What is Mindfulness?
Before discussing mindfulness meditation technique, it is important to understand the concept of “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is a state of present awareness. A relaxed state of mind, in which we are conscious of our experience, including sensations, thoughts and feelings, breathing, and surroundings, all with an attitude of non-resistance, peace and acceptance. This does not imply passivity or lack of emotion. Mindfulness engenders faith in the perfection of the moment, and allows each new experience to be felt fully, without the reactive, self-critical, controlling mind.
Why Practice Mindfulness?
As we go through life, most of us quickly lose the pure aliveness that is evident in the face of a healthy infant. The fascination and wonder that we may still dimly remember of early childhood, fades as we conform to the standards that we think the world expects of us. We learn to hide our feelings, first from others, and then from ourselves. We learn to hide our excitement and joy of simple pleasures. We’re bombarded with sensory overload and enticed by commercials and advertisements for things that promise to make us feel happy and fulfilled. And as we collect more and more, we need more and more. Soon we forget the simple innocence of life. Even the simple act of being aware of the breath, is gone. Anxiety takes over. We can no longer sit still. We don’t know what to do without some activity, some outward focus, or some drama to occupy our attention. If no other distractions are available, we numb ourselves with TV, or even with the newspaper. Why? To avoid the unknown. We tell ourselves that we’re just avoiding boredom. But just beneath the surface of boredom is agitation, restlessness, sadness, emptiness, fear — and joy. Maybe we read novels, or self-help books, and tell ourselves that we’re gaining wisdom, though we never seem to find the satisfaction we’re looking for. We’ve lost touch with what is real and eternal inside us. What was once our perfect place of peace within ourselves, has now become a mystery. A pandora’s box. We’re afraid now to open ourselves up and look within, for fear that what has been stuffed down will overwhelm us, even drive us crazy.
And so we do not linger in the awareness of the inner Self. We may peak in, but then comes a thought, a worry, an impulse to do something else. A chore that must be done, a temptation that must be indulged or new desire that must be fulfilled. And we’re off and running again.
At the end of the day, we say “I wish there were more hours in the day. I never have a moment’s peace.”
Or we resign ourselves to an empty life. Numbing our emotions. Dulling our minds with whatever distraction or drug is at hand. Self-medicating our malaise by any means available. Completely unaware that a whole undiscovered world lives within us. Happiness then is nothing more than a concept defined by whatever beliefs we hold about success or failure.
Whether we are pleasure seekers, or spend our time numbing our painful feelings, the loss is the same. The Essential Self is lost from sight.
Mindfulness Meditation Technique
Sit. Relax the body. Relax the mind. Be as still as possible.
Sit comfortably, with the spine upright and supported and the head balanced naturally, looking forward with eyes closed gently. It’s ok to sit on a chair, or on the floor, on the knees or cross legged with support, such as a pillow. The body must become still and remain still for a period of time for the mind to start to calm down and deeper states of awareness to be experienced. With practice, prolonged stillness can be achieved without discomfort. Any mindfulness meditation technique will require some discipline and perseverance to get the results.
Do not attempt to control your thoughts. The more we try to control thoughts, the stronger they become. Observe the breath with passive awareness. Observe the thoughts, feelings and sensations with compassion and tolerance. Don’t engage your thoughts by judging or analyzing them. Let them arise and dissolve, like clouds drifting across a blue sky, noting what comes with passive curiosity, and return to the breath.
Let the breath be natural and gentle. Breathe through the nose, letting the belly rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale. Soften the belly. Let the chest rise last, filling up from the belly first, like a vessel filling with water.
The importance of attention to breath cannot be over-emphasized. It is the central key to any mindfulness meditation technique. So much suffering could be alleviated simply by placing mindful attention on the breath, focusing on the belly, or the area of the heart. Within the breath is the key to your greater Self. Emotion can reside in the body as chronic tension. The breath can undo this tension, and restore balance and peace to the mind. We forget the breath most of the time. Experiment throughout your day. See if you can count the number of times you remember to watch your breath. You may be surprised to realize how difficult it is to remember.
When we feel pain — physically or emotionally — we tend to react by tensing up. This tension causes the pain to be sustained longer. Sustained pain is what we call “suffering.”
The practice of non-resistance is another core principle of mindfulness meditation. Letting go with each breath. Sometimes I see beginning meditators making effort to relax and let go. They breathe out with great force, through pursed lips, as if getting ready to lift a heavy weight. This is not true letting go. True letting go is effortless.
Why is it so difficult to remember the breath?
Because staying connected to the breath loosens the grip of the ego. The ego is the constellation of thoughts, emotions, and self-images that we cling to at all costs, in an effort to sustain our personal identity and importance. The breath leads us into an expanded state of Self-awareness that can feel like the death of what was known as “self.” So we resist because of our attachment — our fear of letting go — fear of the unknown. It is a fear of becoming nothing. This fear is usually quite unconscious, yet it affects everything we do and feel, keeping us imprisoned by the invisible chains of the mind.