An Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation
I meditate every morning, early. I sit in a half-lotus position (pictured here) on a meditation cushion called a Zafu, palms one on top of the other on my lap, facing forward, eyes closed. This is what Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a renowned Buddhist meditation teacher, calls “getting the body into position.” For beginners, sitting like this for long periods can be a bit uncomfortable, until your body gets used to it.
Even so, sitting this way is the easy part. The hard part is what comes next: getting the mind into position, keeping yourself focused on the in-and-out breath until the bell rings.
But let me take a step back for a moment, and talk about the term meditation. It’s a heavy word with a number of meanings, so it’s important for me to clarify what I mean — and what’s usually meant in Buddhist schools of thought — when thinking of meditation. In the western world, it’s often defined as “continued or extended thought; reflection; contemplation.” I frequently hear people using the term to mean “thinking hard about something.” They’ll say, “Oh, that’s a tough problem. Let me go meditate on it.”
That’s a perfectly valid use of the word, but it’s not the kind of meditation I’m talking about here. I’m using the term meditation to mean something quite different and in this case, more specific: the practice of mindfulness of breathing, a meditation practice in which one maintains attention and mindfulness on the sensations of breathing. This type of meditation, the one I practice, is called Vipassana or “Insight” meditation, which is Buddhist in origin and about 2,600 years old.
The goal of this kind of meditation is to bring an inner peace and a lasting happiness. Along the path to that goal, you get a lot of other benefits such as being more connected to your body, more aware of your feelings and emotions, and less caught by your thoughts and what’s called the “monkey mind” – a mind that won’t rest and that, over time, contributes to the kinds of anxiety and stress many of us feel each day.
As human beings, it’s normal for our minds to wander. If you want to see what I’m talking about, just try this quick experiment, even if it’s noisy or crowded or bright: Close your eyes, and focus your attention on your breathing. Don’t try to change it by breathing more or less deeply, or more or less slowly. Just pay attention to how you’re already breathing right now. Count the breaths starting with the in-breath (one) and the out-breath (two), counting up until you reach 10. Then start over. Count the breath this way 3 times (30 breaths).
How did it go? Were you able to make it all the way to 10 each time? Did your mind wander? Did you find yourself planning what you were going to do next, or wondering how much longer this exercise would take? Did you get distracted by background noises? Did you feel impatient or relaxed? Did you enjoy the experience?
It may seem hard to believe at first, but by paying attention to your breath in this way, over time, you will begin to develop an incredibly deep, rich level of understanding and insight into your own mind. It’s a fascinating process, and it has the potential to be incredibly beneficial, allowing you to more deeply connect with the jumble of processes that make up the concept of your identity. Over time, you’ll find that you’re able to touch a deeper sense of peace regardless of the circumstances that surround you. You won’t be as caught by an emotion, and you’ll be able to make a decision about how you’d like to react to a situation in a way that might have been out of reach to you before.
It does take time to see the benefits of meditation, though. Just like the development of any skill, from playing an instrument to training for a marathon, meditation is a practice that requires a daily commitment. This isn’t something you can do once a week and see real benefits from.
For many people however, the benefits can be life changing. I can say that the results of my meditation practice have affected me on more levels and more significantly than anything else I’ve undertaken in my whole life.
The concept of meditation is too big for just one post, so I’m planning on a series of articles that will break it down into smaller more manageable concepts, with a focus on integrating some simple mindfulness practices that can help improve how we approach problems in our work and life, and how we become more effective all around.
One final thing to keep in mind; you absolutely do not have to be a Buddhist to meditate in this way, and this practice won’t turn you into one, either. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu says in one of the articles I’ve linked to below:
[Meditation] is a good topic no matter what your religious background. As my teacher once said, the breath doesn’t belong to Buddhism or Christianity or anyone at all. It’s common property that anyone can meditate on.
Here are a few links that can serve as a great jumping-off point on the subject of breath meditation:
- Article: A Guided Meditation
- Article: Basic Breath Meditation Instructions
- Book: Mindfulness in Plain English
- Audio: Introduction to Meditation
I’d like to tune future posts on this subject on the aspects of meditation and mindfulness in daily life based on your feedback and requests, so please let me know what you’d like for me to write about in the comments.