What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is very simple really. It is awareness of the present moment with acceptance. Mindfulness is a practice of turning our attention inward with an attitude of open curiosity toward what we may find.
There are literally endless ways to practice mindfulness… while exercising, while washing the dishes, while driving, etc. I’ll be writing about these kinds of less formal mindfulness in a different blog post, but today I’ll be sharing about the mindfulness practice that I have the most personal experience with--sitting mindfulness meditation.
Sitting mindfulness meditation is the practice of sitting, focusing on our breath, turning our attention inward, and being with ourselves. As soon as we notice our mind is off in Timbuktu, we simply notice that as well, and bring our attention back to our breath. It’s that simple. And the payoff of a regular practice is profound.
My Personal Experience with Mindfulness
My personal journey with mindfulness began over 10 years ago when I entered my graduate program at Naropa University to become a therapist. A required part of my three year program was two full years of mindfulness meditation training. We were also required to maintain our own personal mindfulness meditation practices on our own time as well.
Having a mindfulness meditation practice has been--hands down--the most beneficial thing I’ve ever done for my mental health. And even though the consistency with my practice has ebbed and flowed a lot over the years, the benefits have stuck with me, even in times when I’m not able to sit and meditate at all.
A Common Misconception about Mindfulness Meditation: "Clearing the Mind"
The big misconception that kept me from meditating for years, and that keeps most people thinking some version of “I can’t meditate,” is the misconception that the goal of meditation is to “clear your mind.”
Mindfulness meditation is NOT about clearing the mind.
Might you eventually, and naturally, with lots and lots of practice get to a place where your mind is much calmer, much of the time when you sit down to meditate, and just in everyday life? Yes, certainly! This often is a pleasant side effect of mindfulness meditation. Is it the goal? No.
First of all, there is no “goal” in mindfulness meditation beyond just being with what is. I know that probably sounds cryptic and mysterious, but I want to demystify it. Let’s unpack that phrase, “being with what is.”
Mindfulness and Our Inner World
Along with the thoughts are emotions. Some emotions are attached to the thoughts, some are just there in the background, fear, sadness, grief, excitement, joy. There are physical sensations--a sharp pain in your shoulder, an ache in your rib when you breathe deeply, on and on and on and on.
This is our inner world, and it’s happening behind the scenes all the time, whether we are aware of it or not. And most of us aren’t aware of it. It’s happening just outside of our awareness, like breathing. Automatic, unconscious.
None of this is a problem. None of it needs to be made to go away. You are human, you have a brain and a mind and a body. There will always be thoughts, feelings, and sensations happening. And that’s ok!
The "Goal" of Mindfulness Meditation
We are not trying to make what is happening within us go away, aka, “clear our minds.” Because if we were trying to clear our minds, we would be doing the opposite of mindfulness--which is as much about acceptance, as it is about awareness. If we have an agenda, we are saying “a clear mind is better than a busy mind.” That is not acceptance. That is trying to change what is. In mindfulness meditation we are not trying to change what is, we want to be with what is.
Mindfulness Meditation and Accepting "What Is"
Now, let’s talk about acceptance for a second. Part of acceptance is accepting the parts of us that aren’t accepting. I’ll say that one more time, in a slightly different way: “acceptance” isn’t about being perfectly accepting. It’s about allowing what is to be what it is without jumping in to change it. It’s about accepting that part of us that wants to jump in and change it, too.
Acceptance in mindfulness meditation is about tapping into and cultivating our meta-awareness. Our meta-awareness is all encompassing and is able to hold all of our experience without needing to jump in and control, change, or fix anything.
Mindfulness Meditation and Meta-Awareness
The term I often use for this part of us is our "Center." We all have a Center. And being “in our Center” allows us to be present with ourselves in a way that is incredibly healing. Mindfulness meditation is a practice of being in our Center. The more access we have to our Center, the better our mental health will be.
Mindfulness meditation strengthens our ability to access our meta-awareness. It’s like a muscle that strengthens the more it’s utilized. The more time we spend consciously watching our inner experience with neutral curiosity, the stronger our inner Witness becomes.
What Mindfulness Looks Like in Reality
Whatever comes up is OK. Whatever thoughts, feelings, sensations. Whatever is happening around us, also OK.
