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Meditation and Mindfulness Strategies
The reason meditation can create change is that the sensory information created by visualisation is taken literally as if it came from our eye sense awareness channel. Imagination is sight to the brain, and reacts accordingly. Neuroscience has shown how the brain can reorganise quickly to process information via other brain channels as individual parts of the brain are not necessarily committed to processing particular senses.
We can and routinely do, use parts of our brains for many different tasks. The brain seems to process incoming sense signals according to which operator brain processes can effectively process signals from a particular sense and in a particular circumstance.
Ultimately meditation promotes happiness in its practitioners. Meditation practice demonstrates the best method to show anyone that happiness is a state of mind, and that real happiness lies in the mind, not in external cravings, objects or environments.
In therapy we encourage our clients to adopt both a yoga and a meditative practice in their lifestyle as part of their resources in life. Once a client works through major distortions or the crisis that brings them to seek help, both yoga and meditative practices are encouraged for the person to develop their own awareness, mindfulness, and stronger sense of self, and of happiness.
Research has found the following benefits come from the adoption of a regular meditation practice:
- Better sleep as measured by duration and depth of sleep (longer REM stages).
- Increased energy levels.
- Inner calm and peace.
- Decreased anxiety and recurrent negative or fearful thoughts in mind.
- Lifting of Depressive symptoms.
- Increased concentration and focus of mind.
- Increased happiness and sense of control in life.
- Reduced muscular tensions.
- Reduced racing thoughts and obsessive thinking traits.
The Role of Mindfulness in Healing
Mindfulness is a term commonly associated with Buddhism. It is a practice that has been used for thousands of years in conjunction with meditation to transform the mind into a supple and stable state that allows a person to be and act with wisdom and skill in all situations. The practice is widespread and central to Buddhist practice and has proven effects in healing bodily and mental illness, as well as being the basis to transform the mind of the practitioner.
In Tibetan Buddhism the practice of mindfulness is defined by one tradition as “a mental factor that functions not to forget the object realised by a primary mind”. What that means is that a person develops a mind that prevents us from forgetting an important truth or object of the mind even in the face of challenges and disturbances from within us, or from the external environment, or both. This is the aim, but is not easily achieved and traditionally requires the practice of concentration through meditation to achieve results. Mindfulness functions to overcome and prevent distractions in the mind of a person so they can stay focussed on the truth or object they are concentrating on.
Here in the West not everyone has the time or the belief in Buddhist faith to practice meditation and mindfulness in a strictly integrated way, but the benefits of mindfulness practice and meditation are documented in an increasing body of knowledge and research originating in psychology. There are many rigorous clinical trials that demonstrate a quantifiable bodymind benefit from mindfulness practice. Mindfulness practice can be used to interact and affect our sense awareness processes to trigger improvements in immune system function, blood pressure, pain signal levels and chronic muscular tension. The benefits to the mental life of a practitioner are shown to increase mental clarity, reduce trauma arousal states, lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.
We do not need to be practicing Buddhists to gain some of the key benefits of Mindfulness awareness. What is primarily beneficial for anyone is to develop the ability to pay attention, or being attuned to your experience and bodily sensations – both internal and external. Within this awareness you are able to point focussed awareness on whatever object you choose. You develop a reality where background awareness of everything exists and at the same time you can place your mind towards an object of interest. Mindfulness is being present to what is, and that may be a discomfort, so mistakenly it is often thought to be a calm-state awareness. While a tranquil mind can develop from practicing mindfulness, the objective is to develop awareness with acceptance. This creates a mind possessing flexibility, where one learns to observe one’s own experience, noticing the arising impulses, thoughts, bodily sensations or triggers that arise, without needing to judge or react to what happens in that moment.
The advantages in therapy are that a client can start to directly see their own distorted patterns, their triggers and the escalating steps within a reacting mind and body. One develops a curiosity about all this, and develops compassion and acceptance of oneself and one’s own experience.
