We hear so much about Mindfulness and breathing these days; the chatter is becoming mainstream. And yet, what is it exactly? Why is it supposedly so important? And what does it really have to do with mental health?
It’s simple, really.
Let’s take a look at Mindful meditation – what it actually is, and the wisdom it imparts. Not only is it useful in the practice of our well-being, but it contains a sweet parallel to the growth that can happen in therapy.
Unlike other meditations where one might focus on a word or mantra over and over, Mindful meditation keeps one gently moving with awareness – with what is occurring within us and around us at a given moment. Basically, one simply sits, and notices the breath. That’s it. Just sit, and pay attention to your breathing: the rise of your chest, the air as it comes into your nose, and the calm in letting it go. Just noticing. It’s a pleasant experience. You’ll become aware, though, that after a bit your attention has waned, and your thoughts have likely averted back to what’s normally there: your day, your encounters with people, and so forth. That’s okay. Your thoughts are like clouds passing by. You can notice them, that they are there, and then just bring yourself back to the breath. In, and out. With time, this becomes a visceral learning: that we don’t have to succumb to the status quo. That in fact, with attention, we can gently unhook from it, and allow ourselves to relax.
So it is with therapy: we can become aware of our patterns, and, with intent, change them. In changing them we allow for new ways of being. We can step aside from the old and hard templates of our mind.
By now many people have heard of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He’s a neurologist with the University of Massachusetts Medical School who developed a Mindful Meditation group for people with chronic pain. Doctors referred their patients to him; people who had been on large amounts of pain medication without much result. Kabat-Zinn had them be aware of themselves – of their breath, and of their pain. In fact, they were urged to go into their pain, and not resist it. After 8 weeks people found that overall they felt happier and had less daily pain. And when the pain did present, it was an opportunity for grounding – not panic or dread.
In therapy, we learn to look at our patterns of behavior, and to observe them, and to explore the neatly-tucked-away anger or sorrow. By dancing with it, rather than hiding, we learn that the monsters really aren’t under the bed; it’s just us, sitting here, at this moment, with all we need within us now. Nothing is lacking. We are free to create each day anew.
So, how do we get started with a Mindful Meditation? First you sit, and then you breathe. There are only 2 rules for sitting. The first is to sit erect so that your head, neck, and back are in line. The second is to be perfectly comfortable. From his book Full Catastrophe Living, here are Kabat-Zinn’s words on how to meditate mindfully:
1) Assume a comfortable posture lying on your back or sitting. If you are sitting, keep the spine straight and let your shoulders drop.
2) Close your eyes if it feels comfortable.
3) Bring your attention to your belly, feeling it rise or expand gently on the in-breath and fall or recede on the out-breath.
4) Keep the focus on your breathing, ‘being with’ each in-breath for its full duration, as if you were riding the waves of your own breathing.
5) 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 your breath coming in and out.
6) 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.
7) 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.
If you find you need more guidance, an external structure to help you do this, Calm.com is a neat web-site. Find the icon on the right of the seated posture, and select a 2, 5, 10 (up to 30) minute sitting. A woman will guide you through getting centered and help you to allow yourself to be…calm.
Speaking of calm, here is a great breath should you find yourself suddenly stressed while out in the world, or maybe even having a panic attack: Put you hand on your belly. Breathe in for 5 counts. Breathe out for 6. Do this about 5 or 6 times. It’s important that the exhale is longer than the inhale. Often when we’re stressed the inhale is long, and the exhale way too short. This only intensifies the anxiety. With a longer exhale, our brains get the message that we are safe. With this breath, we calm down our systems.
I hope this is helpful information for you. Take with you these thoughts of Virginia Satir, a family therapist, and enjoy your days:
My Farewell, Virginia Satir
Let yourself become fully aware of your breathing.
Let yourself be aware of the nurturing elements of your breathing.
And maybe today, more than any time before, you can be aware that you did not invent your breath, that you did not invent the vehicle by which the breath goes in.
All you do is invent the pace, the amount, the direction your breath takes. This is a big gift for you. You are in charge.
The air and your mechanism for handling it is there.
You only have to put it together.