The benefits of meditation
There is a very simple way to start meditation practice: expect nothing. “Expectation is the foundation of failure,” notes the Dalai Lama, meaning new practitioners who anticipate the achievement of an exalted state the first time they try to quieten their minds will often find themselves disappointed. Even devotees need to let go of expectation each time they sit down meditate. The simple reason for this is that expectation is counterproductive to the practice of meditation.
Why? Does that mean meditation is aimless? Well, aims have to do with the future and meditation is about the present. Aims have to do with desires, whereas meditation is about desirelessness. Aims have to do with wanting something you don’t have, whereas meditation is about being with things just the way they are.
A far more useful approach to the practice of meditation is to let go of expectations and allow your experience of mediation to mature in its own way and in its own timeframe. It may also be useful to understand that the exalted state is not necessarily a sign that meditation is “working”. Rather, it is the capacity to live consciously, to be present, accepting and aware in moment-to-moment living that indicates meditation is having an effect. Mindfulness meditation is about the cultivation of everyday mindfulness.
Placing expectations on your meditation practice can be futile for other reasons, too. First, achieving profoundly transcendent states tends to be the exception rather than the rule for most meditators, particularly those who are new to the practice — and “new to the practice” might include those with less than 30 years experience! The disappointment if such transcendence is not experienced tends to lead to frustration and many give up the practice when their actual experience does not measure up to unrealistic expectations. Second, the focus of attention on the future outcome rather than the moment-by-moment process prevents you from learning from your experience.
Learning how to be
It would be easy to believe meditation has something to do with thinking your way into happiness. However, it may be that since childhood you have been thinking your way out of happiness and into a complex and perplexing world of worries, fears, desires and doubts. The modern world feeds this tendency with ever more force, leading to escalating levels of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Mindfulness meditation is aimed at restoring a normal or natural state of awareness — the one we were born into. Along with that come the happiness and simplicity that were and are natural to us.
What is meditation?
There are many different forms of meditation. Indeed, every culture has its own contemplative practices and there are many variations on the theme. If one were to reflect on what is common to all meditative practices, probably the single universal element is that they are mental disciplines and all involve paying attention, or attention regulation. So meditation in its simplest and most universal definition is “a mental discipline involving attention regulation”. Meditative practices vary, however, in the object of attention and the desired outcome of the practice.
Object: Meditative practices vary widely in the “object” the attention is focused on. The object may be any observable thing or state, such as the breath, a mantra, prayer or affirmation, the bodily senses, an emotion such as compassion, a deity or a mental image. The object could also be a simple state of awareness, a feeling of stillness or simply being.
Outcome: Meditation can have many outcomes, whether we aim for them or not. In the attainment of one outcome, other benefits may also accrue. Meditation might aim at a sense of peace or stillness. It might aim at increasing happiness or reducing depression. It might aim at a change of attitude, such as more compassion or acceptance, or at undoing habitual patterns of thought. It could aim at spiritual insight, wisdom or clarity of mind, or more pragmatic things such as enhanced performance and communication, improved sleep, managing chronic pain, better health or better decision-making.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a particular form of meditation which, by and large, uses the sensory input of the body as a gateway for the mind to get back in touch with the present moment. When the mind is not focused on the present it’s likely to become distracted and perplexed about the replayed past or the imaginary future. This mental activity is sometimes referred to as “default” mental activity, though in common language it can go by other names, including daydreaming, worrying, catastrophising and ruminating. Hence, coming back into the present may be seen as a step back into reality, or “coming to our senses”.
There are many kinds of mindfulness-based practices, which may involve using the sense of touch by moving the attention through various parts of the body, as in the body scan; resting the attention with the breath; or using other senses such as taste, smell, sight or hearing. Other practices that are not formally called mindfulness also develop the same skills in attentiveness through bodily awareness. These include walking meditation, yoga and tai chi.
Mindfulness meditation is also a foundation for examining the way we think, with the potential to reduce depression and anxiety. Learning to be more aware, present, non-attached and accepting in daily life is at the heart of mindfulness-based therapies, such as Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Teasdale, Williams and Segal’s Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT). The aim of mindfulness practice is not just to have a few mindful moments during the formal practice itself — “state mindfulness” — but to use mindfulness meditation as a foundation for being more aware in day-to-day life — “trait mindfulness” or “everyday mindfulness”.
Training everyday mindfulness
If we reflect on our modern lifestyles, we will find many influences promoting inattentiveness. For example, media such as television, and loud, fast-paced music can train shorter attention spans. Workplaces are becoming faster and hyper-kinetic. Much commercial advertising encourages us to dream about the future and how happy we would be if we acquired various things rather than finding inner contentment and equanimity in the present moment. Contentment and equanimity sell less product, so marketers would see these as undesirable traits to foster. Plus, an increasing focus on information technology, online relationships and virtual experiences can take us away from having more direct communication and tactile experiences.
We can use exercise as a metaphor to describe the relationship between training mindfulness through formal mindfulness meditation practice and informally practising everyday mindfulness. Informal mindfulness practice is a bit like incidental exercise, such as taking the stairs or walking an extra bus stop or two on the way to work. It will increase fitness, but very slowly and not very far. Formal meditation practice is like going to the gym or running around the block. It’s more concentrated and intensive and will train the strength and fitness much further and more quickly.
Any activity done mindfully is really a form of meditation. For most of our lives we merely go through the motions while, consciously or unconsciously, we think about other things, but any activity can be used to train our focus and develop the capacity to remain present. If, on the other hand, we practise being distracted, we become good at it. The state of mind cultivated in most of life, including the moments that don’t seem to matter, will be the one that predominates at times when it does seem to matter more. If we explore the effects of a distracted mind on our wellbeing and capacity to function, we might be a little more motivated to practise being aware.
