Stop for a moment and listen. Can you hear yourself thinking? Our heads are filled with constant chatter from the time we get up until we go to bed. In fact, it’s estimated we have an average of 70,000 thoughts a day. It can get awfully crowded in there!
Buddhists have a term for this kind of mental restlessness. They call it monkey mind. I like the comparison to our simian friends because our brains’ jumbled gymnastics mimic their quick and skittish movements.
How do we ever think clearly, stay focussed, and relieve the stress of all the commotion we experience in daily life? For a growing number of us, meditation is one answer.
Before I started meditation practice, I never fully immersed myself in the present moment. I was always thinking about the next thing to do. Or I allowed stressful situations to hijack my thoughts and emotions. That changed when I discovered how I could better direct my thoughts through mindfulness meditation.
What Exactly is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is a type of meditation that pays attention to the present moment by focussing on the breath and physical sensations in the body. It was popularized beginning in the 1970s by American cognitive scientist John Kabat-Zinn who pioneered mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) therapy.
Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation helps you observe rather than react to everyday dramas. In this way, it:
• settles the mind to give you a more neutral perspective, helping you make better choices
• helps you develop your intuitive side, allowing the heart and gut to work more in concert with the thinking mind
• relieves stress and enables a feeling of greater calm that re-energizes the mind and body
Daily Calm: 10-minute mindfulness meditation
How to Mindfully Meditate
If you’ve never meditated before, commit to just five minutes a day for the first 30 days. You may find even this is too long at first, but it’s a good starting point. Twenty minutes at the start of each day works for me.
Schedule your meditation session for the time of day when you can sit undisturbed. That could be right after waking up, during a lunch break, or when you get home from your job. But beware: sleepiness can sneak up on you!
Avoid meditating after meals or later in the evening when the body rhythm slows down. If you find yourself nodding, take several deep inhalations to re-oxygenate the brain.
Once you’ve set some ground rules, then:
When you’re ready, sit comfortably with your eyes closed. If you find it hard to get physically comfortable when meditating, first try a few relaxing stretches. They’ll limber up your muscles and get your blood circulation flowing.
Use pillows to cushion hard surfaces (you can buy a meditation pillow or bench but they’re not absolutely necessary) and help keep your spine erect and properly aligned. Some people use a chair to meditate.
2. Breathe deeply
Take three slow, deep breaths. Inhale through the nose to the count of four and slowly exhale through your mouth. As you exhale, visualize all tension leaving your body and your body becoming lighter.
3. Listen carefully
Close your eyes and briefly acknowledge any ambient sounds you hear, from birds chirping at your window to a ticking clock. This mindfully connects you with what’s around you.
4. Scan slowly
Next, pay attention to internal sensations by doing a full body scan. With your eyes closed, visualize the crown of your head and follow your body to the tips of your toes. Take your time to sense how your body feels as you do this.
5. Breathe rhythmically
At this point, focus your attention on the rhythmic rise-and-fall of your stomach as you breathe normally through your nose. Inhale and exhale to the count of 10, then repeat the routine for the time remaining in your session. Thoughts will come up – about last night’s dinner, or running errands after work that day, or your dentist appointment.
Many different emotions can surface, too. It’s important to allow them to come into your awareness. If you feel fear, feel it and let it go. On the other hand, you might feel bored.
That’s perfectly natural, especially if you’re expecting something to happen during the meditation. Doubt may also creep into your mind and you’ll wonder if you’re meditating the ‘right’ way.
Remember, the purpose of mindfulness meditation is not to block out thoughts completely. Instead, acknowledge your thoughts when you become aware of them, then let them go. Just visualize them floating away like balloons, then focus back on your breath. This awareness develops your ability to focus and direct your thoughts.
When your session ends, smile. Smiling is a wonderful way to reinforce your commitment to your practice. It just makes you feel good too and sets the tone for your day.
You may have a strong desire to meditate but find you need extra incentive to keep up your practice. Joining a meditation group in your community can help provide the reinforcement you need in the beginning.
With consistent practice, your sitting time will increase and the benefits will too. And don’t forget, every meditation session builds on the next and there’s no such thing as a bad one.
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