When I introduce the notion of meditation to my patients or clients, the usual response is as an immediate-” It sounds great, but I can’t do that! I get too fidgety and too anxious! I can’t shut up my mind!”
So, let me start with this disclaimer-meditation is not about having a blank mind-the only time our mind will go blank is when we are under general anesthesia or dead! Mindfulness meditation is learning to pay attention to our mind’s chatter and to bring a more focused attention to what we’re doing in the present moment.
There is growing evidence that learning to pay attention may be the most important skill we ever learn. Let me repeat that, learning to pay attention may be the most important skill we ever learn!Mindfulness is a mental discipline that involves training our attention. It teaches us how to use our mind in a different way and to focus on things that are most helpful for us to live more consciously and fully.
The default mental activity for us humans is fretting, obsessing, worrying, ruminating, anticipating the future, regretting the past, and basically ignoring the present moment. Such a default state can cause depression, anxiety, and even dementia. In contrast, the capacity to pay attention reverses the negative effects of long-term stress and depression. It seems that the way we think and behave wires itself into the brain. So, we see with MRIs that there is growth of brain tissue after meditation practice.
Mindfulness is the moment to moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. In contrast, we usually have a play-by-play self-critical narrative and tape playing between our ears. By adopting a stance of curiosity, openness, and acceptance of our experience in the present moment, without the self critical narrative, we begin to recognize our habitual patterns and become less reactive to both internal and external circumstances. With practice we foster the development of the beginner’s mind-looking at our experiences as if for the 1st time. Too often, we are reacting habitually to thoughts and feelings with stories of the past-which are full of regret, resentment, shame, guilt-or stories of the future-full of anxiety, dread, and anticipation. With living in either the past or the future we lose the fullness and richness of living in the present moment.
Frankly, it is the tendency of our minds to be either in the past or the future that creates depression, anxiety, fear, and stress. Each of these are costly for psychologic and physical well-being.
There are recognized, measurable benefits to mindfulness meditation. In fact, 2 recent studies being conducted by the US Marine Corps to prevent PTSD and suicide amongst soldiers, have shown consistent decreases in stress hormones, anxiety and PTSD when soldiers were taught mindfulness techniques. The subjective experience of the soldiers was so positive that the program has continued past the initial study.
Mindfulness decreases our emotional reactivity-allowing for more cognitive flexibility and even better memory capacity. The development of self observation of our mental processes leads to less rumination and obsessing. Mindfulness meditation allows for less anxiety and negative feelings. There’s more moment to moment control of how we respond to thoughts and feelings. You can even see on functional MRIs that mindfulness meditation causes emotions to be processed differently in the brain-especially the amygdala-the part of the brain is responsible for our “fight or flight” response.
Greater cognitive flexibility increases the capacity to express oneself in various social situations leading to less relationship conflict. There’s enhancement of self insight, greater intuition, and greater capacity to modulate fear. (Middle prefrontal lobe functions)
There’s enhanced control over sensory information such as pain and negative affect. (Thalamus and prefrontal cortex circuitry)
Brain scans show increased thickness of gray matter in the areas associated with the senses, memory, and executive functioning. This demonstrates that mindfulness slows down the aging of the brain and reverses the negative effects of long-term stress and depression.
**Okay, now what I’ve convinced you of the benefits of mindfulness meditation, let’s get to the nuts and bolts of how to do it. The technique taught to me by my teacher, Richard Moss, is simple and straightforward. There’s no need for a saffron robe, a cushion to sit on, no lotus position, merely a comfortable chair and, in the beginning, a quiet space. I recommend starting the meditation practice for only 5 or 10 min. at a time. Later, as you get more comfortable, the time can be extended. Finally, once you gain some confidence and skill in focused attention, you’ll be able to use this technique standing in the line at the store, sitting at a stoplight, or, like me, taking 30 seconds to a minute between each session with my patients or clients.
So, sitting in a comfortable chair I’d like you to imagine you are sitting by the side of the lake watching the surface of the water. Below the surface of the water is our unconscious mind and above it is our conscious mind. And while sitting by the side of that lake, become softly aware of your breath moving in and out, without effort. Focus on the sensations of your breath passing in and out through your nose or mouth.
As you sit, fish begin to jump out of the water- these are our thoughts and feelings. “I’m hungry, …I’m tired,… I can’t do this….my butt hurts,…. why did she do that?, …What’s for dinner?…” On and on the fish erupt out of our minds. We habitually put a saddle on each of the fish and ride it across the lake into the sunset. It is the same again and again, thought after thought, story after story. Instead of being by the side of the lake, we find ourselves off into the dramas and habitual reactions and self-critical statements about those saddled thoughts and feelings.
So, the practice is using an anchor (your slow unforced breathing) while simply watching the fish come out of the lake and then let them fall back into the water. No saddle. No side trip. No stories. Just an attitude of openness and curiosity, and reminding yourself to stay by the side of the lake while focusing on that anchor. Slow breathing–in and out. Mindfulness meditation strengthens our capacity to stay focused in the moment on our thoughts and feelings as an observer.
With patience we begin to saddle the fish less and less -watching our thoughts and feelings come and go without attachment-an attitude of “oh well–that thought/feeling”… And then coming back to the side of the lake.
The Dalai Lama reminds us that meditation is not merely sitting quietly and observing your thoughts and feelings, it’s more the practice of realizing that we’ve left the side of the lake and gently bring ourselves back. With practice we create a space between our thoughts/feelings and actions. And it’s within that space that we are present, resilient, flexible, and compassionate to ourselves.
I’d like to remind you that this takes time, practice, and some effort. But the payoffs are measurable, immediate, and grow over time.