In recent years, the term “meditation” has become a bit of a buzzword, or even a trigger, for a generation of people more eager than ever to take the edge off. Tension is high no matter which way you slice it. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, 40 million adults report their dealings with an anxiety disorder. It is no coincidence the practices of mindfulness and meditation have recently caught the interest of Americans nationwide. If you pick up the practice, you might even get a price cut off your life insurance.
The word, quite frankly, means nothing of substance in this culture. Whether you’re counting breath or counting sheep, it is entirely possible to see your earnest intentions amount to little or nothing, relative to what it could amount to.
Coloring outside the lines
Every moment, known to you or not, your mind is coloring your experience of the world and your experience of yourself. Mindfulness meditation is about recognizing this process so you can prioritize your attention on what truly matters to you.
The meditation master, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, offers the example of an average gym-goer as he seeks a parking space. As he goes to turn into the last vacant spot, another person hastily cuts in front of him and claims it. Furious, the man parks multiple blocks away and must walk to the gym, mentally destroying the character of the man who stole his spot while he walks. Once inside the gym, the man begins to walk on the treadmill. As he walks, he feels happy and grateful for himself for exercising and for making the most of the money he spends on his gym membership.
In his experience of both mental states, both emotions, the man does the same activity. He simply walks. It is the man’s mind that determines his experience of the activity. Just like all of us, the man can color his experience of the world with his thinking.
Without this high-value self-awareness, the modern human walks throughout their day anticipating an ambush. Thoughts come up from behind as quickly as possible, blowing us around into hard objects, day-in, day-out. Nearly every person you come across is having a conversation with themselves; oftentimes, it’s an unhappy one. Without mindfulness, the remedy to non-stop thinking is to find a thought you’re convinced solves the problem in your head. That is, the cure to suffering caused by thinking is… more thinking. You can rest once you find that final — less scary, more pleasant — thought. Just like in school or in the workplace, we look to logic, in hopes it will give relief to our unhappy mind as it dissects its bleak reality. Learning mindfulness can relieve you of this uphill battle with yourself.
Should we always trust our thinking mind?
During a time when I found myself losing this battle, I decided I needed to ask for help. I scheduled an appointment with a recommended life coach, hoping our conversation would help me find direction in my career, my relationships — including the one I had with myself. I mentally mulled over my life story a few times prior to my session so I could clarify my problems with as much articulation as possible. I wanted to make the most of this time and this motivation. As it so happened, so did this life coach, who stopped me mid-sentence three times so I could “ground myself.”
After I relocated, mid-Zoom call so I could place my feet “firmly flat on the ground,” this life-guru guided me through a mindfulness meditation — specifically, a body scan. What happened after I could never have expected.
We spoke of nothing I rehearsed. I felt as if I failed this examination of myself. Never before had I felt so distrusting of my own mind. The experience rattled me. I felt unqualified to manage my thoughts, my emotions, my life, unless I could consistently show up to practice mindfulness. I made a commitment within the following weeks to practice mindfulness meditation in the way I had been taught.
Flash-forward 150+ hours of meditation later, I write this article after sitting, mindfully, meditatively, for an hour without moving.
I recognize now the source of the apparent distrust and doubt I’d felt toward myself. For years without exception, I’d been coloring my world with uncertainty and fear. I’ve since dedicated my time to understanding the mechanics of the mind so I can enjoy a sense of ease, and trust, in my life. As it turns out, the two experiences go on well together, hand-in-hand.
When you’re experiencing a challenging moment, perhaps of uneasiness or anxiety, start being mindful by considering it a signal that something in your experience is worth paying attention to. From there, find out for yourself what that something is by committing to the following practice.
To build on this first step of mindfulness (what ancient yogis called “awareness”), we need to graduate to the second step: compassion. Feeling self-compassion quite simply cures the mental suffering created by anxious thinking, which soon thereafter dissipates the physiology of anxiety within the body.
To feel compassion for yourself and others during an anxious experience, bring your awareness to the sensation that tells you you’re anxious. Next, take a breath that is: a) deep, b) slow, c) steady, d) and quiet, working your way through each qualifier, one breath at a time. Make the exhale complete, and noticeably longer than the inhale. This decision marks a shift. Congratulations — you’ve just begun by making your mind your friend, not your foe.
By mentally noticing this new quality to your breath — literally feeling the difference — attention naturally moves down to your stomach and away from a racing heart. For the best effect, alternate your awareness between noticing this uneasy sensation and noticing this easy breath.
Let it be to let it go
It’s important to remember you’re not trying to change anything about your experience. Just noticing the mental intention to breathe smoothly is enough. “I intend to breathe deep, slow, steady, quiet.” Then simply notice what happens. Don’t try to move things with your mind.
For example, the way that you successfully scan your body is by noticing what’s already there; you don’t need to add anything to it. In other words, you don’t change your experience (so don’t try). Instead, you change the quality of your attention (again, by noticing what’s already there). If you try to change your experience, you’ll likely end up resisting it, which creates tension in the body. Instead, notice the intention to breathe in this new way. Then, notice how the action feels. Notice your intention to scan your legs, your stomach, your heart space. Then, notice the sensations that are already there without your help. Don’t overthink it. Other than the initial mental intention, the mind has little to offer in this domain of mindfulness meditation. Thoughts may come. Just remember your intention to breathe in this way. Let the mental instruction serve as a springboard that grants you access to inner body awareness. Feeling these sensations in the body is the embodiment of self-compassion. Feeling truly is healing, and we give ourselves leverage when we feel this smoothness of breath that helps deliver us calm. The best thing we can do is to receive it.
Tip: if you’re feeling butterflies or swirls in the stomach, a scientific study informs that with anxiety comes the fight or flight response, which increases heart rate in anticipation of movement and sends blood pumping down to the legs, for the same reason (the fight-or-flight response). The sensation of butterflies in the stomach is caused by the rush of blood moving away from your stomach and toward your legs. By using mindfulness to breathe “deep, slow, steady and quiet,” with a “long and complete exhale,” you signal the activation of your parasympathetic nervous system (no more fight or flight). If you mentally scan your body by noticing the sensations of your legs and then your stomach, all while breathing mindfully, you will feel the butterflies dissipate, as your blood naturally moves away from the legs, away from the racing heart, and back to your stomach.
Learn to start again
Start here. Begin with your breath. Then, begin again, and again. Either way, for the rest of your life, you’ll be breathing. Either way, your mind will be there, affecting your mood. Why not decide to join your forces? Why not breathe mindfully?