Meditation and mindfulness practice starts to put distance between “us” and our mind and body, and allows us to be present to, and accept our thoughts and bodily sensations as arising movements in the bodymind instead of a fixed objective Self that defines us. We are able to separate the person or “I” from our sensations and thoughts and so start to work with them to heal them and redirect them. We notice that our sensations are harmless, and our thoughts are just arising energy and consciousness snowflakes of the bodymind.
Mindfulness helps us to not get swept away with the chain of momentary events that run our bodymind. We get to be observers who can laugh or cry at the unfolding “movie” playing out on our own mind screen, and see that there is no need to react, resist or force ourselves to be something else. Or we can try to evade some uncomfortable arising aspect within ourself. It becomes clear that the difference is most significant and lasting when we change our inner perceptions and reactions to the “out there”, than to be constantly trying to control external events with our will, our logic, our power, resources or force of some kind.
Once we can see and abide with what we notice, we can choose to change ourself from this place of what happens next. Awareness and acceptance liberate our ability to make choices. We can choose to fully immerse ourselves within the experience that is occurring, whether mad, bad, glad or sad, painful or ecstatic. We learn to tolerate all our states of bodymind without fear and without anxiety that something “bad” will happen to us as a result. We see how these charged bodymind states do not need to overwhelm us, and how the use of guided postural changes and breathing in a charged emotional moment, can immediately affect the thoughts and sensations, including their intensity.
One learns how to be with oneself which is in itself a place of peace and acceptance. One learns that no one feeling will exist permanently or “run us”, nor will they overwhelm us. When we stop running from ourselves with distractions like addictions, distractions, business, and intense experiences, we can start to live ‘being with’ ourselves.
It takes practice to create mindfulness. But it takes an enormous toll on the bodymind to live out of integrity with oneself, by living to an image rather than to one’s true self. The projection of success, power, pretence and image consumes considerable energy trying to be somewhere or someone we are not authentically. Yet many of must invest in a constant form of image creation and constant pretence to create a false-self image to others, which in itself involves a distorted sense of mindfulness as we constantly keep our false-self image generating. Why then not invest this enormous energy in creating a truly happy, peaceful and self aware true-self?
Most of us have become “human doings” rather than “human beings” as we neurotically are always on the move, doing things to avoid our own real anxious natures. Most of us struggle just to sit and be, and become anxious and restless if faced with this choice. This is the running from ourselves that many do for an entire lifetime. When we stop and be still, it can feel uncomfortable to ‘let ourselves be’.
Being quietens the mind and more relaxes our body. We can then come home to our real self and notice our world differently. The dropping away of critical judgements and negative thinking allows curiosity to arise and a playful, positive fun mind of enquiry to develop. We then relate completely differently to ourselves, others, and the world from this new state of being.
Both Buddhist texts and writers on psychology summarise the practise of mindfulness as assisting a person to:
- be fully consciously present, that exists moment to moment
- practice moral discipline
- become aware of muscular tensions in the body
- relax muscular tensions in the body
- reset oneself to a more calm and peaceful state
- reduce anxiety states in the body and mind
- develop acceptance and compassion towards oneself
- increase clarity and awareness of both your body and mind
- learn to separate you from your thoughts
- experience life sensually rather than living in your head
- be able to contain your thoughts, feelings and emotions
- overcome overwhelming states of thoughts, feelings and emotions
- learn to tolerate unpleasant experiences
- tolerate unsettling thoughts, feelings and sensations safely
- disable false self images, social masks and neurotic states of cover-up
- become grounded to yourself and feel interconnected with others and the world
- learn that life, your body and your mind are a continuum and not fixed
- realise that everything is fluid and changing with thoughts and feelings coming and going like water running down a river
- become less attached to life and objects as they are impermanent and ever-changing anyway
- stop trying to control life and others and accept what is
Starting a Mindfulness practice can be challenging unless you have setup the right inner and external conditions, and you have realistic expectations for the beginning and deepening of your practice. People who practice meditation already, or who are Buddhists often are guided to put into place the correct environment to give oneself the best chance of starting and continuing a mindfulness or meditation practice. Non-Buddhists often do not recognise that there are some preliminary factors to be taken care of before we start any such practice that aid in being motivated and able to pursue a practice beyond a few days or weeks without giving up.
