Mindfulness Meditation Instruction, Part 1

"Peace comes into the heart like the morning sun spreading across the ocean. It is the ocean of compassion."
--Stephen Levine

Mindulness meditation is not the only kind of meditation that is beneficial.  I present instructions for it here because it is extraordinarily helpful for many people, regardless of their spiritual orientation or lack thereof.  I often teach it to clients, because it is so widely useful.  Sometimes I simply refer to it as a relaxation exercise, and you are free to do the same if you wish.

To begin, you can either let your eyes close or keep them open, whichever way is less distracting to you.  Sit up relatively straight in order to keep alert and to allow your energy to flow easily.  You may sit cross-legged if you like, but you may also sit in a chair.

You may meditate standing up if you are having difficulty staying awake.  Or you may lie down if you can remain awake and alert.  You may also use it as a means to actually help you sleep if you like, when sleep is your goal.

Now bring your attention to your breathing.  By that I mean to the physical sensation of air moving in and out of your body.  Feel your body rising and falling with the breath---in and out, in and out.

Do not engage the mind by trying to follow the breath intellectually.  Be sure the focus of your attention is on the physical feeling of the air movement in your body.

Your mind will naturally become active on its own.  You will discover that it has much to say, much of which is completely trivial, such as ‘I need to cut my fingernails,” or I think we’re out of cat food.”

The rational mind is anxious and believes it has to generate a constant stream of thought in order to keep you safe.  If you are like most people, you will notice that it is completely nondiscriminatory about how profound or inane those thoughts are.

Thank the mind for its efforts to keep you safe and happy.  It has been at this job for eons and may actually be tired.  Let it know it doesn’t have to be active at the moment and can rest.

However, the mind will not likely rest completely, even with permission to do so.  So, as you are focusing on your breath and feeling the air going in and out of your body, some thoughts will usually still arise.

When you become aware that you are thinking instead of being conscious of your breathing, simply return your awareness to the breath.  Do this each time you notice that you are thinking. 

Do not be discouraged by the activity of the mind.  It is only doing what it perceives to be its job.  In order to help you focus on the breath, if you like you may silently say to yourself ‘I am breathing in’ on the in-breath and ‘I am breathing out’ on the out-breath.

Most people cannot maintain focus on the breath for longer than a few seconds at first, so take heart!  Even those few seconds are extremely valuable, and continually coming back to the breath again and again eventually trains the mind to relax.

You may also begin to notice certain physical sensations, such as an ache or a pain or an itch somewhere in your body.  When this happens, intentionally let your attention leave your breath for the moment and go to the sensation.  Let the sensation become the new focus of attention for the moment. 

Now this next part goes against our grain a little bit.  Allow the sensation to be there without doing anything to stop it.  If it’s an ache in your back, you may shift your posture slightly to see if that will help, because poor posture will cause discomfort.

Let your attention go fully into the discomfort without mentally resisting it.  This may be difficult at first.  We normally try to change whatever does not feel totally good.  The idea of not resisting pain may seem strange and counter-intuitive.

But, have you noticed that mentally fighting physical pain only makes it worse?  Resistance causes tension.  If you have a headache and mentally resist it, your muscles will tense up, which will exacerbate the headache.

So tell your discomfort, ‘It’s all right for you to be here.’  That doesn’t make you a masochist.  You can prefer to be completely pain-free—who wouldn’t?  But if there’s nothing you can do about it, then accepting it makes sense.

When you accept the discomfort whole-heartedly, your muscles will usually relax around that area.  The pain may then actually decrease some, or it may not.  In either case, since you are no longer mentally fighting it, it will seem less bothersome.

This does not mean you should not take or do something to ease the situation, if there is something that will do that.  If you have migraines or chronic pain of some kind and have medication for it, by all means take it.  Interestingly, some people are able to decrease the amount of medication when they practice mindfulness meditation regularly.

So, the instruction is to stay with the discomfort for as long as it predominates in your attention.  When it recedes into the background, then return to the default position, which is the breath.

Dealing with an itch is quite interesting.  We normally scratch an itch automatically.  Now, however, let your attention go to the itch and experiment with not scratching.

Again, tell yourself that it’s all right for the itch to be there.  Then just stay with it and see what happens.  The itch becomes the object of your meditation at that point.  Usually, an unscratched itch will crescendo, reach a peak, then begin to subside. 

Staying with physical discomfort and allowing it to be there is very valuable.  It trains the mind to be less reactive.  It also has an application with regard to uncomfortable emotions, which I will address in another article.

Training yourself to focus on the physical sensation of the breath has physiological benefits as well.  It slows the brain waves and allows the nervous system to move from the sympathetic mode (fight/flight/or freeze) to the parasympathetic mode (relaxation and well-being).

Healing takes place when the body is in the relaxed mode. In this state, the blood, oxygen, and subtle energies flow more freely, which facilitates healing.  People are generally in at least a low-level fight/flight/or freeze state most of the time.  Mindfulness meditation (and some other types of meditation as well) interrupts that pattern.

There are two forms of mindfulness meditation.  The first is formal and the second is informal.  Formal meditation is when you sit for a certain length of time with the specific intention to spend that time with yourself in meditation.

Informal meditation is something you can do all day long, and it is also extremely beneficial.  To do this form, you make it your intention to focus on the feeling of your breath at all times.  You won’t remember all the time, but let it be your intention.  You do it with your eyes open.

This means while you are driving your car, as you pay attention to your driving, you also have some of your attention on your breath.  While you are paying bills, reading the newspaper, or surfing the internet, part of your attention is on the breath.

The advantage to meditation, both formal and informal, besides promoting a relaxed nervous system (which is very significant) is that it helps you to focus and to stay in the present moment. It also helps your energy to stay in your body and assists you in becoming more grounded and stable.

If you meditate fairly regularly for awhile, you may find that when the next crisis comes up in your life or something upsetting happens, you can access a calm, relaxed state much more easily than before you were a regular meditator.

However, you do not have to do this practice.  Often people do it for awhile, then stop or do it less regularly, and then feel guilty.  Guilt is harmful and totally optional, so do not indulge in it.

Meditation is not a requirement!  Do it if you find it helpful.  Eventually you may find that you want to do it and miss it if you have a day when you cannot.

Some find it helpful to listen to an audio of someone leading a formal meditation.  There are a number of such recordings available.