You’ve probably seen meditation in the news over the past few years. It is an empirically validated practice that changes your brain structure, chemistry, and function. And it’s not about an empty mind . . . it is actually a mindfulness practice.
It is possible to find moments of peace. And it is possible to train your brain to remain calm during stressful times. You can practice this calmness and mindfulness just as you would practice basketball, chess, music, etc. in order to improve.
Learning to practice mindfulness will benefit you personally, professionally, and spiritually. You will find that the ability to remain calm and present improves with practice. This happens because you are literally adding neurons (neurogenesis) to the part of the brain responsible for joy, focus, calmness, and serenity (the left medial prefrontal cortex; it’s just to the left of the middle of your forehead).
Your brain is a thought-secreting organ–secreting thoughts is just what it does. What some call “no mind” is a process where we become so accustomed to the noise of the mind that it seems to fade into the background to the point where they are no longer distracting. Think about when you’ve not realized the air conditioner was on until it shut off. You had become accustomed to the sound and therefore seemed to not hear it. But you did hear it, you just stopped attending to it.
It’s actually about just noticing reality and breathing; not stopping thoughts
First of all, I would like to clarify an often misunderstood idea of what meditation is about. Most people believe that meditation is meant to achieve total internal silence. This is not always the case. The real purpose of meditation is simple unattached mindfulness. In other words, as you meditate, there will invariably be distractions. The idea is to notice the distractions for what they are, embrace them for what they are, then release your attachment to having to control them by returning gently to your breath. The internal silence that we all hear about is a wonderful secondary benefit that comes with time, and most often in small flashes that gradually get longer and more frequent as you practice your meditation. Notice that I wrote ‘Practice Meditation.’
Meditation does not need to be complicated. As a matter of fact, the less complicated, the better for our purposes. It is an ancient exercise of focus, or complete lack thereof (depending on your perspective). You will find examples of meditation in any spiritual system in the world. . . from Christian prayer to Buddhist or Hindu chanting or contemplation, to Zen Koans, etc. However, it doesn’t need to be a spiritual endeavor; you can use meditation as a way to slow down, as a way to focus, a way to relax, a way to charge up, etc. The common thread followed by most meditation practices is YOUR BREATH.
Have good posture. Sitting either cross-legged (full lotus is not necessary) or lying down is fine (put a pillow under your knees to reduce lower back pressure). Please consult your doctor, yoga teacher, chiropractor, physical therapist, etc about proper posture for your particular body.
Begin by noticing any areas in your body that feel tense; take a breath and imagine each area relaxing, then move on. Next, notice your breath (remember posture and relaxed shoulders), allow your stomach to relax on the inhale (this causes the diaphragm to drop, opening up the lower lobes of your lungs), and feel yourself directing your breath deep down into your belly, then release slowly; gently pull the stomach back in enough to push the diaphragm up. You may count to 3 or 4, or whatever feels comfortable and natural–there are more specifics later). Many find that breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth is particularly helpful; however, this is not a requirement–do whichever is least distracting for now (eventually moving to ‘in through the nose and out through the mouth’).
Here’s the biology of why it works: When you use your diaphragm to breathe, you are breathing into deeper lobes of the lungs, and you are also engaging the diaphragm in such a way that it sends an electronic signal to the brain that “everything is A-OK”–this is called the Relaxation Response. Breathing from your chest, however, and engaging the shoulders, chest, and neck in breathing similarly sets off a chemical Stress Response. You’ll see animals in their most relaxed states (like sleeping) breathing from their stomachs, and when threatened, from their chests (often to ‘puff up’ and look more imposing–it’s really in the biology folks–the brain associates chest breathing with defense and stress, and diaphragmatic breath with relaxation and contentment; it’s just hard-wired in there behind the stuff we’ve learned on top of it).
A little more help with breathing correctly
Watch somebody when they are sleeping (don’t be creepy). You’ll notice that they are breathing from their stomach area, not their chest area. This is the natural way to breathe. Babies and animals do it naturally.
Our bodies are in a very restorative state when we are sleeping . . . it is not a coincidence that our breathing is at its most natural when we are sleeping and restoring ourselves emotionally and physically. If you can learn proper breathing while you are awake (diaphragmatic or ‘belly’ breathing), you’ll find that there are all sorts of benefits ranging from being more relaxed to improved health.
There are many places you can go to learn this breathing practice: yoga classes, Tai Chi & Chi Gong classes, most martial arts schools, meditation centers, personal trainers, singing lessons, etc. I suggest meditation because it combines calming presence with breath (which actually drives the calm state).
So, breathe during the day the way you do when sleeping–smooth, rhythmic, and deep in your belly (I’m not saying ‘deep’ like when you take a deep breath and take in lots of air–rather I’m talking about breathing from your abdominal area). Diaphragmatic breathing causes your diaphragm to drop, which opens up the lower lobes of your lungs and allows for more oxygen intake. . . the smooth rhythmic motion of the diaphragm causes a signal to be sent to your brain that triggers the relaxation response, taking your brain waves from stressful theta waves to soothing alpha waves.
