Summary: Short introduction to mindfulness meditation - with instruction sets for breathing meditation and body scan.
I've had lots of conversations recently which at one point or another led to topics like mild social anxiety, procrastination, perfectionism, and interpersonal communication. I suggested that there are ways to change the way we experience these things -- and so the topic of meditation came up.
The reason I connected meditation with anxiety, procrastination and other issues is because meditation is supposed to help us deal with stress. Meditation practice makes us more aware of what's going on in the moment, including judgemental thoughts about ourselves (perfectionists judge almost everything they create as suboptimal / not good enough) and troubling feelings - anxiety/fear, anger, etc. You'd think that making you more aware of something will only make it worse... but the whole attitude in mindfulness is about acceptance and non-judging. You train yourself to accept difficult emotions and to recognize judgemental thoughts as non-critical aspect of your life. They are just thoughts and emotions, not absolute truth you must follow.
I've been practicing elements of mindfulness meditation recently. Specifically, I'm following ideas and instructions from Jon Kabat-Zinn's book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. The book contains a clear instruction set for body scan meditation program, breathing meditation and some yoga practice.
From my experience, starting a regular meditation practice is difficult:
- it requires plenty of time. E.g. initial program in Jon Kabat Zinn's Stress Clinics requires participants to do 45 minutes of body scan every day for 8 weeks. It's very easy not to meditate on any given day because it feels like doing nothing or wasting time.
- it takes a great deal of effort. It's easy to get distracted, uncomfortable, even forget what you were doing. The whole point it to train our ability to concentrate, but it's just difficult.
If you are interested in trying meditation (just to see what it's like), I suggest you do both breathing and body scan meditation, just to see what it's really like.
One 15-minute session of breathing meditation. I suggest not using audio-guided meditation. In my experience, listening to another person's voice makes it hard to focus on breathing and nothing else. Also I have found it remarkably difficult not to fall asleep when lying on my back -- sitting meditation is much better for this.
The following written instructions come from Jon Kabat-Zinn:
Assume a comfortable posture lying on your back or sitting. If you are sitting, keep the spine straight and let your shoulders drop.
Close your eyes if it feels comfortable.
Bring your attention to your belly, feeling it rise or expand gently on the inbreath and fall or recede on the outbreath.
Keep your focus on the breathing, “being with” each inbreath for its full duration and with each outbreath for its full duration, as if you were riding the waves of your own breathing.
Every time you notice that your mind has wandered off the breath, notice what it was that took you away and then gently bring your attention back to your belly and the feeling of the breath coming in and out.
If your mind wanders away from the breath a thousand times, then your “job” is simply to bring it back to the breath every time, no matter what it becomes preoccupied with.
Practice this exercise for fifteen minutes at a convenient time every day, whether you feel like it or not, for one week and see how it feels to incorporate a disciplined meditation practice into your life. Be aware of how it feels to spend some time each day just being with your breath without having to do anything.
One 45-minute session of body-scan. You can use these audio instructions from Jon Kabat-Zinn himself. The first 45 minutes are for body scan, the rest is for other modes of meditation practice.
In my experience the primary challenge is to keep going... i.e. you will get distracted a lot, and may just start doing something else. This is why I think it's so hard.
If something changes in the way we feel on a daily basis it's hard to say what the reason was. If you take some pills and feel better, was it really due to pills? Or did you eat better? Sleep better? Did you just regress to the mean?
I think it's a tragedy that we pretty much can't know for sure what was the result (or lack thereof) of any particular lifestyle change, including diet changes, exercise, meds, therapy, meditation and so on. But I'm willing to risk a bit of wasted effort in order to get a chance to improve how much positive energy I have every day. Talking to my friends convinced me that some people don't believe in such efforts too much.
If you do try meditation, let me know how it goes :) Were you able to do full 15 minutes for breathing or full 45 minutes for body scan, or did you stop for any reason? :)