Meditation is an ideal practice one can apply in stress management, and has a host of other perks. Developing a regular meditation practice can reduce depression and anxiety levels, improve sleep functioning, and promote an overall sense of well-being and relaxation. Meditation improves the way we relate to ourselves, and others, as we can learn to experience and accept difficult thoughts and emotions that are inevitable functions of living.
Ronald Siegal, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, recently came to Phoenix to deliver a weekend mindfulness training, and he summed up mindfulness in this way: mindfulness connotes awareness, attention and remembering. Mindfulness includes non-judgment (of our feelings, thoughts or experiences), as well as acceptance.
There are many forms of meditation out there, and some traditions include visualization practices, among other things, but mindfulness meditation is different. When we practice mindfulness, we practice sitting with what arises in the present moment in our inner experience. We’re not changing anything, or pushing out any unwanted thoughts; we’re simply tuning into our immediate experience, which happens to include our thought stream, emotions and everything else that’s happening. It’s not a ‘touchy-feely’ as one might think, and you don’t have to be a Buddhist monk to meditate. Anyone can do it, and plenty of guys find this really helpful in reducing their stress.
The old adage, “what we resist, persists”, is applicable to how we sometimes ineffectively deal with our problems. When we sit in meditation, we can greatly reduce the experience of suffering by letting that ‘which persists’ just be as it is. In mindfulness meditation, we learn to sit with what “is”, or the thoughts, feelings and sensations that unfold from moment-to-moment in our inner experience.
This is different from how most of us live our lives: we often are hurried, mindless, and sometimes reactive to others. We sometimes live on auto-pilot, and forget that our behaviors and actions are the products of thoughts and feelings that drive them.
Here’s what to do when starting a mindfulness meditation practice:
- Start simply: try sitting for five minutes at a time in a quiet spot, either in your office or outside
- Get comfortable, in a chair or on a cushion.
- Close your eyes, and start to settle into your body.
- Start with bringing your attention to your breath: slowly inhale, and let go of your breath on the exhale
- Bring attention to other parts of your body, including your shoulders, neck, heart, stomach. Notice the tiny sensations each of these parts of your body produces.
- When your mind pulls you away from the breath, let it. The mind will do this many times in the course of one sitting, so part of meditation is to allowing it to do that, and to step back out of the thought stream to observe it. We’re not changing, avoiding, or pushing away any thoughts, good or bad.
- Use your breath as your anchor. Keep coming back to your breath each time you become aware of a thought.
- Try this for five minutes for the first couple of days, and keep going if you can. Don’t make this such a big deal: making it a chore will make you not want to do it.
And here’s what not to do:
- Think of pretty images, like sunsets or unicorns, that are more visualizations.
- Relax the need to push away uncomfortable thoughts or difficult feelings; be aware of how you push those away in your experience
- Try to “do” anything. This isn’t a test or a race, and when you’re meditating, you’re not “doing it wrong”.
- Avoid distracting sounds and environments.
- Fall asleep
- Get yourself so uncomfortable that meditating becomes too difficult.
- Think you’re doing it “wrong”. You’re not. You’re just sitting with whatever comes up.
Meditation is liking riding a bike. It takes a little time and practice to get started, and when you do, you’ll notice the benefits quickly. You’ll develop more peace of mind, overall well-being and happiness from your mindfulness meditation practice.