How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation
Cultivating mindfulness is the key to overcoming suffering and recognizing natural wisdom: both our own and others’. How do we go about it?
In the Buddhist tradition and in Contemplative Psychotherapy training, we nurture mindfulness through the practice of sitting meditation. There are many different kinds of meditation. For example, some are designed to help us relax; others are meant to produce altered states of consciousness.
Mindfulness meditation is unique in that it is not directed toward getting us to be different from how we already are. Instead, it helps us become aware of what is already true moment by moment. We could say that it teaches us how to be unconditionally present; that is, it helps us be present with whatever is happening, no matter what it is.
You may wonder what good that is. After all, don’t we want to suffer less? Aren’t we interested in tuning in to this natural wisdom, this brilliant sanity, that we’ve heard about? Aren’t those changes from how we already are?
Well, yes and no. On the one hand, suffering less and being more aware of our inherent wakefulness would be changes from how we experience ourselves right now, or at least most of the time. On the other hand, though, the way to uncover brilliant sanity and to alleviate suffering is by going more deeply into the present moment and into ourselves as we already are, not by trying to change what is already going on.
The sitting practice of mindfulness meditation gives us exactly this opportunity to become more present with ourselves just as we are. This, in turn, shows us glimpses of our inherent wisdom and teaches us how to stop perpetuating the unnecessary suffering that results from trying to escape the discomfort, and even pain, we inevitably experience as a consequence of simply being alive.
As we’ve seen in earlier blog postings, the man called the Buddha taught that the source of suffering is our attempt to escape from our direct experience. First, we cause ourselves suffering by trying to get away from pain and attempting to hang on to pleasure. Unfortunately, instead of quelling our suffering or perpetuating our happiness, this strategy has the opposite effect. Instead of making us happier, it causes us to suffer. Second, we cause suffering when we try to prop up a false identity usually known as ego. This, too, doesn’t work and leads instead to suffering. (See earlier blog entries for more on these ideas.)
Mindfulness, paying precise, nonjudgmental attention to the details of our experience as it arises and subsides, doesn’t reject anything. Instead of struggling to get away from experiences we find difficult, we practice being able to be with them. Equally, we bring mindfulness to pleasant experiences as well. Perhaps surprisingly, many times we have a hard time staying simply present with happiness. We turn it into something more familiar, like worrying that it won’t last or trying to keep it from fading away.
When we are mindful, we show up for our lives; we don’t miss them in being distracted or in wishing for things to be different. Instead, if something needs to be changed we are present enough to understand what needs to be done. Being mindful is not a substitute for actually participating in our lives and taking care of our own and others’ needs. In fact, the more mindful we are, the more skillful we can be in compassionate action.
So, how do we actually practice mindfulness meditation? Once again, there are many different basic techniques. If you are interested in pursuing mindfulness within a particular tradition, one of the Buddhist ones or another, you might at some point wish to connect with a meditation instructor or take a class at a meditation center. Still, I can provide one form of basic instructions here so that you can begin.
There are three basic aspects worked with in this meditation technique: body, breath and thoughts. First, we relate with the body. This includes how we set up the environment. Since we use meditation in preparing ourselves to work with others, we use an eyes-open practice. That makes what we have in front of us a factor in our practice. Very few people can dedicate a whole room to their meditation practice, so they choose a corner of a room or a spot in their home where they can set up a quiet space.
If you like, you can make a small altar of some kind and decorate it with pictures or photos and sacred objects from your own tradition. You might want to light candles and incense as reminders of impermanence, but you can also have a plain wall in front of you. As long as you are not sitting in front of something distracting, like the TV or the desk where your computer lives, it doesn’t matter too much what is in front of you.
Once you’ve picked your spot, you need to choose your seat. It’s fine to sit either on a cushion on the floor or on a chair. If you choose a cushion you can use one designed for meditation practice like a zafu or gomden or you can use a folded up blanket or some other kind of cushion or low bench. The point is to have a seat that is stable and not wiggling around.
