It’s hard to turn around without hitting something on mindfulness and meditation. Articles are popping up all the time in magazines and online media. What’s really exciting is that some of the studies are beginning to bring science to the kind of situations we’re all familiar with – like craving chocolate and wishing you could stop, or whether you’re going to get to sleep tonight.
A recent study showed that even as few as three 25-minute sessions of learning and practicing mindfulness meditation made a difference in how the participants reacted to stress. The researchers were testing the kind of stress that comes when we’re being evaluated under pressure. Deadlines, large parties full of strangers, job interviews – that kind of thing. The really interesting finding was that mindfulness training helped with the flow of stress response. The participants said that they felt less stress after the training, even though their bodies registered as experiencing more stress. So they became mentally stronger without storing the stress in their systems. The authors concluded that learning mindfulness meditation have better coping skills and emotional flow.
So, if everyone seems to think meditation is a good idea, and there’s evidence for the positive effect on health, then why don’t more people actually do it?
Why It’s So Hard
Here are a few reasons – busy mind, lack of time, uncomfortable thoughts flying around, boredom, physical discomfort. If you’ve tried sitting meditation I’m sure you can list a few others. It is hard to feel competent at meditating the first few times you try it. Even the first few months you try it. If your mind is busy then it can take a long time before you can settle it for more than a second here or a second there. A lot of time you don’t really see anything happening, which is frustrating. So don’t beat yourself up for taking many, many tries before you develop a routine. Who has the time to stick to something that doesn’t fit easily into their day and doesn’t show results for months?
Learning the Hard Way
I learned how to meditate at an Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction course, based on the work done by Jon Kabat-Zinn. This was the opposite of simple mindfulness. They are very structured because it was developed in a medical centre as a pain treatment program. They found that the training had more benefits than pain and now the program is offered in most large urban centers. It’s a rigorous program and they ask you to meditate for about 45 minutes a day for eight weeks. I had to be very firm with my restless mind through the whole course. I was committed to finishing it, but that didn’t translate into being blissful about it.
For me, the early days of sitting down to meditate was like the days of corralling my toddlers. They were ingenious at creating havoc and drama – generally running wild when they wanted to stay put. Not so different from the hi-jinks my mind played with me. It’s a nag when it doesn’t want to settle, asking: “Isn’t there something more important you should be doing?” Every mind is different, and your question is likely to be different from mine. But rest assured, your mind try to weasel out with some unresolved issue that’s been bothering you.
Mindfulness or Meditation?
Even though it’s a lot of work to be mindful it’s well worth the ups and downs. It’s is all about opening up space in your life and letting you choose powerfully about the things you really want out of life. Everyone who sticks with it mentions a time when they saw the pay-off, even if it was on their tenth or twentieth attempt to establish a regular practice.
A big aha moment came when I realized that mindfulness and meditation were two different, yet very interconnected, things. I can practice simple mindfulness in many ways – doing the dishes, talking to the kids, eating my breakfast – there is no end to the opportunities. Mindfulness happens when I just pay close attention to what I’m doing and how it feels instead of thinking of yesterday and tomorrow. In exercise terms it’s like doing a walking program. You’re increasing your function so you can have a better experience of daily life and be healthier.
Meditation is like a running program way to practice mindfulness. You expect that it’s not going to be comfortable but you’ll see bigger changes. By sitting quietly and being bombarded with all the minor irritants that meditation brings – your foot’s asleep, your nose is itchy, and who’s on the phone – you practice staying with your breath for longer period of time. There’s much more to distract you and start your mind working when you’re sitting for 10 or 20 minutes.
Which One is For You?
The key to setting up a regular practice is knowing whether you should start with mindfulness or jump directly into meditation. If you don’t have a lot of chunks of time to spare then simple mindfulness is a wonderful option. It means bringing your attention to the things you do regularly during your day. You may choose to be mindful when you eat, when you drive, or when you’re talking to your partner. A wonderful practice is to sit with a hot beverage and take in all the experience through all your senses. Just bring your breath into focus to settle your mind and then pay as close attention as you can to what’s going on.
If you have time to devote to a meditation practice them there are wonderful resources through local Buddhist communities, mindfulness centres and some medical resources.
Great resources for simple mindfulness:
- My go-to guy for everyday mindfulness is Rick Hanson. He’s a psychologist and author who is a master at making mindfulness accessible to everyone. I’m always recommending his book, Just One Thing.
- Mindful Magazine is full of great ideas on how to experiment with mindfulness in many areas of your life.
Great resources for meditation:
- Susan Piver is a wonderful meditation teacher and author in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. They value meditation as a way to move through the world rather than a purely internal pursuit.
- Tara Brach is another wonderful Buddhist teacher, clinical psychologist and author. She has many resources on her website.
- Here’s a concise article by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on How to Do Mindfulness Meditation
- Worldwide MBSR programs based on the original Jon Kabat-Zinn program can be located at The Center for Mindfulness website.