What is meditation? What is mindfulness?

“The mind becomes your tool, and you are no longer the tool of your mind.” – Serge Augier

 

This is not a guide to meditation, although some parts of it could be used as one. It is my personal thoughts, history and some explanations of meditative practice.

Meditation could be thought to be mind training: Concentration training. Usually the mind wants to exist anywhere but the present. It tries to draw us into thinking about what has happened, what could happen, and what we wish might happen. We believe we are in control, but we struggle to sit quietly without reaching into our pockets or purses for our phones. We get bored. We feel entitled to be entertained, rather than engaged. We do not have mind control.

There are numerous and varied meditative practices from all over the world, from almost all religions and spiritual practices. Mindfulness currently is undergoing a ‘fad’ as a way of treating stress, pain, mental health, addiction… etc. It is heavily research and there is plenty of good evidence in support of it. There are also many fantastic practices that have be adapted and ‘made modern’ (such as Wim Hof and his developments from Tibetan ‘Tummo’ (Inner Fire)Meditation).

While many traditions have developed from Buddhist meditation practices and eastern philosophy, there are plenty of ‘western’ practices that reflect similar ideas and concepts. For example the ancient Greek practice of stoicism in undergoing a resurgence and helping many people manage their thoughts, feeling and emotions better.

Some forms of meditation heavily use visualisation of images or deities. Other forms rely of physical sensation of the body. Some are about controlling the mind by making it act passively and ‘watch’ thoughts, some forms are active and impose thoughts on the mind, holding them in place.

Meditation means many things, to different people. But at it’s essence, it is about training the mind. Can it help you with developing empathy? Being more kind? Being happy? Managing stress? Controlling emotional reactions? Managing pain? Yes, but it is not a magic bullet. It might be difficult. You might get bored. It does require practice and disciple, just like developing any other skill.

 

Benefits & problems

There are thousands studies on mindfulness alone, I do not have the time nor inclination to write a review on them. There is good scientific evidence at mindfulness’ effectiveness, despite the difficulties in the measurements, blinding, control and placeboes. Some (obviously cherry picked) reviews and data that suggests that mindfulness can Improve:

  • Adaptive psychological functioning.
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Subjective well-being
  • Self-regulation of behaviour
  • Working memory
  • Reduced psychological symptoms
  • Reduced emotional reactivity
  • Focus & attention
  • Relationship satisfaction
  • Fear modulation
  • Immune functioning
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Counselling skills
  • Mental, emotional, social and physical health and wellbeing of young people
  • Cognitive, performance skills and executive function.
  • Sleep
  • Improve the symptoms of physical conditions such as psoriasis and fibromyalgia.

Mindfulness can also Reduce:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Rumination & worrying
  • Pain, high blood pressure
  • Insomnia

Now, I know reading a list of things that mindfulness can help with makes it seem like the best things that could ever happen. But lets be put it in context for a moment: Until very recently historically, we had large amounts of time when there was nothing to do except sit and think. There were plenty of manual labour/menial tasks that could be done, unconsciously, with ‘Samu’ (physical work done with mindfulness). There were fewer distractions and we couldn’t be entertained whenever we wanted. Now it is impossible sit somewhere and not do anything without suppressing the urge to listen to music, go online, watch tv, stare at your phone or pick up a book or magazine. The contemplation that used to be a normal, natural part of human life, is now largely missing. We reject the opportunity to contemplate because feel bored.

For many people I work with, meditation is a way to buffer themselves from the effects of modern life. Obviously, for many other people meditation is more spiritual or religious in nature. Just remember that it is not a ‘life hack’ to become more efficient or stress-proof. It is a practice that can reduce your ego and sense of self importance; allowing you to see you have been following a path that doesn’t match your values. It can be humbling, life changing, and lead to a deeper journey than expected.

The only problems I have personally heard about from people have been from rejections of the ‘spiritual’ or ‘wishy-washy’ aspects of meditation clashing with their own beliefs and values; Difficulty practicing and self-discipline problems; and frustration at not seeing benefits immediately.

