Mindfulness meditation is “a systematic way to retrain attention…It cultivates the power of mind to stay focused on the object of attention, without being pulled away by distractions” (Montez, n.d.). Mindfulness helps us see our environment clearly and more accurately. Ultimately, it trains us to become more present and alive in all aspects of life, and can produce many beneficial outcomes for us (one of which is being able to recall more dreams at night.)
Humans are largely subconscious creatures, performing about 95 percent of our daily routine on autopilot (Lipton, 2011). Most of our thoughts, feelings, habits, and so on are all happening without approval of our conscious brain. Mindfulness practice will increase our conscious awareness in each moment of our lives, even outside of meditation periods. This allows us to observe and even change those unwanted, subconscious processes that previously stayed hidden.
Getting into Position
Meditation begins by finding the appropriate position. In the first few meditations we are not concerned about the ‘perfect’ position. Rather, we want to simply find a niche with our bodies where even though our spine and head are straight, they are not rigid. We are looking for relaxed shoulders without slouching over, and a soft belly that allows us to breath freely Most traditional meditators will sit on the floor or cushion with their legs crossed, spine straight, and arms loosely resting on their knees (or some variation of that basic position). Some people sit in a chair with their feet flat on the floor and spine/head erect. Still others lie in a bed comfortably and stay awake with different techniques such as a hard or sharp object under their heels or by lifting a hand or finger. In general, meditation conducted while lying down is not suggested if one cannot reliably prevent themselves from falling asleep. However, people who have difficulty relaxing while sitting or those with severe back problems will gain tremendous advantages from lying down (Gjertsen, n.d.). One of the primary goals of mindfulness meditation is to remain vividly alert and awake to everything happening in and around ourselves. Ultimately, we are looking for a position that provides “a sense of stability, comfort, and ease” (Kornfield, 2008, p. 17).
How to Begin
Once in position, close your eyes and gently bring your awareness to your breathing. Keep your attention focused on the rise and fall of the lungs. Feel the cool air entering and the warm air leaving. Try to simply follow the breath in and out without attempting to control it. Simply watch it. Notice the space between each breath. Notice the rhythm that becomes apparent. Continue focusing your attention on the breath for the duration of the meditation.
With your attention focused solely on the breath, you might eventually notice some sort of distraction attempting to steal away your attention (i.e. a pain or itch, a thought or feeling, a noise or insect, or still other examples). The goal in mindfulness is not to ignore these distractions, but rather to shift our undivided attention to it. This is done by way of thought and imagination; the eyes remain closed and the body remains still while mentally shifting our awareness to the distraction.
Like sunlight on fog, the distraction actually fades into nothingness simply my focusing our attention to it. For example, while following your breath you probably notice how a thought comes into your mind, like “After this meditation, I need to finish doing (xyz).” Thoughts are very common distractions as the human mind is naturally very active. Simply observe this thought, and notice how quickly your awareness disintegrates it. If not, name the thought without label or judgment by saying, “thought, thought.” As this thought naturally dwindles, bring your awareness back to the rising and falling breaths. Emotional responses are handled similarly. If we feel anxiety, anger, or even happiness, shift again from the breath directly to the emotion, name it “emotion, emotion” or “feeling, feeling,” and watch its wave disappear. When it does, gently shift back to the breath once again. Sometimes, an itch, pain, or even an insect distracts us. We treat these in the exact same manner as before, naming them “itch, itch,” “pain, pain,” or “fly, fly.” The goal is to witness our thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, pains, distractions, noises, and images without judgment. We ‘watch’ these distractions with keen concentration, so that they dissipate quickly, and then return to the breath straightaway. This is how we remain mindful throughout the entire meditation.
How do I know if I did it correctly?
First, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do this meditation. Only after establishing a consistent routine will you be able to assess how the meditation went based on earlier experiences. Sometimes, the distractions will greatly challenge you and other times they may not. Either way, the tell-tale sign of how well we mindfully meditated is how well we breathed. Spending 20 minutes alertly following our breath should give us some colorful words to describe it (i.e. shallow, racing, deep, rhythmic, comfortable, natural, or many other descriptors.) If after our meditation we cannot remember enough about our breathing to comment on it, then we surmise that our attention was probably somewhere other than our breathing.
Obviously, staying awake is another key attribute to successful meditation! If you were meditating while lying down or sitting in a comfortable chair, try the more traditional approach. Watch your posture, and do not let your spine slump. Keep your head upright, and remember to remain erect but relaxed. It is a delicate balance that requires frequent practice.
What is the Result?
Coming out of this first meditation, we will most likely notice how relaxed we are. With regular meditation periods, we will begin to see the world around us change. Paradoxically, this is an indicator that we are actually the ones changing. Other people will notice that we have become more present and aware of our surroundings. We will finally be able to see our environment with more clarity and less judgment. With continued dedication and practice, we notice that we make less-hasty judgments about life and other people, handling more situations with compassion, love, and wisdom. Finally, research has shown that we also may experience more dream recall with a regular meditation practice (research conducted by Henry Reed on this topic can be found here).
Gjertsen, A. (n.d.) Mindfulness Meditation For Beginners. Retrieved from http://anmolmehta.com/blog/2010/10/19/mindfulness-meditation-for-beginners-part-1/
Google.com. (May 20, 2013). Pictures from the following image searches: 1) “traditional meditation,” 2) “sitting meditation,” 3) “lying meditation.” Retrieved from www.google.com
Kornfield, J. (2008). Meditation for Beginners. Boulder, CO: SoundsTrue
Lipton, B. (June 13, 2011). Conscious vs. The Subconscious. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1kW0bHtY38
Montez, C. (n.d.). Book Summary for Emotional Alchemy (Tara Bennet-Goleman). Retrieved from http://www.intuitive-connections.net/2004/book-emotionalalchemy.htm
Copyright (c) 2014 Chris McCleary. Except for quotes from others, all rights reserved.