What is Meditation?
Meditation refers to the activity of intentionally paying attention, to a particular object for a particular purpose. Spiritual practitioners and members of many faith traditions have developed meditation practices over countless years of human experience. There are literally thousands of ways to practice meditation. As it has been developed in diverse faith traditions, the purpose of all meditation practice is to awaken us. Meditation is intended to bring about transformation and change, through understanding, compassion, and clarity of seeing.
Why is daily meditation practice important?
Research has shown that meditation is similar to other lifestyle change activities in that it is only effective if you do it! Exercise, diet change, or meditation -- any lifestyle change requires consistent practice to gain results. In early studies of meditation, the cardiologist Herbert Benson, at Harvard, demonstrated that practicing meditation 20 minutes twice-a-day was sufficient to bring about significant reductions in blood pressure in many people. The exact number of minutes of daily practice to bring benefits for large populations is not well understood, and, in truth, it probably varies based on a number of considerations. Generally, however, we can say that regular, daily meditation practice of at least 30 minutes or more is very likely to bring benefits to the person who does it.
How to bring more mindfulness into your life.
Have you ever started eating an ice cream cone, taken a lick or two, then noticed all you had was a sticky napkin in your hand? Or been going somewhere and arrived at your destination only to realize you haven't noticed anything or anyone you met along the way? Of course you have, we all have! These are common examples of "mindlessness," or as some people put it, "going on automatic pilot."
We all fall into habits of mind and body, of attention and inattention, which result in our not being present for our own lives. The consequences of this inattention can be quite costly. They can result in our missing some really good things, and also in our ignoring really important information and messages about our life, our relationships, and even our own health.
Our reactions to the stressful events of our lives can become so habituated that they occur essentially out of our awareness, until, because of physical or emotional or psychological dysfunction, we cannot ignore them any longer. These reactions can include tensing the body, experiencing painful emotional states, even panic and depression, and being prisoners of habits of thinking and self-talk including obsessional list making, and intense, even toxic self-criticism.
An important antidote to this tendency to "tune-out," to go on "automatic pilot," is to practice mindfulness. To practice mindfulness means to pay more careful attention in a particular way. We all have the quality of mindfulness in us. It is the quality of bare awareness that knows what is here in the present moment. Mindfulness knows what is going on outside, and also, inside our own skin. However we experience life, through whichever sense gate life comes to us - eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, even the mind itself - mindfulness is capable of knowing that seeing, or hearing, or smelling, or tasting, or feeling, or even thinking - is happening in this, the present moment.
So, we can practice mindfulness and become more present. All we have to do is to establish attention in the present moment, and to allow ourselves to be with what is here. To rest in the awareness of what is here. To pay attention without trying to change anything. To allow ourselves to become more deeply and completely aware of what it is we are sensing! And to be with what it is we are experiencing. To rest in this quality of being, of being aware, in each moment as our life unfolds.
How Do I Practice Mindfulness?
Make the effort! Whenever you think of it in your day or night, remember that you can be more mindful. See for yourself what it might be like to pay more careful attention and to allow yourself to experience directly what is here, especially including what is here in your own body, heart, and mind. When starting a new activity (beginning a meeting with 2 minutes of silence and attention on the breath, or taking a few mindful breaths before entering a patient's room, or a focus on the breath before starting your exercise routine, are some possibilities). In the middle of an on-going situation or process (bringing attention to the breath, or to the sensations arising while washing dishes, eating a meal, walking the dog, doing a job, etc.) Or when you are just waiting, in between the things on the schedule (gently bringing attention to the breath or the sounds or the sensations or the sights or even the thoughts while at a red light, in a line at the bus stop or grocery, or waiting for someone else to arrive).
In these situations, use the sensation of the breath as the "anchor" for awareness in the present moment. Establish mindfulness on the narrow focus of just the breath sensation. Allow yourself to feel the breath as it goes in, and goes out and the pause between in and out. Do not try to control the breath. Simply let it come and go. Bring as much attention, as completely and continuously as you can to the direct sensation of the breath.