Interested in Mindfulness and Meditation? This Post is for You
Photo by Keegan Houser / Unsplash

Interested in Mindfulness and Meditation? This Post is for You

Healing the mind is just as important as healing the body. Incorporating strategies from different disciplines can help lead to a healthy and balanced life. If you have ever been interested in practicing mindfulness and meditation, this post is for you.

Man sitting in a garden with legs crossed and eyes closed.
Iler Method® therapist Daniel Plastino finds some afternoon shade to sit and practice. Photo by Kristin Krystal Photography.
Breathe, breathe in the air,
Cherish this moment,
Cherish this breath.
Tomorrow is a new day for everyone,
Brand new moon, brand new sun.

When you feel life’s coming down on you like a heavy weight,
When you feel this crazy society adding to the strain,
Take a stroll to the nearest water’s edge,
Remember your place
Many moons have risen and fallen, long before you came.
So which way does the wind blow?
What does your heart say?

-Xavier Rudd, Follow the Sun

In the song “Follow the Sun,” Australian artist Xavier Rudd explores the topic of mindfulness, illustrating how attention to the present moment can help us develop introspection and strength in the face of life’s challenges. I love the lyrics to the song because they depict the breath and nature as non-judgmental teachers.

Mindful consciousness involves paying attention to and becoming aware of one’s internal experience from moment to moment. Although it’s a practice rooted in Buddhism, it’s important to note that mindfulness is a universal human ability. You do not have to identify with Eastern religion to use it. If you are interested in mindfulness and meditation, there are thousands of books written that delve deeply into the subject. This blog post is designed to serve as an introduction for those interested in mindfulness and a short guide to developing a sitting meditation practice. Much of this information is drawn from the excellent book Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana, so if you enjoy it, I highly recommend picking it up.

Mindfulness. Because Life is Stressful.

Stress is a constant in life that can take on many forms. It can be overt or insidious. It can come from our external environment, such as traffic, people who frustrate us, or a difficult work project. It can also come from our thoughts, such as when we believe we are not good enough. It can lead to chronic tension and unhappiness and ultimately culminate in disease. Often, people try to avoid their problems, escaping into substances or media or creating walls, repressing their emotions to protect themselves. Unfortunately, avoidance strategies have been shown to lead to a worsening of stress over time. Remaining curious about mindfulness and meditation can help us shift towards conscious living and give us the tools to confront our suffering directly. Doing so activates a power deep within us to heal and change.

Mindfulness quote

What is Mindfulness?

Although Mindfulness can be described in words, it’s an experience that lies beyond words or symbolic thought. In normal perception, mindfulness is the pure, non-conceptual awareness that exists before you objectify, label, think about, or put it into words. Mindfulness is holding interest in the present moment without judgment, bias, or preoccupation with the past or future. Mindfulness looks impartially at your experience without referencing the self or attaching to “good” or “bad” mental states. In this way, one who is mindful watches the basic nature of passing phenomena of the internal experience. Mindfulness is only one side of the coin, however. Vipassana meditation practice helps you experience mindfulness directly.

Vipassana Meditation

If you want to learn about mindfulness and meditation, Vipassana (insight) meditation is a good place to begin. Vipassana is the original mindful living vehicle introduced by the Buddha 2,500 years ago. It’s not simply a tool for relaxation, although tranquility is a byproduct. It is specifically designed to produce prolonged awareness of the present moment and, in doing so, produce insight. This clear vision helps you tune into emotional changes more readily. Rather than running away from reality or attempting to suppress your issues, you work to see yourself exactly as you are, fully accepting your true nature. This is an observable reality. Because you have experienced this state within yourself, you know it to be true.

Macro photo of lily leaves

Vipassana requires both mindfulness and concentration to be effective.  In his book Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Gunaratana uses the analogy of sunlight and a lens to illustrate the relationship between these concepts. Sunlight alone can warm a surface, but the sunlight directed through a lens becomes powerful enough to start a fire. The lens here represents concentration, while mindfulness selects the object of focus and then looks through the lens to see what is there. Together, one can look deeply into the recesses of the mind. Now that we’ve had a crash course in mindfulness theory let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of sitting meditation.

Vipassana Practice

To stay interested in mindfulness and meditation, approach your practice with curiosity. Don’t expect anything, don’t strain, and don’t rush. Accept everything that arises, be gentle, investigate, and view all problems as challenges.