If mindfulness is about learning to pay attention, but in a restful way, then one of the common but unhelpful beliefs about meditation is that you should be able to “make your mind go blank”. Sometimes, the mind falls quiet, but more commonly thoughts continue to come and go whether you want them to or not. If thoughts come and go regardless of your wishes, you can train yourself to be less distracted by them and also change your attitude to them, becoming more accepting and non-judgemental of them. It’s like cultivating equanimity and non-reactivity to them, even if they are negative and unpleasant. Reacting to or suppressing unpleasant thoughts or feelings only draws more attention to them and amplifies the very experiences you are trying to free yourself from.
Practising mindfulness meditation
Attention, like light, can be in two main modes. One is focused (concentration) like the light of a torch being shone on a particular object. The other is like a naked light globe (open awareness) where the light illuminates everything without any particular preference. Both states are useful and it’s helpful to know how to switch from one to the other as you need to. Focused attention is the best starting practice and aspects of it are outlined below.
There are different views as to the how much time one should spend practising sitting meditation on a daily basis. For most people who have busy lives and are new to the practice, a good “starting dose” could be five minutes twice daily. Many people may find that starting with a regimen of longer practice is too onerous, making it difficult to get the practice established. Before breakfast and dinner are good times to practise because eating precedes a low point for the metabolism and sleep occurs more readily.
Over time, you can build up the duration of your practice to 10, then 15, 20 and even up to 30 minutes, depending on your time availability, motivation, needs and commitment. MBSR and MBCT start with longer periods of practice — say, 40 minutes a day — but this is generally in the context of dealing with major mental or physical illness or chronic pain where the motivation and needs are very high. Many ACT practitioners are more laissez-faire about the need to do any formal sitting practice.
If longer periods of meditation might be compared to full stops punctuating our day, then regular, short mindful pauses of 15 seconds to two minutes between activities might be compared to commas. The aim of the full stops and commas is not only to enjoy a breather in a busy day but also to check in and see what is taking place in your mind and body. If you are not aware of what is taking place within yourself, you cannot choose to cultivate the state of mind you wish to develop.
It’s helpful, wherever possible, to have a quiet place to practise meditation without interruption. This is not to say that mindfulness cannot be practised anywhere, any time — indeed, it’s important for the practice to be as “portable” as possible whether the environment is active and noisy or not. When sitting down to practise, it helps to have an idea of how long you will be practising for. Having a clock within easy view can help to reduce anxiety about time.
The sitting position is generally preferable as you are less likely to go to sleep in an upright position. In sitting for meditation it’s best if your back and neck are straight and balanced, requiring minimal effort or tension. Lying down can also be useful, particularly if deep physical relaxation is the main aim of the practice, or if your body is extremely tired, in pain or ill. The ease of falling sleep while lying down may not always be desirable unless it’s late at night. Having settled into the preferred position, it would be usual to let your eyes gently close. Meditation can also be practised with open eyes, in which case they would generally be cast gently down, resting on a point a metre or two in front of your body.
From here, you can move on to practise mindfulness using the sense of touch focused on your body (body scan) or breath, or you can use another sense such as hearing. You can also practise using a combination of these. Contact with any of the senses will automatically draw your attention away from the mental distractions that otherwise monopolise your attention.
The body scan
Begin by being conscious of your whole body and let it settle. Now, progressively become aware of each individual part of your body, starting with your feet and then moving to your legs, stomach, back, hands, arms, shoulders, neck and face. Take your time with each part. The object of this practice is to let your attention rest with each part, simply noticing what is happening there, what sensations are taking place, moment by moment.
Practise cultivating an attitude of impartial awareness; that is, not having to judge experiences as good or bad, right or wrong. Simply accept them as they are. There is no need to “make something happen”. For example, the mind tends to judge, criticise and become distracted, but these are simply mental experiences to observe non-judgmentally as they come and go.
Whenever your attention wanders from awareness of your body, simply notice where the attention has gone and gently bring it back to an awareness of your body. It’s not a problem that thoughts come in or your mind becomes distracted. They become a problem only if you view them as such.
Your attention can be rested with breath as it passes in and out of your body. The point of focus could be right where the air enters and leaves through your nose, or it could be where your stomach rises and falls with the breath. Again, no force is required and in mindfulness there is no need to try to regulate your breath; let your body do that for you.
Again, if distracting thoughts and feelings carry your attention away with them, just be aware of them but let them come and go by themselves, letting go of any notion that you need to “battle” with them or “get rid” of them. It’s not necessary to try to stop these thoughts coming to mind or to try to force them out. Trying to force thoughts and feelings out just feeds them with attention, makes them stronger and increases their impact. You are simply practising being less reactive to them.
Here, you are simply practising being conscious of the sounds in the environment, although the introduction of some suitable music can be helpful. As you listen, let the sounds come and go and in the process let any thoughts about the sounds — or anything else, for that matter — come and go. When your attention wanders, keep gently bringing it back to the present via your hearing.
The value of listening to sounds is that the attention is not being used to feed the usual mental rumination that runs in your mind so much of the time. It’s that internal commentary that almost constantly reinforces unconscious assumptions and biases about ourselves and the world.
After practising for the allotted time, gently come back to an awareness of your whole body and then slowly allow your eyes to open. After remaining settled for a few moments, move into the activities of the day that await you. Your mindfulness practice is not finished when you get out of the chair — it has just begun! Move back into your day-to-day life with the intention of living mindfully.
Dr Craig Hassed is a GP and senior lecturer and Deputy Head of the Monash University Department of General Practice. Among other things, he teaches mindfulness and mind-body medicine extensively in Australia and overseas to professional and community-based groups. E: firstname.lastname@example.org