Mindfulness Meditation (MM) has become extremely popular over the last 5 to 10 years or so. And even more so recently with apps like Headspace doing a great job of making it accessible and bringing it to the masses.
If you’re anything like me you may feel a bit wary of anything that has become so popular. Though, be rest assured. MM goes back thousands of years. Although most of the information readily available now is rooted in Buddhism it is easy to find similar inclinations in all the major religions. It’s not uncommon to find an unease with organised religion in the West.
Hence, MM is typically communicated as non-religious and has made a fitting nest in the neuroscience that gives it a very secure home. This stuff actually does work and the science is happy to back it up. Some of the widely accepted potential benefits of regular MM:
Helps relieve stress and anxiety
Reduces blood pressure
Can help manage chronic pain
Alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties
So, what actually is MM?
The essence of this practice is the focus on the present moment and coming back to the breath and body. Typically, much of our time is spent either contemplating the past or imagining the future, with very little time spent in the present.
We do need to spend time contemplating the past and imagining the future in order to plan and to make sense of our lives. However, many of us unnecessarily ruminate on past events and sometimes judge ourselves and others too harshly. It is also common for people to invest too much time worrying unnecessarily over possible future events. In the latter, ‘catastrophising’ can become an unfortunate habit of the mind in imagining the worst possible consequences. These imaginings can flood the body with difficult emotions and stress hormones like these events are happening right now.
People can over-identify with their passing thoughts and emotions and when this happens it can vary from simple distraction to feeling overwhelmed. If you’ve a good visual imagination it can be like throwing yourself into an HD disaster movie (when in fact you are safe at home on the couch).
The central point of MM is developing the ‘Observer Self’. This is a part of the mind, an awareness, that is outside of passing thoughts. It’s the part that manages to realise that it’s been carried away in a movie about a conversation yesterday that didn’t go so great. You can train the Observer Self to say something like…”ah, the mind is ruminating”. Using phrases like ‘the mind’ instead of ‘my mind’ also helps to shift away from over identification. Thoughts think themselves. Then, if meditating you can bring yourself back to your chosen focus point, i.e. the physical sensation of breathing. If not formally meditating you can bring your focus back to whatever you were doing, i.e. driving, washing the dishes, etc.
Then of course, your mind will wonder off again and you’ll end up in a movie about dinner or a WhatsApp message that seemed a bit off. The very good news is that MM isn’t about not thinking. It’s not anti-thinking or anti-feelings for that matter at all. It’s simply about observing everything, including thoughts and feelings. So, again “ah, the mind is planning (or ruminating, etc)” and coming back to a focus. The other central key here is to do this with kindness. Do not tell yourself off for having a wondering mind, minds will wonder as surely as clouds will pass. Again, it’s not about not thinking, it’s about observing and noticing you’re thinking.
Through this practice we can develop a healthy detachment to our seemingly endless thoughts, imaginings and their attached feelings. By doing this with kindness we practice valuable self-compassion. Some space can then open up to the present moment, we don’t have to be swept away. It’s like the difference between sitting on the riverbank watching the current and the debris verses being in the river itself with the full immersive experience. MM helps to develop an ability to sit on the riverbank more often. One’s problems don’t magically disappear this way but you may find you have a greater sense of proportion so are able to deal with them better.
How to Start?
By far the easiest way to start is to use an app. While Headspace appears to have dominated the market there is plenty of choice out there, i.e. Calm, Insight Timer, Smiling Mind, Simple Habit, Buddhify, etc, etc. This way you will be guided and encouraged through the experience. The cost of these apps varies so it is worth spending the time finding the right one for you. Once you feel confident in sitting in silence without any guidance, I’d recommend using Insight Timer for its wonderful selection of meditation bells you can access for free, a great way to start and end a MM session (definitely pays to stop all notifications and check your phone’s volume before you start!).
Focus on short periods of time, for example 3, 5 or 10 minutes long. Being regular (daily or a few a day) is more important than length of time sitting when starting out.
Find a comfortable place to sit at a time and place that you know you won’t be disturbed. If living with others this might be a good time to practice some boundaries in your household and claim some time to yourself.
Don’t get hung up on posture, a nice straight back is definitely good but thankfully for me at least you don’t have to master the lotus position in order to meditate.
Try not to become too precious about having quiet. While some noises are more difficult, i.e. over hearing a conversation your mind gets curious about, noises like car doors are actually very helpful. These noises are happening in the present moment and can create a helpful awareness, you can try labelling these in your mind if it’s helpful, “car door”, or simply “ears hearing” – and coming back to your chosen focus such as breathing or part of your body.