Find a secluded place where you can be alone without distractions. It is important to feel comfortable in your setting. Sit when you are looking forward to it. Setting up a schedule helps you maintain structure around the practice. Make it reasonable so it can fit in with the rest of your life. Two good times to meditate are first thing in the morning or in the evening before you get too tired from the day. As a beginning meditator, a good time frame is 10-20 minutes. Setting a timer helps. You should be able to increase the length of sitting time with practice. Wear loose-fitting clothing. Find a cushion that is at least 3 inches thick when compressed. Sitting close to the edge of the cushion will allow your legs to rest cross-legged on the floor. The most common leg position is that your right foot is tucked under the left knee and your left foot under your right knee. If crossing your knees causes pain, you can always sit in a chair. Your spine should be erect and aligned, but your body should be relaxed. Rest your hands comfortably in your lap or on your thighs. You should attempt to remain motionless for the duration of the meditation.

The most readily available and easiest object to concentrate on is your breathing.

First, close your eyes, take three deep breaths, and breathe normally through your nose. Focus your attention on the rim of your nostrils. Notice the feeling of your breath as it goes in and out. Notice the pause between breaths. Notice the feeling of a short breath; notice the feeling of a long breath. Notice the calm and peaceful feeling of your breathing.

Photo of horizon at sea with meditation quote

If your mind wanders to certain thoughts or memories, or if you become distracted by a feeling in the body, external sound or smell, for example, attend to this, acknowledge it, but then bring your attention immediately back to the breath and firmly anchor it there. Counting can be helpful if you are having difficulty concentrating on your breath. Breathe in, then out, count 1, In, out 2… and so on up until 5. You can stop counting once your breathing is refined and your mind is quiet. The goal is not to suppress thoughts but to notice everything that arises without judgment. Instead of getting caught up in normal conscious thought, pondering, and following thoughts down a chain, you should aim to be aware of thoughts with bare attention and watch them come up and pass away like a bubble. Eventually, you will enter a space of deep concentration, thoughts will slow down, and you will be able to examine the subtle internal state of the body's complex in detail. When your session ends, slowly open your eyes, moving mindfully as you transition your awareness back to the external world. Take time to reflect on your experience and see if you can notice any difference in your mental and physical state.

Dealing with problems

Physical Pain

First, try to get rid of existing pain before you sit down and meditate. If you are not used to sitting meditation, some pain will be inevitable. Common sources include clothing being too tight, poor posture, or your cushion not supporting enough. If some pain persists, try to use it as an object of your meditation by going into the pain fully and exploring the physical sensation, as well as the mental resistance around it. Ultimately, if the pain is excruciating or you can’t fix it with the above strategies, you can move your position, although you should do it mindfully. One common occurrence is that your legs may fall asleep. This results from pinched nerves rather than lack of circulation, and although it is uncomfortable, it will not cause harm. Watching this phenomenon mindfully will help you overcome it. Eventually, your body will adjust to daily meditation, and the numbness will no longer occur.

Mindfulness involves remaining interested in whatever comes up during your meditation.

It is natural to feel discouraged. Meditation is hard work that requires consistent practice to see results. Try not to set unrealistic expectations for yourself. If you feel that you aren’t succeeding or not meeting your goals, examine this feeling with an attitude of interest. Despite your perceived difficulties in your practice, as long as you commit to sitting mindfully, you cannot fail.

Nature photo with quote about understanding yourself.

To close, great teachers have often compared meditation to cultivating the land. First, you must till the soil and remove stumps and rocks that will prevent your garden from growing. Then, you sow seeds, water, and fertilize them, and eventually, you are rewarded with a successful harvest. To act impulsively or in regrettable ways is human nature. Emotions such as greed, hatred, and jealousy are compulsive in that they often take over our thought processes in continual loops. Applying mindful practice over time helps us confront and realize these maladaptive thought loops and diffuse them. After clearing and tilling the soil of the mind, we direct our energy and discipline into practice, leading to the growth of more positive aspects of the human experience, such as love, friendliness, acceptance, tolerance, patience, and wisdom. Understanding others and their perspectives naturally becomes easier because you have understood yourself. The journey towards mindful consciousness is lifelong and not easy, but the rewards are vast. If you are on the fence, get on the meditation cushion and try it out for yourself! Thank you for reading!

Reading list

Mindfulness in plain English, Bhante Gunaratana
The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle
The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, Thich Nhat Hanh
Full Catastrophe Living, John Kabat Zinn
The Untethered Soul, Michael A. Singer