Meditation

(this page is a work in progress; a real fixer-upper)

Mindfulness – according to me

Mindfulness is the general awareness of what your mind is doing at any given moment.

Most of us go through our lives not really paying attention to our minds.  Every so often someone will say: “Will you listen to yourself?!”, or you will ask yourself: “Why did I do that?”.  We spend a lot of time on autopilot.  The point of mindfulness for most of us is not to turn off the autopilot (although you can take it that far) but to keep an eye on it to make sure it is working as intended.  Once you have learned to notice what your mind is doing, you can help it to do a better job by taking control back from the autopilot when necessary.  You will also start to notice things, like how very trivial and ephemeral most thoughts are, how thoughts and moods are tangled up, how much of “autopilot” is actually “habit”, and how a lot of your habits are not really improving your life.

Mindfulness is a skill that can be used to help us understand ourselves, and stage interventions when we notice we have gone off the rails.

Like any other skill, mindfulness must be learned and practiced.  That’s where the meditation comes in.

The Practice of Meditation

There are lots of variations on this.  It takes a while to experiment so that you can find a recipe that works for you, but here are some ideas to get you started.

  1. Find a place to be where you won’t be disturbed, ideally one that is quiet and comfortable.
  2. Adopt a comfortable but alert posture that you can maintain for a while.  You can stand, sit, or kneel, but try not to slouch or to rely  on external support.
  3. Relax (without slouching) as best you can.
  4. You can close your eyes, or you can rest your gaze on something which is not too busy.  Most people start with eyes closed.
  5. Bring your attention to your breathing.  Focus on one aspect of this; for example, the feeling of air passing through your nostrils, or the rise and fall of your chest or tummy as you inhale and exhale.  Don’t try to alter your breathing:  just breathe normally and feel it happening.
  6. Almost certainly, after a minute or so, you will suddenly become aware that you have stopped feeling your breath and that you are thinking about something else.  This is your autopilot speaking.  Gently take back control, and repeat from the previous step.

Difficulties

This sounds so easy, but it is actually quite difficult.

  • Until you’ve done this regularly for a few weeks, you will generally get stiff sitting in one position for more than a few minutes.  Try not to wriggle around too much, but this is not intended to be torture:  if you are seriously uncomfortable, do something about it.
  • You will also get bored:  you will truly understand what it is to watch paint dry.  That’s just your mind screaming at you to get up and run around, because that’s what you’ve always done.  You are trying to teach it a new trick, and this involves time, patience, and practice.  The boredom will eventually dissipate.
  • Your jaw is clenched:  you are trying to hard 🙂  There is a Goldilocks aspect to meditating:  not too relaxed, not too tense … just right.  Keep trying.
  • You fall asleep:  try not to 🙂  Keeping your eyes open will help, as will your “alert posture”.  Of course, if you need the sleep this may be a good thing.
  • Your mind may be spinning so fast you can’t manage to watch your breath at all:  OK, so forget the breath for now.  Can you take a mental step backwards and just watch your mind spin without getting caught up in the process?  Imagine your mind is a fair ground ride, but you are not actually riding it – just watching.
  • Unpleasant, disturbing, or anxiety-triggering thoughts arise:  do the best you can to let them go.  Don’t try to push them away.  Be aware that the thoughts themselves cannot hurt you:  they are the stuff of dreams.  However, if this is a serious problem you may want to drop the idea of meditation for now, or at least find a meditation instructor who can help you to deal with them.

Signs of Progress

You should not really approach meditation with a goal in mind, or with any sense of how to score yourself (or others).  However, if you can manage to keep up a regular practice of at least 5 minutes a day (most days) you will probably start to notice:

  • You look forward to the peace and quiet.
  • 5 minutes goes by more quickly.  Then 10 minutes. Then …
  • Holding the focus on your breath is not so hard, and your mind is quieter.
  • Your mind is calmer even when you are not meditating.
  • You don’t get bored so easily; paint starts to look more interesting.
  • The process of breathing, at odd times here and there.

This is not a speedy process.  The rule-of-thumb most often quoted is that you may start to notice improvements in your mood, concentration, sleep, and so on in about 6-8 weeks of consistent practice  This is hard work, and some people just don’t find enough benefit to keep up the effort.  I’ve been doing this pretty seriously now for about 8 years and I believe it has helped me enormously.  What has kept me going is:

  • It does not involve any pills, special equipment, proprietory foods or supplements, or much inconvenience.
  • The feeling of control I get from having something – anything – I can try to help myself.
  • Sitting quietly trying to watch my breathing during a panic attack beats the hell out of having nothing to do during a panic attack.

Your mileage may vary, but it may still be worth the journey.

Resources

Books, Magazines

  • Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living. ISBN 13: 978-0-385-30312-5
  • Mindful magazine (available at many libraries)
  • Henepola Gunaratana, Bhante. Mindfulness in Plain English. ISBN 13: 978-0-8617-1321-9
  • Hawn, Goldie. 10 Mindful Minutes. ISBN 13: 9780399537721; also available as audio book.

Internet

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