Some find it helpful to picture bellows pointing upwards where your belly expands where the hands pull the bellows apart, then contracts to ‘exhale’ the air through the nozzle (in this case, you inhale through your nose [Entrance for air in this image], and exhale through your mouth [The nozzle in this image]).
Single-pointed meditation (breath)
First, sit in a comfortable and stable position (sitting in a chair with good posture is fine, or if being on the floor is more comfortable, sit cross-legged, with proper posture). Next, pick a single focus (correct breathing[see above] is the best place to start) and continue to bring your focus fully on that single point (breath in this case). As you notice your mind beginning to wander off into grocery lists, your job, your nose itching, etc., simply notice that it is wandering, and then gently bring your focus back to your breath (and yes, you may scratch your nose – allowing the itch to continue can also be an interesting meditation). The key is to not beat yourself up if you get distracted–just return to your breath. That simple. Try this for just 1 minute and notice that it is easier said than done to stay completely focused without any distractions. This is normal. Remember, the point is not to stress yourself out by trying to get the ‘perfect’ meditation . . . rather, it is simply to retrain yourself to calmly refocus when you notice that you are distracted. The distractions’ effect will naturally decrease with continued practice.
This is basically an exercise in mindfulness of whatever task you are engaged in. One method is to verbalize (internally if in public, unless you don’t mind people staring) each piece of action you are doing. Other methods simply involve allowing things to occur without interference–the meditation being non-attachment to distractions (such as sweating, hearing cars pass by, etc). You can also bring active meditation into your life by truly focusing on your work, making a purposeful effort to do your best, or actively choosing to have a good day, even if it did not start well.
In other words, when gardening, notice gardening; when working, notice working, etc. Breathing correctly is always helpful (when breathing, notice breathing). A few examples of Active meditation:
As you walk, say each piece of walking as you do it–as you lift your foot, say “lifting, lifting,” then as you set your foot forward, say, “setting, setting,” and so forth. As you get more practice, you will be able to maintain mindfulness of both feet and even the swing of your arms–in increasing detail. Timing your breath with your pace brings out the full potential of a Walking meditation.
(Please check with your doctor before exerting yourself or sweating more than you usually do). This is as simple as taking a warm bath and allowing yourself to sweat without wiping it off. Sounds simple, huh? It is until you notice that those droplets of sweat itch and tickle as they trickle down your face, neck, back, etc. Allow the sweating and trickling to happen while you breathe correctly (see above). Become mindful of the feeling of your sweat pores opening up (usually noticed on your head first), then notice each drop that catches your attention. Resist the urge to wipe it off–allow the tickle to happen. With practice, you will be able to follow a droplet as it picks up more sweat as it travels towards the water, perhaps even noticing as it merges with the water. Being mindful of multiple droplets is fine as long as it is done with intention. This meditation will help you learn to sit with discomfort rather than getting attached to the annoyance.
Make sure to rehydrate. Again, TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR FIRST!
Just like it sounds. When you are jogging, notice your jogging (and breath, of course). You may also choose to focus on the scenery–see all of the colors, and notice the smells and sounds. If you are lifting weights (be careful and talk to your doctor first), focus on proper form and breath. You may also focus on each muscle group being worked on (you must still focus on proper form and health).
***Remember, you can always practice proper breathing, and it will always have a beneficial effect, even if only subtly.
You can also always practice proper posture.***
A little more about the idea of getting distracted so easily in the beginning: Many, many people tell themselves that they just cannot seem to meditate . . . that when they begin, they just have so much ‘noise’ that comes to the front of their minds. OK! THAT IS GOOD!! In order to get all of that ‘noise’ out, it has to pass through the doorway of our AWARENESS–in the beginning, this ‘passing through’ is experienced as a distraction. What is actually happening is that by breathing slowly and correctly (see above), you are relaxing into the present moment, which makes it easier for all of your daily ‘background noise’ to come to the forefront. This will pass. It is a process for your brain to rewire itself to calm focus (literally–your brain has ‘neuroplasticity,’ which simply means it can physically rewire itself–throughout your life). With continued practice, moving from 1 minute to 3 minutes, to 5 minutes, and so on, you will find that the ‘noise’ gets quieter and that you are much less bothered by the occasional (or frequent) distractions.
In all forms of meditation that I will discuss here, an even tempo of breathing is essential. It may become shallow with practice, but in the beginning, I stress a slow, comfortable inhale and exhale. Best to master the power of the breath before moving to other areas.
Learn more about Mindfulness-based Counseling in Austin.
Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan has completed Level-2 of the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling, and in 1998 received training by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.