Mindfulness meditation is the wonderfully effective relaxation technique that along with yoga, tantric meditation, mantra or transcendental meditation, has become an increasingly popular forms of stress management. The therapeutic value of meditation in producing positive effects on psychological well-being and ameliorating symptoms of a number of disorders has become widely studied and accepted. But, what is it and how does it work? Here is a primer for the absolute beginner, to start mindfulness relaxation today!
What Is It? The Way of Breath Awareness
Vipassanā (Pāli) or vipaśyanā (विपश्यना in the original Sanskrit) in the Buddhist tradition means insight into the true nature of reality. Vipassana practice, or insight meditation, makes use of breath to focus attention and to let go of quasi-obsessive analytical thinking, which can be very stressful. Breath is simply used to increase concentration. The focus on breath is a powerful way to redirect attention, because it is always readily available, is directly connected to the stress reaction, and is naturally rhythmic and repetitive. Mindfully redirecting attention to the breath when we feel particularly stressed reduces reactivity and provides a positive physiological feedback system that balances the responses of the nervous system.
How Does It Work? The Benefits of Open Awareness
Open awareness is the core objective of mindfulness meditation. The follo0wing are simple instructions to focus awareness on the breath and is the essence of the mindfulness technique (from Stress Management: A Comprehensive Guide to Wellness by E. A. Charlesworth—read the book review).
- Find a quiet place and time. If you prefer, set a timer for 20 to 40 minutes. Become comfortable in your chair, sitting with a relaxed but straight, erect posture that is balanced but not straining. Allow your hands to rest comfortably in your lap. Loosen any tight clothing that will restrict your stomach. Gently close your eyes.
- Simply allow your body to become still. Allow your shoulders, chest, and stomach to relax. Focus your attention on the feeling of your breathing. Begin by taking two or three deeper breaths from your diaphragm, letting the air flow all the way into your stomach, without any push or strain, and then flow gently back out again. Repeat these two or three deep breaths, noticing an increased sense of calm and relaxation as you breath in the clean, fresh air and breath out any sense of tension or stress.
- Now let your breathing find its own natural, comfortable rhythm and depth. Focus your attention on the feeling of your breath as it comes in at the tip of your nose, moves through the back of your throat, into your lower diaphragm, and back out again, letting your stomach rise and fall naturally with each breath.
- Allow your attention to stay focused on your breath and away from the noise, the thoughts, the feelings, the concerns that may usually fill your mind.
- As you continue, you will notice that the mind will become caught up in thoughts and feelings. It may become attached to noises or bodily sensations. You may find yourself remembering something from your past or thinking about the future. This is to be expected. This is the nature of the mind. If the thought or experience is particularly powerful, without self-judgment, simply observe the process of the mind. You might note to yourself the nature of the thought or experience: “worry,” “planning,” “pain,” “sound.” Then gently return your attention to the breath.
- And again, as you notice your mind wandering off, do not be critical of yourself. Understand that this is the nature of the mind—to become attached to daily concerns, to become attached to feelings, memories. If you find your mind becoming preoccupied with a thought, simply notice it, rather than pursuing it at this moment. Understand, without judging, that it is the habit of your mind to pursue the thought. When you notice this happening, simply return your attention to your breathing. See the thought as simply a thought, an activity that your mind is engaging in.
- When you are ready, gently bring your attention back just to the breath. Now bring your attention back into the space of your body and into the space of the room. Move around gently in the space of the chair. When you are ready, open your eyes and gently stretch out.
How Long and How Often? Practice Makes Perfect
Mindfulness meditation, like all things worth doing, requires a certain amount of effort and the setting aside of a certain amount of time. Ideally, 20 to 40 minutes once or twice per day, for at least two months. Daily practice produces the best results in training the mind to shift into a mindful state. Shorter periods of time of 5–10 minutes are very helpful in specific situations, when a quick relaxation is needed. Only practicing mindfulness meditation situationally, however, will work when you have learned the technique well. It may not be as effective in the beginning, when it may take more than 5-10 minutes to relax, particularly in moments of high anxiety or stress.