The key external factor is the presence of disturbances to your senses such as noise, excessive light, heat, cold or movement. Choose a place where there is stillness and conditions that calm and settle the mind. Do not have distracting music in headphones or on a CD or DVD playing. If doing a sitting or still meditative style practice then either sit comfortably in a postural supportive chair, or sit on the floor with a small cushion under the buttocks/sacrum area. Do not lie down on the floor or on a bed, as this may induce drowsiness.
Do not set large expectations to start with. It is advisable to practice regularly for a small amount of time rather than doing a marathon very infrequently. Do not get dispirited or punish yourself with negative critical thinking such as ‘I should meditate more or better” or ‘I should not have a wandering mind’. Be curious and free from measurement or expectation of a certain outcome or goal. If you struggle to adapt to a sitting meditation practice then try meditations that engage some body movement and body sensing.
Mindfulness is not meditation itself but is an aspect of meditation practice. In this way mindfulness can be dynamic through movement such as walking as it essentially requires paying attention to what you encounter as you walk. The focus remains on the placement of the mind on the present moment with what is happening to you or your environment. Martial arts can promote mindfulness when taught with a spiritual discipline in mind. Traditionally yoga, breathwork, tai chi and qigong request the practitioner to maintain awareness of their body in the present moment-to- moment experience.
What is common to us all is the experience of finding our mind jumping around or drifting away to some other thought, or into nothingness. If you find that you lose the experience of the present moment, and instead having followed some thought in your mind, then do not excite your mind by jerking it back to what you were trying to focus on. Simply notice that you have mentally drifted and slowly like gently blowing a feather out of your hand, gently bring your mind back onto the object or focus you had set out to focus on in this mindfulness session.
Mindfulness with Everyday Activities
Even a busy person can start to practice mindfulness. Every day brings opportunities to allow one to apply focus and concentration of the mind on some mundane object or experience and so practice mindfulness. In fact you can bring mindfulness to every moment and every activity of your day. The principles do not change. We seek to become mindful of what is directly happening in the present moment
We can be conscious and mindfully present to everything in life. For example as we awaken and arise to go about our morning routine start to do this consciously and notice your micro-movements and the contact you make with your environment. Notice the noises outside your room when you wake, then stretch your body and notice its stiffness or tensions, or rested state. Notice the physical sensations of water on your skin as you shower, the razor on your skin as you shave, the brush through your hair, the cup of tea in your mouth and as it is swallowed. Walk purposefully to the bus or drive consciously without radios, headphones or distractions.
Most people live unconsciously all their lives, never experiencing life directly. How many times have you driven a car from one place to another and then finding yourself unable to recall the journey? This is unconscious living. Mindfulness reveals the full panorama of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and objects and environments we encounter in our day and in our lives. We seek neither to attach to nor to avoid these experiences, merely to let them come into contact and awareness with us, and then let them pass without us reacting strongly in any direction. We are aware and we notice but do not get entangled. The aim is to be fully in each moment as each moment unfolds.
Mindfulness is a learnt discipline that works to expand and strengthen this innate and natural function of the mind. The degree of mindfulness in a person is directly related to the degree of awareness that a person possesses. Psychological health is in part an ability to be with what is, without creating distractions, distortions, obsessions or neurotic escapism. The art and discipline of mindfulness will increase our ability to be fully alive and present in our daily lives, and will stabilise our psychological processes. This helps to increase our resilience and promote a sense of ease and well-being.