There is a potential risk with meditation and mindfulness, which is referred to as ‘The dark night of the soul’ (there is a good Atlantic article about it here). I have never experienced it myself, but know of people who have suffered from this sort of existential, psychological and emotional disturbances following developing a practice. It is very rare, and often is the result of ‘too much too soon’, sometimes it emerges when even a gradual approach is taken. Shinzen Young describes it as the Shadow of Mindfulness, and has developed three strategies to attempt to transform this state:

1) Accentuate the good parts of your ‘Dark Night’, even though they ‘may seem very subtle relative to the bad parts’. Looking for sensations of positive energy, or feelings. Tranquility, despite darkness.

2) Eliminate the negative parts by deconstructing them through observation. (Dividing negative reaction into parts such as ‘mental image, mental talk, and emotional body sensation) (Divide and conquer strategy).

3) Affirm positive emotions and behaviours. With patience, reconstruct a ‘new habitual self’ based on loving kindness and related practices.

 

A few useful concepts

Shoshin:

Shoshin is a Japanese term that is translated as ‘Beginners mind’. In Shunryu Suzuki’s ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ he states that “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” This is an essential component with learning new practices, or even practicing existing ones. Practicing Shoshin has been fundamental to my learning, in all things. It has helped with my understanding and practice of meditation and communication. It allows me to listen better and reflect more honestly, rather than just waiting to speak or deliver my opinion.

Fudoshin & Equanimity:

Fudoshin is a Japanese term that means ‘immovable mind’ or ‘immovable heart’. It is similar to equanimity, but usually used to refer to an advanced practitioner of martial arts.

Equanimity is derived from the latin ‘aequus’ meaning level or equal and ‘animus’ meaning meaning soul or mind. It describes a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind.

The nature of practice:

We do not enjoy being bad at things. Unfortunately, the only way we really get good at things, is practice. Practicing affects our physiology and body, as well as our mind. If we want to cultivate qualities or abilities – we must learn to practice.

Like nature, we must be tenacious and persistent. If we set concrete goals, and fail to meet them it causes frustration. The only goal we should have, is the goal of practice.

When it comes to the mind – I recommend a minimum of one breath a day. One mindful breath a day as a minimum. I recommend this because in learning to practice, we learn to ‘simmer’. Simmering a big pot of water required regular heat. Heating it very quickly for a short period, and then not at all, isn’t allowing the water to simmer. Simmering occurs when heat is applied at a lower level, all the time. This is daily practice.

Using the body:

The mind wants to exist anywhere but the present moment. The body only exists in the present. In order to ‘ground’ your mind and stop it’s wandering – the body is a useful tool.

We can listen to the body’s sensations, and they can immediately draw us away from our wandering mind, and we can re-tune our attention to ourselves.

It is an easy, always present anchor to use at any moment. Connect to the body, calm the mind.

Language of the Body:

The language of the cell is force, the language of the body is sensation. What this means is that when working with our bodies, as you do in certain type of meditation, don’t intellectualise everything. This lesson is true for physical wellbeing as well. Take time to listen and understand the language your body is communicating to you with. Pain isn’t always ‘bad’, ‘nice’ isn’t always ‘good’.

Our bodies have a history, and we use our own narrative to explain our bodies: For example someone might say “I hurt my back three years ago and it hurts when I lean backwards!” But  if that person were to slowly and carefully move their back and explore the feelings as there are at this moment (and not how they think it will be) – they might find a sense of tension, or fear, or anxiety where there was ‘pain’ before. The process is a little more complicated than this, but the underlying concept is useful: It’s being mindful, and not listening to your internal narrative or story. When I find myself or my clients trapping in our own narratives I call it the ‘story-trap’, and it requires you to put aside your ego to exit your story, and experience how things are in the moment.

 

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is just one form of meditation. There are many teacher and practitioners who might disagree with my perspectives. It’s origin is in Buddhist Vipassana meditation (often translated as ‘insight’ meditation) and it’s popularity is largely attributed John Kabat-Zinn’s work with MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Relief).

Mindfulness, as a practice, can be described in a simple manner:

“Deliberate attention to the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.”