If you choose to sit on a chair, pick one that has a flat seat that doesn’t tilt too much toward the back. If you are short, like me, you will want to put something on the floor for your feet to rest on, taking a little bit of weight. You don’t want your legs dangling uncomfortably. If you are very tall, with long legs, make sure that your hips are higher than your knees-either on a chair or on a cushion. If you don’t do that your back will start to hurt pretty quickly.
Okay, once you have your seat and your spot, go ahead and sit down. Take a posture that is upright but not rigid. The idea is to take a posture that reflects your inherent brilliant sanity, so one that is dignified but not stiff. The back is straight with the curve in the lower back that is naturally there. I was once told to imagine that my spine was a tree and to lean against it. It works for me; you can see if it works for you.
Sitting on a cushion, cross your legs comfortably in front of you. There’s no need to contort yourself into an uncomfortable posture. Just simply cross your legs as you might have done as a child. Notice again that you want your hips higher than your knees. If necessary, add more height to your seat by folding up a blanket or towel.
Hands rest on the thighs, facing down. The eyes are somewhat open and the gaze rests gently on the floor in front of you about four to six feet away. If you are closer to the wall than that, let your gaze rest on the wall wherever it lands as if you were looking that distance in front. The gaze is not tightly focused. The idea is that whatever is in front of you is what’s in front of you. Don’t stare or do anything special with your gaze; just let it rest where you’ve set it.
Let your front be open and your back be strong.
Begin by just sitting in this posture for a few minutes in this environment. If your attention wanders away, just gently bring it back to your body and the environment. The key word here is “gently.” Your mind WILL wander; that’s part of what you will notice with your mindfulness: minds wander. When you notice that yours has wandered, come back again to body and environment.
The second part of the practice is working with the breath. In this practice rest your attention lightly (yes, lightly) on the breath. Feel it as it comes into your body and as it goes out. There’s no special way to breathe in this technique. Once again, we are interested in how we already are, not how we are if we manipulate our breath. If you find that you are, in fact, controlling your breath in some way, just let it be that way. It’s a bit tricky to try to be natural on purpose, so don’t get caught up in worrying about whether your breath is natural or not. Just let it be however it is.
Again, sit for a few minutes with the posture and the environment and with your breath. In and out. In and out. Sometimes this is quantified as 25% of your attention on your breath. The idea isn’t to get it “right,” but instead to give you an idea that you’re not channeling all of your attention tightly on to your breath. The rest of your attention will naturally be on your body and the environment.
Finally, the last part of the practice is working with thoughts. As you sit practicing, you will notice that thoughts arise. Sometimes there are a great many thoughts, overlapping one over the next: memories, plans for the future, fantasies, snatches of jingles from TV commercials. There may seem to be no gaps at all in which you can catch a glimpse of your breath. That’s not uncommon, especially if you’re new to meditation. Just notice what happens.
When you notice that you have gotten so caught up in thoughts that you have forgotten that you’re sitting in the room, just gently bring yourself back to the breath. You can mentally say “thinking” to yourself as a further reminder of what just happened. This labeling is not a judgment; it is a neutral observation: “Thinking has just occurred.” I like to think of it as a kind of weather report: “Thinking has just been observed in the vicinity.”
How long should you practice? If you are new to it, try to sit for 10 to 15 minutes and gradually increase to 20 or 30 minutes. Eventually, you could extend it to 45 minutes or an hour. If you want to sit longer, you might want to learn how to do walking meditation as a break. We’ll get to that in a later posting.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, remember that mindfulness meditation is about practicing being mindful of whatever happens. It is NOT about getting ourselves to stop thinking. Repeat: it is not about getting ourselves to stop thinking. It is easy to fall into believing that that is the goal. Many people have a mistaken idea that becoming blank is the goal of meditation. Perhaps it is in some approaches, but it’s not in mindfulness meditation. So once again: if you find you are thinking (and you will), include it in what you notice. Don’t try to get rid of your thoughts. It won’t work and it’s the opposite of the spirit of the practice. We are trying to be with ourselves as we already are, not trying to change ourselves into some preconceived notion of how we ought to be instead.