There is an ancient practice enjoying modern attention these days. The idea of mindful living is being popularized everywhere. Even the medical establishment is promoting mindfulness for stress management and have even gone so far to say it can help relieve depression.
Studies throughout the past few decades have proven mindful based practices can relieve stress, reduce anxiety and depression, increase focus, boost memory, improve relationships, and enhance wellbeing. Not even Prozac and all its cousins could prove what Harvard researchers discovered during an eight week study, at Massachusetts General Hospital. Through MRI analysis after eight weeks of 28-30 minutes of daily meditation, researchers discovered that the brain’s grey matter literally rebuilds itself. “The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.”
Mindfulness as a practice originated in Buddhism, though one doesn’t have to be a Buddhist, religious or even spiritual to practice being mindful. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a well-known teacher and writer on meditation and mindfulness practice describes it as, “paying attention on purpose, in the moment, non-judgmentally.” Many people claim they are already super aware of all the thoughts that go on in their mind so why meditate, but what they are talking about is the hyper vigilance of worrying and planning; and all the habitual thoughts that race constantly across our minds. Andy James, author of ‘The Conscious I; Clarity and Direction Through Meditation,’ says, “Unfortunately we are rarely in touch with the present because our response is almost always dictated by old patterns, beliefs and hopes.”
Mindfulness helps us to become aware of the deeper patterns inside our minds that keep us bound to learned behaviors, unexamined beliefs, and expectations that may no longer serve us and instead bring us down, keep us reactive, and chain us to past events. By sitting or standing or even reclining in meditation, we become aware of what goes on in our minds, and the sensations we experience. When we allow those thoughts and sensations to flow without judgement, we create a space for transformation, a moment where we can learn to come into the present moment to consciously choose how we will react, what we will believe, how we will feel, instead of our kneejerk autonomic responses asserting themselves unconsciously.
Many of my clients initially say they can’t meditate because they can’t make their minds empty, but that’s not the goal of mindfulness, at least how I have learned it, from the master teachers I was lucky enough to study with. When we try to empty the mind, it becomes busy filling up with as much mindless chatter as it can muster. It’s simple physics; for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Mindfulness is about allowing the feelings, thoughts and sensations to arise naturally to know your mind and all of its contents intimately, (fear, boredom, sadness, envy, love, anger, all the beliefs about yourself, others and the world that you have unconsciously absorbed.) “Each moment of our lives is so powerfully conditioned by the past that the present is almost incidental,” says Andy James.
To start a meditation practice, sit comfortably on the floor or on a chair, upright (to stay awake), and pay attention to your breath going in and going out. Really focus on breathing naturally and rhythmically. When a thought distracts you, acknowledge it, don’t squash it, push it away or dwell on it, witness or observe it without judgement, then refocus your attention on your breathing. When you have repeated; feelings, sensations and states of mind allow them to flow; these are the moments to truly learn about the deeper patterns, beliefs and hopes that are rooted inside your mind, and drive your life. Do small amounts of uninterrupted time at first and build up. Choose a time that works for you, in the morning, at lunch, or perhaps before bed. In no time you will be carving out more and more time for meditation with a burning desire to learn more about this endlessly deep practice for a greatly enhanced life. Stay tuned for Part 2.