Exercise Your Mindfulness Muscle Through Meditation
There are many articles in popular news reports, blogs and magazines, as well as in scientific journals, indicating that practicing mindfulness and meditation is good for you. Meditation has been linked to:
- stress reduction
- improvement in attention and focus
- reductions in anxiety, depression, ADHD
- reductions in violence in prisons
- changes in brain structure and processes
- improvements in physical symptoms
- pain relief
- and much more..
The concept of mindfulness emerged from Buddhist practices that focus on detachment from self-focus and desire. The process of mindfulness meditation enables you to develop distance from your thoughts and emotional reactions so you can observe your thinking process. This disentangles you from emotional immersion in and attachment to the “chatter” of your mind. Instead of experiencing your thoughts as facts that have the power to cause you distress, you experience them as “just thoughts”. You notice a thought and then move on. You don’t grab onto the thought and ride it to its potentially gruesome end. This technique allows you the potential to serenely sidestep the sturm and drang that your mind is capable of producing.
Mindfulness meditation is most often conducted through attention to the breath. We sit quietly and notice our breathing as it goes in and out. You can pay attention to it as it goes into and out of the nose, or as it raises and lowers your abdomen, or as it moves in and out of the chest (and there are other variations as well). That’s all it is really. Although this seems very simple, and in fact it is, many of us experience it as being very difficult. Often when I ask a patient (or a friend) if they meditate, they tell me, “Oh, I’ve tried that, I can’t do it”. They invariably tell me that when they try to meditate, they can’t stop having thoughts and “can’t clear” their minds. They are too full of thoughts!! So people become frustrated because they can’t stop thinking. This is a common frustration, but it is based on a common misconception– that we are supposed to be clearing our minds. For me, the object of mindfulness meditation is not to clear my mind of thoughts (although that may occur at times), but to notice my thoughts and then to come back to my breathing. The active ingredient here is not a clear mind, but it is the return to the breath. So it is really an exercise: notice that you’re thinking, then return to the breath…..notice that you are thinking and return to the breath…..notice that you are thinking (or feeling), then return to the breath…..The point is to build, as you do at the gym, a mindfulness muscle that becomes stronger and more able, through the exercise of noticing that you are thinking and then gently returning to the breath. Thinking is actually crucial to the practice of mindfulness! The muscle that we are strengthening is the redirection muscle, or perhaps it should be called the detachment muscle. We are strengthening our ability to redirect or detach ourselves from the distractions of our frantic minds. We are strengthening our ability to create a reflective space (i.e. noticing our thoughts) rather than reactively responding to our thoughts. This ultimately helps us to develop an ability to be more thoughtful and reflective, and to be less impulsive, emotional and reactive with the experiences that arise in our minds and in our lives.
The spirit with which you practice mindfulness is also crucial. One of the reasons people give up on meditation is not only because they are mystified by the number of interfering thoughts they have, but also because they are frustrated with how “incompetent” they perceive themselves to be in combating or avoiding those thoughts. They are critical and judgmental with themselves and so meditation becomes a truly unpleasant experience. It is important therefore, to just keep coming back to the breath. There is no reason to judge yourself for thinking or letting your mind wander, because that’s what the mind does. Your goal isn’t to keep the mind from wandering. Your goal is to notice (at some point) that your mind is wandering, and just bring it back to the breath. And when you do judge and criticize yourself, then notice that, and again come back to the breath. Meditation is a practice, an exercise, a process that is ongoing. As they say, in the 12 Step programs: “practice, not perfection”, and that concept is apt here. We are practicing mindfulness and exercising our mindfulness muscle through meditation.
I have some books, articles, resources and blog post recommendations that have helped to develop my thinking, and that you may find helpful:
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