Meditation is a very old practice that has been studied scientifically in detail the last few years. With advancement in brain scanning technology we can now see what happens in the brain with this basic mental practice. We now know that this simple practice actually rewires connections in the brain. There is down regulation in parts of the brain associated with stress and threats and up regulation in the area of the brain associated with feelings of well-being. The more one practices the stronger these changes.
Meditation practice does not aim to change your thoughts. The practice is to change how we relate to our thoughts. Your mind is always thinking thoughts, just like your lungs are always breathing breaths. This activity is a constant mix of plans, memories, feelings, impressions, intentions, deep thoughts, and trivial thoughts. This mental activity is constant much like a stream of water and is, therefore, sometimes referred to as the thought stream.
However, there is one part of this stream that is different from all the rest. That is awareness. Our minds have the ability to think stuff and at the same time to be aware that we are thinking stuff. Awareness apart from all the rest. The mind has one part that thinks stuff and another that observes what it is thinking.
Awareness has two important qualities. To some extent it is under our voluntary control. Much like a flashlight we can point awareness where ever we like. The beam of the light can be very narrow like a laser or vary diffuse like a lamp. A second quality of awareness is that it can also be involuntarily captured. If there is a sudden noise outside you will instantly forget what you are doing and focus on the unexpected event. If something triggers a memory with a strong emotion attached to it you might for a moment have your awareness captured by this internal event. Having more voluntary control over awareness seems to be associated with a feeling of well-being. Having less control over awareness seems to be associated with more stress and emotional reactivity.
How do we develop more control over awareness? That is where meditation practice comes in. It is like exercising a muscle. You do repetitions of an exercise and the muscle gets stronger over time. In this case it is a mental muscle.
To begin practice we first sit comfortably with our back straight. We noted that awareness is separate and apart from the other mental activity. We are going to practice controlling it by focusing our awareness on our breath. Now we have mental phenomenon on the one hand and breath on the other hand. We first anchor our awareness on our breath by noting whether we are on the inhalation or the exhalation. We mentally whisper the word “IN” on the inhalation and “OUT” on the exhalation. Try to stretch out whisper to cover the whole breath cycle. IN——-OUT——— (pause) Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
Our awareness is now focusing on the breath. Breath is what we are actually experiencing in the present moment. In our head is the stream of mental activity wandering in the past and future thinking all sorts of random things. However, our awareness is separate and apart from all the rest. An added benefit is that we get practice grounding ourselves in the here and now or what is sometimes called the “one-point.” There is an old saying that says if your well-being has left you it is hiding from you in the present moment and that is where you should go look for it.
You may notice that very quickly something in your mind will start tugging at your awareness trying to pull it into the thought stream. Because of this we will add one more element. After each breath cycle there is a slight pause after exhaling before the next inhalation. In this space we want to put the count. We will count each breath cycle. This will serve as a sort of an automatic alert that your awareness has been captured. When you lose the count it means that your awareness started following the thought stream. If you lose the count just gently re-direct your awareness back to your breath and reset to 1. Don’t beat yourself up if you often drift. This is natural at first. Gradually, you will find you can go longer and longer without losing the count.
Try to start with about 10-15 minutes at first. If you can only do 5 minutes without feeling uncomfortable then just do 5 minutes at first. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Be serious, but gentle.
There are a number of good resources on the internet that provide instructions for basic mindfulness-based meditation practice. There are also some good apps for meditation practice. This range from basic timers to “guided meditation.” Some people prefer a voice to guide them is focusing their awareness. This can help practice, but try to have some sessions where you guide yourself without an external aid. Once you get the hang of basic practice there are modifications that can be made that deepen the practice, much like adding more weight to the exercise as you get stronger.
Have good practice!!