by Barbara de Michele
“Mindfulness” should have been the 2014 Word of the Year, because I’m seeing it everywhere. There’s even a new magazine called Mindful, available on newsstands for $5.95.
Seemingly daily, researchers confirm that mindfulness – which is closely aligned but not quite the same thing as meditation – reduces anxiety, aids in physical healing, sets criminals toward rehabilitation, and helps recovery from addiction.
It also makes you faster than a flying bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings! Well, not quite. But, as someone who has practiced meditation and mindfulness for about twenty years, I can say that it’s changed my mind and life in some pretty amazing ways.
I came to meditation following a profound personal loss. Searching for ways to cope with deep grief, I spotted a small notice in my church’s bulletin offering a four-week introduction to meditation. I showed up ready to walk out at the slightest hint of weirdness.
The instructor, as it turned out, reminded me of my grandmother – softly plump and welcoming to the 12 people who attended. She briefly described the history of meditation, showed us how to place our hands and feet, illustrated breathing and how to use a mantra if desired. And then – boom – she signaled five minutes of meditation and rang a small bell. The room fell into complete silence.
It was excruciating. Five minutes loomed in front of me like a prison sentence. My mind darted around like a . . . well, like a monkey. What was I supposed to be thinking? What was I supposed to be feeling? Breathe in, breathe out, and off my mind raced again. A thought did occur to me — had I EVER had to sit quietly with myself, doing nothing mentally or physically, in my entire life? As instructed, I let go of the thought as though it were a cloud sailing on the horizon. Breathe in, breathe out.
The instructor rang the bell and talked briefly about “monkey mind” (oh . . . that’s what that was!) and answered questions. One man in his twenties expressed great disappointment because “nothing happened.” After that evening he never returned. I understood his frustration but was ready to give it another try. After four weeks I was hooked.
I relished sitting in silence, removed from the busy-ness of the world, safely able to deal with the torrent of thoughts running through my head. I began sitting every day at home, and tried many different forms of meditation and mindfulness. By now, I can say that just about everything I needed to know about meditation, I learned in that first class.
Meditation is an incredibly simple, direct method of calming the mind and body, exploring your own mental constructs, and yes . . . eventually . . . arriving at insights that change the way you see yourself, see the world and interact with life.
A few tips:
- Meditation does not require adherence to a particular set of religious beliefs, or any belief at all. Find an approach that fits with your religious or non-religious orientation.
- In my exploration of different types of meditation, I came across “mindfulness” which I would define as using meditation techniques – such as deep breathing, focus and non-judgment – while going about your daily business. For example, try eating your breakfast as mindfully as possible, slowing down to experience the taste and texture of the food, thinking about how the food got onto your table, experiencing your own body’s reactions to the food, and so forth. Wake up, focus and objectively observe exactly what is in front of you at any given time and you’ve entered the realm of mindfulness.
- If joining a class or group is not your thing, there are nearly infinite numbers of books and magazines that explain everything you ever need to know about the subject. “Meditation for Dummies” is a good one. For a deeper look, try “Sitting Quietly, Doing Nothing,” a chapter in “The Way of Zen” by Alan Watts.
- Lots of people who practice meditation feel that “nothing happens” for quite some time. Relax. Keep at it. Breathe in. Breathe out. One day you’ll go: “Aha!”