An Introduction into Meditation, Mindfulness and Breath Work

I wrote this article earlier this year for those just starting to consider starting a meditation practice. I hope it gives a basic introduction and some grounding into the subject. Feel free to send me an email if any questions come up from reading this or if there is anything else I can help with. I hope you enjoy it!

shot29.jpgWhat is meditation?

‘The word itself is derived from two Latin words: “meditari” – to think, to dwell upon, or to exercise the mind, and “mederi” – to heal. The Sanskrit derivation is “medha,” which means “wisdom.”’ (Edenfield and Saeed, 2012).

There are many different types of meditation and many different techniques towards reaching a meditative state. These include those found in religious or spiritual schools e.g. three schools of Buddhism, Mahāyāna, Theravāda, Vajrayana and Zen Buddhism, as well as those found in more secular teachings e.g. Transcendental Meditation. Each school or practice uses a different technique to focus the mind.

‘Meditation is simply about being yourself and knowing something about who that it is’ (Kabat-Zinn, 1994).

A meditation practice can help us to see more objectively and clearly, rather than being clouded by thoughts that may not be founded on how things really are. As Kabat-Zinn (1994) states meditation can help us to make wiser choices based on our own truth.

‘The reality of your life is always now’ (Harris 2016, p.34).

Meditation can help bring us into the present moment, rather than living in the past, future, or how we would like things to be; we can experience things as they really are and live more authentic, fulfilling lives.

What is mindfulness and mindful meditation?

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Mindfulness is about the intrinsic human qualities of attention and awareness (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). As Simpson (2017) has stated ‘modern mindfulness is often presented as the Buddha’s psychological insight, minus Buddhist philosophical baggage that might sound religious. It can be useful to watch thoughts and feelings come and go, without getting caught up in reactive habits’. To practice mindfulness meditation it is not required to abide by religious teachings or ascribe to any spiritual beliefs. It is just concerned with intentionally bring our attention back to the present moment again and again with a non-judgemental attitude. It is a ‘state of clear, non-judgemental and undistracted attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant’ (Harris 2016, p.34).

What are the benefits?

Everyone begins to explore meditation practices for different reasons, these may include spiritual or religious (this is not a requirement), emotional, physical, psychological or social.

Through the practice of meditation we can enhance our personal and physical well-being.  As Edenfield and Saeed (2012) have stated, ‘training focused on improving attention, awareness, acceptance, and compassion may facilitate more flexible and adaptive responses to stress. Studies in the basic sciences have also provided important evidence that mindfulness training may result in important changes in brain functioning and structures that are associated with improved emotional well-being in the short- and long-term’.

Harris (2016, pp.8-34) has also referenced the body of literature that supports the psychological benefits and physical changes in the brain, ‘different techniques produce long-lasting changes in attention, emotion, cognition and pain perception, and these correlate with both structural and functional changes in the brain’. He has proffered that the mindfulness quality of mind has ‘shown to reduce pain, anxiety and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in grey matter density in regions of the brain relating to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness’.

It is not about not having thoughts…

‘To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is just to watch them….let them come, and let them go’ (Suzuki 2011, p.15).

Practicing meditation is not about having no thoughts at all, just notice them and let them pass, every time you get caught up in a story kindly come back to the breath or to your anchor of concentration. As Harris (2016, p.37) points out thinking is not the problem, the problem is ‘the state of thinking without knowing we are thinking’.

Mindfulness meditation practices:

  • Sitting with an aligned spine in a comfortable position noticing the body, mind and breath (the emotional, physical and mental body).
  • Counting the breath (every time you lose count return to the number you remember) e.g. counting up, 1 – 10 and then back down, 10 – 1. Repeat.
  • Focus on the belly or the breath on the tip of the nose (every time you lose focus kindly return to the breath).
  • Watching the breath move from the tip of the nose to stop of the head and back down the spine to the pelvis (a grounding meditation).
  • ‘How to Meditate’ Sam Harris (2016, p.39) – This book is wonderfully concise and gives a short, practical introduction into beginners meditation.

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How can breathing practices help?

“To work with the body, we work with the breath. To use the breath in this way re-patterns the mind.” – Michael Stone

‘Breathing affects your respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal, muscular and psychic systems and also has a general effect on your sleep, your memory, your energy level and your concentration. Everything you do, the pace you keep, the feelings you have and the choices you make are influenced by the rhythmic metronome of your breath…we are challenged by the increasing pace of everyday and our breathing increases as well, breathing lies at the core of our stress response, by improving the quality of our breath, breathing well, we can influence our well-being and optimum health’ (Farhi 1996, p.XV).

We take around 20,000 breaths a day. It is widely known, that due to changes in blood pressure (among other mechanisms) your heart rate increases with the inhale and when you exhale your heart rate decreases. Slow, deep breathing activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System (the “brake”) and slows down the Sympathetic Nervous System (the “Gas”) (Clarke 2016, p.46).

By connecting with our breath we can bring the mind and body into harmony, calming and clearing the mind. Suggested practices to connect and bring awareness to our breath:

  • Full yogic breath: breath into the belly for a couple of breaths, then from the belly up into the ribs for a couple more breaths (exhaling ribs, belly) and finally breathe into the belly, up into the ribs and up into the chest (exhaling chest, ribs, belly)
  • Making a few long hums one after the other instantly calms the mind and the body.
  • Equal breath breathing (4:4:4). Inhale for 4, retain the breath for 4 and exhale for 4. It is nice to do this lying down with the hands lightly rested on the belly.

Recommended reading: Breath: The Essence of Yoga – A Guide to Inner Stillness by Sandra Sabatini

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To conclude….

The above explanations have hopefully provided a short introduction into what meditation and mindfulness are as techniques and how they can improve and complement our lives. There are many different practices and it is not important which one is chosen but only to choose one and then to explore that path further as an individual. Meditation is not a practice that you need to be good at and that only some people can do. Sazuki (2011) said that it is not about being a good meditator but that we learn far more by being a bad one, by noticing the mind and progressing more and more every time we come back to the object of concentration. One last idea to consider is the idea of meditation and mindfulness is not solely being about the self, self-improvement or self-inquiry, but that it should also foster compassionate ‘pro-social’ action (Simpson 2017), enabling us to better connect with others and build stronger relationships within our communities.

 

“Watch your thoughts, they become your words.

Watch your words, they become your actions.

Watch your actions, they become your habits.

Watch your habits, they become your character.

Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”

Lao Tzu

 

Bibliography

Clark, B. 2016. Your Body, Your Yoga: Learn Alignment Cues That Are Skillful, Safe, and Best Suited To You. Edinburgh, Wild Strawberry Productions.

Edenfield, T.M. and Saeed, S. A. (2012) An update on mindfulness meditation as a self-help treatment for anxiety and depression. Psychol Res Behav Manag. 5: 131–141.

Farhi, D. 1996. The Breathing Book: Vitality and Good Health Through Essential Breath Work. New York, Holt & Co.

Harris, S. 2015. Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Ankara, Black Swan.

Kabat-Zinn, John. (1994) Wherever you go, there you are. London, Piatkus.

Sabatini, S. 2006. Breath: The Essence of Yoga – A Guide to Inner Stillness. London, Pinter & Martin Ltd.

Simpson, Daniel. (2017) From Me to We: Revolutionising Mindfulness in Schools. Contemporary Buddhism.

Suzuki, S. 2011. Beginners mind Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice. London, Shambhala.

 

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