Workshops. Retreats. Classes.
Everyone is talking about mindfulness. Even Anderson Cooper. He went on a mindfulness meditation weekend retreat, gave up his cellphone, and lived to file a 60 Minutes report about it.
But with all the talk, it’s easy to assume that mindfulness is just the latest shiny object in a long list of glittery baubles. Another pseudo-spiritual trend to convince oneself of one’s superiority.
Surprisingly, or maybe luckily, that’s not true.
Mindfulness has a long history of helping people. It has a proven track record of creating positive change.
It helps be happier, more content. Helps with pain. Helps with anxiety.
Mindfulness is one of the exceptional practices that can help many people with many different challenges to find ease in their suffering.
That’s a big promise for such a simple practice.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
The term “mindfulness” can be confusing.
In its most basic sense, it means living with awareness or consciousness. You are awake, taking in the present moment.
Used this way, a mindfulness practice is any one of many different exercises that help you develop your awareness. Mindfulness is sometimes used to describe yoga, breathing, or psychological exercises.
What gets confusing is that “mindfulness” can also refer to specific meditation techniques. These techniques are usually based on Buddhist practices, but the term may also refer to techniques taught by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Mindfulness is living in the present moment. No stories. No distractions. It is soaking up the present moment fully.
The idea of living in the present moment can seem simple. Elegant.
But too often, you might find that is far from what you actually do.
Worrying about the future, regretting the past, interpreting the present… your mind has many ways to distract you from what is really going on.
Sometimes you can move from one idea to the next, layering your thoughts in front of the present moment like a filter in front of a camera lens. You no longer experience what is actually happening now. You experience what you are thinking about.
And living the world of your thoughts is a recipe for unhappiness. When your thoughts are in control, you are always reacting to ghosts.
Mindfulness is a way to peel back the layers we hold between ourselves and the world. It’s a way to see what really is.
What are the Benefits of Practice?
Spiritually, I find value in mindfulness as a tool for my search for Truth.
I have spent my life looking deeper and deeper for what is real. Without mindfulness, I wouldn’t have been able to discern my internal dramas from what is really happening.
But I know that searching for Truth is not everyone’s cup of tea.
So let’s look at practicalities.
More and more, science is examining the effects of meditation. And what they find is that meditation can have many benefits, from physical (lowering blood pressure, reducing stress hormones, or supporting your immune system), to emotional (coping with pain, reducing anxiety, or increasing contentment).
Hedy Kober , a neuroscientist at Yale University, has studied meditation. In her Ted Talk, she describes how mindfulness training can help you feel less stress, less pain, and change the way your brain works.
So while mindfulness may or may not lead you to Truth, you will probably feel better if you practice it.
How to do Mindfulness Meditation
Sit in a comfortable position.
Take a moment to settle yourself. Feel the chair or floor beneath you. Let your muscles relax.
After a few moments, draw your attention to your breath.
Notice the sensations of the breath. The rise and fall of your chest. The expansion and contraction of your rib cage.
As you sit, you may notice that your thoughts begin to wander.
Gently, bring them back to your breath.
No judgment. No worries. You’re not doing anything wrong. Just gently refocus yourself on your breath.
Why Does Practicing Mindfulness Work?
When you first start sitting, you may notice that it is, well, a little difficult.
Your mind might wander. Your body may get twitchy.
You may not feel the blissful relaxed state that everyone talks about.
This is normal.
Everyone recognizes the need to exercise your body. You need to build strength and train your muscles to respond to new challenges.
Meditation works the same way. You need to exercise and train the mind. When you need the mind for intellectual and creative activities, it’s good to have an active, keen mind.
But when your mind is just jabbering on, it’s no longer helpful. That’s when it’s good to know how to quiet it.
Worrying about the future is not helpful. Time for the mind to quiet.
Reliving the past is not helpful. Time for the mind to quiet.
And these are not just subjective experiences. More and more, researchers are finding that meditation actually changes the way neurons fire. Your brain is literally calming down. It moves its responses from the reactionary, survival-based areas of the brain to the more rational ones.
In addition, as you quiet your mind and sit peacefully, your body can reset to a more restful state. Soft breathing relaxes the diaphragm which can relax the psoas and gently message the spine. Stress hormone levels fall. Digestion balances.
Taking a break from your hectic life lets your body rejuvenate.
Mindfulness training is not just a fad. It is part of a strategy for good, healthy living.
If you are committed to authentic living, learning to discipline your mind is a key step. Mindfulness meditation is a great way to develop that discipline.