Here is a nice short track of just over a minute to experiment with, sit comfortably, set this up and simply follow the instructions:
Is MM for you?
Popularity and solid science does not dictate that MM will definitely be your cuppa tea. If any one psychological intervention worked on all the people all the time, I would be forced into another profession pretty sharply. I would love to try my hand at stone masonry. But life really isn’t that simple, we’re complex beings and need different things at different times. It is totally okay if you really don’t get on with MM, this doesn’t mean you’re broken or getting it wrong.
Tips if you have or do run into difficulty
If you’ve started a MM practice and you’ve run into doubts, bad experience or lack of direction, here’s a few tips you could try before making a decision on having MM in your life:
Be sure that you’re not getting caught up in false notions that it’s all about completely emptying your mind all the time and being thought free. Here is a great animation that hammers this home nicely: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-kMJBWk9E0
Try doing more ‘informal practice’ or try only doing ‘informal practice’. Informal practice is using MM in daily life, i.e. not when sitting in meditation for an agreed amount of time. And I don’t mean all the time, there may be a handful of monks somewhere who can do this but us mere mortals will be in and out of it as we forget, remember and then get distracted. Try to bring in your ‘observer self’ more often at any time of day, “ah, mind is planning” and making a choice between continuing with planning or refocusing on your actual current present activity. Practice not judging yourself for your thoughts as you notice them and bring attention to the present.
Try more active meditations, sitting still isn’t for everyone. Try listening to short guided walking meditations. You can also try slowly running a finger around the outline of your other hand (than swapping around), focus on the sensations and the movement.
Tag your MM time onto another habit that is already established, i.e. sitting in MM for 5 mins straight after brushing your teeth.
Make a place in your house a MM gateway. For example, every time you use the stairs you will slow down a bit and focus on the sensation of your feet pressing on the carpet. Or every time you empty the dishwasher you will slow down just a bit and focus on the movements and sensations; you will notice when you mentally wonder off and kindly bring yourself back to the task. You can put up a sign or ornament in these places to help you remember.
Try mindfulness eating. Shut down all screens, really slow your chewing down, really taste the flavours, keep coming back to the physical experience of eating (great for your digestive system too!). Nominating a daily meal is a good way to start and to turn this into a healthy habit.
Do your best not to get tied up in results. It sounds paradoxical but let go of the potential fruits, simply sit for the sake of sitting (or walk for the sake of walking).
Pause to notice the pockets of nature in your day, get up close and examine the detail, take a proper look at the bark on a tree (informal practice).
Make sure you’re not biting off too much, try shorter times, 2 mins, 3 mins, 5 mins.
If not done so, try a body scan. Using a guided track to talk you through focusing methodically on different parts of your body is the best way for most to start these. These are done lying down, the real challenge may be to not fall asleep, though if this keeps happening it’s not a bad thing, just means you may have paid back some sleep debt. Body scans are great as getting into and experiencing the body itself is a major key to experiencing MM.
Using apps is a great way to start MM. But a bit like the difference between joining the gym verses a sports team, us humans sometimes need connection and commitment to others to make things happen. Using a therapist like myself who can interweave mindfulness into the work can help. Or joining a group is a great idea. Most groups run for a few hours once a week for 8 weeks. This is a good timeframe to give it a real sustained go before deciding if it is for you.
I have the impression that the high level of popularity of MM sometimes leads to a lack of conversation around when MM will be difficult or in fact not suitable at all. Some conditions or diagnosis some of the time (i.e. PTSD, anxiety disorders, being bipolar, schizophrenia, issues with dissociation) may mean the application of MM is problematic. If you feel like MM is making things worse then it’s best to stop. Then, if you wish to pursue it, it is best to initially discuss it with your GP or CPN if you have one. If/when possible to move forward find a one-to-one teacher who has a sound understanding of your issues; or have a conversation with a group teacher before signing up to ensure they’re in a position to give you enough informed individual support during the classes.
While not everyone’s cuppa tea a MM practice is certainly worth giving a good go. I’ve had a long-term interest in MM. Though to be honest my practice has waxed and waned over the years – with plenty of time spent distracted on other things or periods where changes in routine get the better of my practice until I work out a way forward again.
I can certainly notice the difference in myself when I fall into periods of forgetting to or not bothering to meditate. Those closest to me can sometimes notice it too. When I’m in a good MM routine I definitely am more able to reflect and choose responses rather than to react to things as much. Spilt milk can just be spilt milk. And when spilt milk feels a lot more than spilt milk it’s sometimes a clue that I might have let my practice go.