice the rising and falling feeling in your belly or alternatively, the feeling of your breath flowing in and out through your nostrils.
- Continue until your attention wanders (this may only take a few breaths).
- As soon as you notice your mind wandering, mentally congratulate yourself for becoming aware of the wandering and simply return to noting “in” and “out” with each breath.
- If you begin to feel impatient, restless, bored or sleepy, accept these and any other feelings or thoughts as just passing mind moments, let them go and return to the breath.
- Keep at it for five minutes, then 10 and eventually 15 or 20.
This type of breath awareness meditation is excellent for training the mind to stay focused where you’d like it to be. It requires practice and patience, but will pay off over time by improving your capacity for paying attention and eventually help you gain insight into the causes and remedies for your suffering.