Meditation: An Introduction through Mindful Breathing

//Meditation: a formal, scientific practice of turning your attention inward, away from external distractions, toward a concentrated focus on a single point of reference, such as the breath. Utilized to increase self-awareness, enhance presence in daily living, promote relaxation, and understand the most basic essence of peace and bliss.

// Mindfulness: the ability to maintain a moment-by-moment sense of acceptance and awareness of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and environment.  Letting the past and the future inform the present, but not control it.  It is the act of being where you are when you are there.

Spring is nearly upon us, yet it seems to be an eternity away.  In this last push out of winter, I am reminded of the importance of this time of year for self-reflection and introspection. Every season and every moment is an opportunity to observe and to gain a greater understanding of who we are.  Even so, I find at this time each year, as I ache for a season with more light and warmth, that I am called to return, to return to where I am as I am here.  

Ultimately, this gesture of presence is simply showing up for myself; it is being an active participant and partner in my own life.  Externally, we work to have functioning and healthy relationships, to understand and support our friends and partners as they move through their journey.  This understanding of the other and of the relationship comes from a tremendous amount of work, observation, and a whole lot of time. The success of the relationship is contingent upon us showing up, and being present. As this is of value, it is of equal, if not greater value to spend that same energy and time to understand and have a healthy relationship with ourselves.

Meditation and mindfulness are two ways to begin to engage, nurture, and understand who we are. In meditation, we offer ourselves a dedicated time to practice inward reflection of our thoughts, feelings, and tendencies. It is here that we train our mind to be attentive to the present by focusing on a single point, whether that be our breath, a bodily sensation, or a phrase.  As other thoughts, or feelings arise, we attend to them by acknowledging that they are there, then without judgement, return to the task at hand. Now, this acknowledgement and return is crucial; this is where we develop two essential pieces for understanding and nurturing our being. The first is that we are able to see, almost from a bystander's perspective, what emotions, thoughts, and anxieties are affecting us.  In that act, we become mindful of our tendencies and bias and can begin attending to them, in a nurturing and constructive way. The second is that in the return back to the single point of focus, we train ourselves to acknowledge but not follow our thoughts and emotions; essentially we take back control of where we go.  We no longer are subject to the rollercoaster that can be our monkey mind. As we practice this we are better able to engage in everyday life. As our thoughts stray, we stay anchored to the present and can more rationally make decisions and engage in relationships.

In mindfulness, we offer ourselves the opportunity to engage and be present with the external environment.  Instead of multi-tasking and doing a thousand things at once, we choose to be where we are when we are there. If you are eating, you are eating.  As you take each bite, allow yourself to fully savor the flavors of the food and the sensation that it builds in your mouth. Observe how the food makes you feel, notice what you are smelling, and fully attend to the experience. Mindfulness can happen in any waking moment, and because of that, it is a powerful tool to finding out who we really are.

Meditation and mindfulness are two distinct practices that are separate from each other, but are intricately intertwined.  During meditation we use the principles of mindfulness to stay present with our mind and return to our focus point.. Our ability to live mindfully in our environment is strengthened by our daily meditation practice. Engaging equally in both creates understanding of ourselves, our tendencies, and better stress management.

The practices of meditation and mindfulness should be approached with a gentle and non-judgemental spirit.  This is not another opportunity to feel bad about yourself for not being good at something.  In the beginning, and the beginning goes on for a long time, meditation and mindfulness practices are tremendously challenging and you may find that your mind is constantly taken out of the present moment and out of the practice.  This is okay, totally normal, and expected!  These wanderings just offer you another opportunity to practice returning and observing.  Each time you return, congratulate yourself, because it is a big feat indeed to not be pulled around by your mind.  

Daily meditation and mindfulness practices have great affects on your well-being and health.  Through these practices we are better able to distance ourselves from our thoughts and feelings, and instead of being overwhelmed by them or over-identifying with them, we can begin to work through them.  More and more research is coming out about how meditation and mindful living can lower anxiety and depression, improve concentration, increase resilience to stress, and manage emotions.

There are a variety of ways to begin to engage with meditation and mindfulness.  Below you will find a mindful breathing meditation that is a great place to start.  The rhythmic nature of our breath and the somatic sensation makes it an excellent point of focus for a mindful meditation. To review how the breath works, return to a previous post on the practice of pranayama.

Mindful Breathing Meditation Exercise

1. Prepare your body: Find a comfortable seat, either on a chair or on the floor. If you are sitting in a chair, allow your feet to be flat on the floor below your knees and your knees in line with your hips.  Your shoulders are stacked over your hips and your head is resting over your shoulders.  Create a long line from the back of your neck to the crown of your head.  Imagine that you are holding a soft peach under your chin. Rest your hands in a comfortable position on your thighs, palms facing down. If you are sitting on the ground cross legged, make sure that your spine is in the same alignment as if you were sitting in a chair.

2. Create a sense of observation: Take a moment to release judgemental and dualistic thinking. Release the need to be good at or achieve. Become an observer of your body, your mind, and your experience.

3. Observe your body: Become aware of how your body feels at this moment.  Note where your body is touching the floor and the chair.  Notice how your body feels in this space. Is it relaxed, tense, tired, or energized?  Again, observe and move on without judgement.

4. Find your breath: Begin to feel your breath in your body.  Observe how your breath is moving in and moving out. All you need to do is observe, you do not need to change your breath or manipulate it. Notice how your breath feels as it moves in and out of your nostrils. Become aware of where you are breathing in your body.  Is it in your chest?  Is it in your belly?

5. Note: To help to be present with your breath you can enact a technique called noting. When you breathe in, simply say to yourself, “breathing in” and when you breath out say, “breathing out.” From time to time you may find that your mind wanders off to another place.  That is okay, note that as “thinking” or “wandering” and guide yourself back to breathing in and breathing out (I will touch more on this in a later post).  Remember to congratulate yourself as you return.

6. Practice: Engage with this meditation for as long as you like.  It can be effective as a mindfulness tool and a 30-second break in your workday, or can be done as a longer meditation.  If meditating, ideally, try to stay here for at least 5 minutes.

7. Return and offer gratitude: Take note of your whole body sitting here.  Notice how your body feels at the end of this practice. Offer yourself gratitude and praise for doing this practice today.