Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Basics II: Getting Started

Mindfulness is a skill which is cultivated through practice. Our unhelpful patterns of thinking and reacting have been formed over years of repetition in an effort to cope with stress and the difficulties of living. Fortunately, the human brain is capable of making remarkable changes throughout life, something research has shown only relatively recently. Practicing mindfulness breaks the old habitual patterns and creates the possibility of new and creative approaches to our problems, our life.

The skill of mindfulness is cultivated through the concentrated and repeated practice of mindfulness, which is called mindfulness meditation. There are other types of practices which support the development of mindfulness, such as yoga, qi gong, centered prayer, and other types of meditation such as use of mantras. These are wonderful and beneficial practices that I recommend to anyone who feels drawn to them. However, my personal opinion is that these are most beneficial as complements to mindfulness meditation, rather than substitutes for it. All of these practices develop the skill of being aware in the present moment, but only mindfulness meditation also cultivates the ability to observe all the aspects of our own experience.

To get started, eliminate any distractions in the room and create a quiet space. Arrange not to be interrupted. Now find a comfortable sitting position, in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. What's important about our position is that it is not rigid, allows the spine to be straight, and the head to rest on top of the spine. If you're in a chair, it is best not to lean back, and to have both feet flat on the floor. Sitting 'just so' may seem silly, but the proper position makes meditation much easier and promotes an alert state of mind and the concentration needed to focus our attention.

Next, relax the muscles of your face and body, without slouching. See if you can generate the qualities of curiosity, openness, willingness, and alertness in your mind. Bring these qualities to bear on whatever is present during your meditation.

Diane Winston, at UCLA's Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, has a set of wonderful guided meditations on their web site, which can be played directly or downloaded onto your computer. Since I can't improve on these (and can't figure out how to save audio files to a blog), I'll give you the link to the page: I strongly recommend starting with the "5 minute breathing meditation." Practice this until you can do it on your own (without listening) for 10-15 minutes a day. Meditation on the breath is the foundation of mindfulness meditation, so it is important to be really familiar with these instructions. After you've done this for a couple of weeks, try moving on to the "19 minute complete meditation instructions." This meditation is what I recommend learning and staying with.

Other things to keep in mind as you get started:

1) The first thing you will probably find is that your mind will wander. This is normal. Wandering is what the mind is used to doing. The important thing is to keep bringing the attention back, over and over again. Just notice what the mind does, and keep coming back to the breath. If you practice long enough, it will probably wander less (but not always).

2) Be kind, to yourself, your mind, and your body. Don't judge anything that happens as you meditate. This is your time to be with yourself.

3) You may be tempted to "use" the meditation time to ponder a problem or do some planning. If you find yourself doing this, say to yourself, "not now" and come back to the breath. During this time, there is nothing else you have to do, nothing more important than just being here, with all your attention.

4) Be curious. Be open. What is this like, to just be present with this experience, in this moment?

If you have a question, click on the "comments" link at the bottom of this post and leave it there.

Note: I will discuss more of the meditations on the UCLA marc site in later posts.

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