My personal definition would be something like:

“Intentional, present attention and equanimity”

Many people use the idea of setting a correct Intention, Attitude & Attention. I think this is valuable as it enables you to find words that ring true to you.

 

IIA

Commonly used terms to use for Intention, Attention & Attitude:

Intention

Attitude

Attention

On purpose

Equanimity Refocussing on the here and now

Slowing Down

Non-judgement Noticing and naming
Remembering Curiosity

Letting go, creating space

Knowing Why

Kindness Checking in

Deliberately

Willingness

In a particular way

 

Practicing mindfulness

I use two simple distinction of practice: Formal & Informal.

Formal mindfulness is a period of your day dedicated to your meditative practice. Informal practices are about applying mindfulness to your daily life and activities.

 

Descriptions of some mindful practices

 

Formal:

Mindfulness of Breathing

Body Scan

Loving Kindness

The practice of Noting*

*Noting is associated with Mahasi Sayadaw, the famous monk and Vipassana teacher. 

 

Informal:

Samu

Samu is the Japanese Zen term for physical work done with mindfulness. This informal meditation can take place in the activities of daily life (ADL). Typically manual labour or mundane physical tasks. Samu can be quite practical, as a practice, because it means you are practicing mindfulness and ‘getting things done’. Typically, in monasteries tasks such as gardening, cleaning, cooking, chopping wood are performed as Samu.

What this entails is performing tasks, with full awareness and attention to the present action. This means tasks are often performed slowly.

Stretching

It is very easy to include informal mindfulness when stretching or other relatively simple exercises. Just being aware of your body, experiencing sensations and not holding onto those sensations.

Other

A very similar kind of practice can be done when doing things like brushing teeth, eating, walking.

Some personal experiences of teaching this involves teaching people to focus on moving as quietly, and softly as possible. With as much grace as they can muster.

 

Teaching & Practicing

My teaching is designed to be the most useful, and least ambiguous practices I have found. They are a crucial part of understanding physical relaxation and controlling the mind.

 

Forms of meditation or mindfulness I teach:

‘Modern’ Mindfulness practices

– Body Scan

– Breathing

 

The 4 postures meditation

– Lying, Sitting, Standing, Walking

 

Tension & Relaxation

Visual Focus Meditation

 

Some sources & references used

Black, D.S. and Slavich, G.M. 2016. Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1373(1),pp.13–24.

Bostic, J.Q., Nevarez, M.D., Potter, M.P., Prince, J.B., Benningfield, M.M. and Aguirre, B.A. 2015. Being present at school: implementing mindfulness in schools. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 24(2),pp.245–259.

Davis, D. and Hayes, J. 2011. What Are the Benefits of Mindfulness? A Practice Review of Psychotherapy-Related Research. Psychotherapy. Vol. 48,(No. 2,),pp.198–208.

Grecucci, A., Pappaianni, E., Siugzdaite, R., Theuninck, A. and Job, R. 2015. Mindful Emotion Regulation: Exploring the Neurocognitive Mechanisms behind Mindfulness. BioMed Research International. 2015,p.670724.

Hidaka, B.H. 2012. Depression as a disease of modernity: explanations for increasing prevalence. Journal of Affective Disorders. 140(3),pp.205–214.

Keng, S.-L., Smoski, M.J. and Robins, C.J. 2011. Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: a review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review. 31(6),pp.1041–1056.

Khoury, B., Sharma, M., Rush, S.E. and Fournier, C. 2015. Mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthy individuals: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 78(6),pp.519–528.

Martires, J. and Zeidler, M. 2015. The value of mindfulness meditation in the treatment of insomnia. Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine. 21(6),pp.547–552.

Olson, K.L. and Emery, C.F. 2015. Mindfulness and weight loss: a systematic review. Psychosomatic Medicine. 77(1),pp.59–67.

Simkin, D.R. and Black, N.B. 2014. Meditation and mindfulness in clinical practice. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 23(3),pp.487–534.

Weare, K. 2012. Evidence for the Impact of Mindfulness on Children and Young People.

Young, S. 2013. What is Mindfulness?