A jackhammer suddenly starts blasting outside your open window while you’re meditating? People who think meditation is all about peace and serenity would erroneously say “I can’t meditate now! That sound is too irritating, it’s just making me frustrated and angry sitting here.”
But you absolutely can meditate with the jackhammer in the background. How? You would choose to sit with what is… noticing your thoughts about not being able to meditate. Noticing the nuance of the piercing, grating sounds of metal breaking cement… perhaps noticing how the tiny hairs in your inner ear seem to vibrate with the sound and how your body jerks slightly every time the sound starts up again after a short period of silence. You might notice that when your body jerks, your shoulders also become very tense and move up toward your ears. You might notice your frustration and your thoughts saying “SHUT THE FUCK UP.”
Meditation is not all “love and light.” It’s about being with what is. Whatever is happening for you in the moment is grist for the mill. It’s information about who you are, what you think about, what kinds of messages you tell yourself, what kinds of beliefs you have, how certain emotions feel in your body, etc. And this information, this self-awareness, deepens and begins to rewire our relationship with ourselves. It helps us move from an insecure attachment with ourselves to a secure attachment with ourselves. It allows us to begin the process of showing up for ourselves in a brand new, and much healthier, way.
So, how exactly does one meditate?
How to Meditate, the Quick and Dirty Version
2. Close your eyes, or keep them open, focusing softly on the floor two feet in front of you.
3. Begin breathing in and out through your nose. Feeling your belly rise and fall and your lungs expand into your upper back. Notice if your shoulders move at all when you breathe. Relax the tongue off the roof of your mouth.
4. Now focus on the in and out of your breath. How it feels to breathe in, how it feels to breathe out. The breath will be your focus throughout the meditation.
5. When you catch your mind wandering, just notice, and immediately bring yourself back to your breath.
6. Bring yourself back over and over and over again to the breath. Eventually, through this process you will begin to become more and more aware of details and subtleties of your inner experience, which is always happening alongside your Witnessing Self (meta-awareness) and your breathing.
7. If you need to shift positions throughout the time you're meditating, do it as need be, always with the intention of noticing and moving with conscious awareness. (i.e. Thinking to yourself, “My left knee is aching. It feels like a dull throb. I'm going to straighten out my left leg to give it a rest.”)
That’s it! Sitting with your internal world, coming back to the breath, for a predetermined amount of time. You're practicing being aware of the present moment with acceptance.
How to Meditate, Detailed Step-By-Step
You can sit on a chair with your back straight, feet resting flat on the floor, and hands resting on your knees, palms facing down or up. Or you can sit on the floor on a cushion sitting cross-legged or in a modified lotus position, hands relaxed on your knees, thighs, or resting in your lap, palms facing up or down
2. Posture. Find your sitz bones, the bones on the bottom side of your pelvis that press into the ground when you're sitting up straight. For me, I can find and feel them pressing into the cushion when I slightly tip my pelvis forward. Sitz bones can be felt right where your butt cheeks and thighs connect.
If you're on a cushion (which can just as easily be a rolled up towel, blanket, or yoga mat), slightly roll your pelvis forward so that your spine is straight. Imagine a string attached to the top of your skull and someone is lightly pulling on the string until your spine is straight and the string is taught.
Notice if your shoulders are hunched forward, if so, roll them back slightly, just so that they are resting in alignment. You want to sit up straight, but not rigidly. The idea is to stack your spine on top of your sitz bones, sitting in a relaxed, neutral position.
Tuck your chin in slightly, and imagine in your mind’s eye that your spine from your tailbone all the way up to the base of your skull is perfectly, neutrally straight.
Remove your tongue from the roof of your mouth. Relax your lips. Either close your eyes, or keep them open with your gaze softly resting on the floor 2 feet in front of you.
3. Begin breathing slowly and intentionally through your nose. Noticing your breath moving in and out of your nostrils. Notice the rise and fall of your belly; your ribs expanding slightly into your upper back as your lungs fill with air.
4. Continue focusing on your breath throughout your meditation. When you notice that your mind has wandered, just notice, and bring yourself back to your breath. Bringing yourself back again, and again, and again.
Happy Meditating! (or sad… it’s all welcome here!)
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