We know that physical exercise is good for our health. And now research has verified what spiritual practitioners in many contemplative traditions have experienced for thousands of years: meditation—an exercise focused on qualities of the mind and heart—is also beneficial for our health. Meditation allows the nervous system to rest and revitalize, while reducing stress, improving focus and attention, and developing positive relationships with ourselves and others. In doing these things, regular practice of meditation leads us to improved health and well-being.
So how do we meditate?
One common form of meditation is the practice of bringing calm, nonjudgmental attention to a point of focus in the present moment, such as attending to the breath, physical sensations, sounds, a candle flame, a word or a phrase/mantra. It is an exercise in letting go of distractions and returning again and again to an object of focus. Finding this calm focus is a simple concept, and yet so hard to do. Our attention often tends to be divided and hurried, with limited awareness of what we are attending to. But mindfulness is the awareness that results from a regular meditation practice.
Choose a place and time
In the beginning, it is helpful to create some structure for yourself, setting a time and a place. Many people like to practice first thing in the morning or last thing at night when it is easier to find a quiet space with few distractions. Some also find it helpful to practice with the support of an app, a teacher, or a group. On your own, setting a timer can also help. When first starting, try five to ten minutes, and then, as you’re ready, increase that time.
Find your seat and settle in
Take a comfortable seat on a chair or cushion. If sitting on a chair, allow both feet to be on the floor; if sitting on a cushion, allow legs to cross, knees lower than your hips. Your spine and neck are straight, but not stiff. Your head is held in a balanced position over your neck, chin lowered a bit. Arms rest softly by your sides, and hands can be placed on your legs.
Settle into your grounded posture, feeling the support of the cushion/chair, the points of contact between it and different parts of your body. Now check in with yourself and see what is in your field of awareness. Are there thoughts, bodily sensations, emotions that are occupying your attention? Acknowledge what is present for you without judgment, then gently and firmly direct your attention to your breathing.
See if you can feel the entire cycle of the breath, escorting the air as it moves into the nostrils, through the body, and back out. Be with each breath, not needing to control or change it in any way. The mind will wander from your breathing because that’s what minds do. When you notice the mind wander off, acknowledge where it has wandered to and then gently and firmly redirect your attention back to the breath. Each time you bring your mind back to the breath, you are cultivating awareness and presence.
Your breath can be your anchor to the present moment. Each inhale is a new beginning. Each exhale is a letting go. When the mind wanders, bring it back. Again and again. This is the practice. And if attending to breath does not feel supportive to you, you can also experiment with another object of focus, like sounds or the sensations of your feet on the ground.
Transition with awareness
When the timer rings, practice maintaining awareness as you transition to the next activity. Check in with yourself to see how you feel after the meditation and intentionally proceed to the next moment.
Be present and accepting
Often, people equate meditation with relaxation, and this can indeed be a benefit of the practice. However, the purpose of meditation is not just to relax, but rather to be with your experiences as they unfold in the present moment. So let go of any expectations of how you think you are supposed to feel. In befriending your breath, you are also getting to know yourself more intimately and learning to be with yourself, whether you find calmness and ease or a racing mind and a fearful heart. Allow yourself to be in the moment as you are—this is what is ultimately relaxing. This self-acceptance also yields clear and accurate data about yourself and cultivates skillful and wise responses to life’s situations.
Additional mindfulness resources are available on campus including biweekly, free virtual mindfulness breaks and audio guides and classes sponsored by Wellness & Integrative Health and the Resiliency Center.
In addition a virtual retreat and workshop will be held April 10th via Zoom. You can learn more and register here.
Excerpted from “Mindfulness 101,” originally published in Continuum Spring 2018. Illustration by Andre Jolicoeur.