Pillow Talk: Five Lessons Learned in Six Mindful Weeks

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Photo: Don’t Worry, Be Happy by MaticesLA CC BY 2.0

I’m six weeks into starting a meditation practice, and besides struggling to find the time to quiet the mind as we approach holiday mayhem, it’s going well.  I’ve not gotten to the point of practice every day at the same time, but I’m now able to sustain 30 minutes with a relaxed focused attention. I’m excited about getting deeper into the experience in the new year.

In the interim, here are five lessons learned so far that I hope will help others starting along a similar path:

Start Small

I usually jump into new tasks with ambition and enthusiasm, always thinking about the end result and wanting to skip steps along the way. In taking on a meditation practice, it was important to temper my nature and approach the task incrementally. By gradually increasing the length of sessions from a short five minutes to half-hour sittings, I’m slowly building capacity for concentration.  When I avoid rushing, I observe more subtle details of the mind’s activities.

Prepare Before You Practice

One of the biggest challenges was taking a break at midday on particularly busy days, and then having any success concentrating.  One trick I discovered was to take a short interim break before starting a lunchtime session, such as a quick walk around the block to clear the mind.

If posture is a challenge, there are ways you can prep the body during your daily routine that can make sitting more comfortable over time. See this Yoga Journal video for some guidance on preparatory stretches.

Don’t Push

Meditation is more about letting go than about making an effort. Paradoxically, the more you try, the less you will succeed. It’s that simple.

Strength in Numbers

While there may be some disadvantages to having tried out meditation in so many different cultural and spiritual settings in this early phase, I have to say that the power of the group was helpful in every session. A room full of individuals engaged in focused attention is truly energizing.

Find Your Own Way In

It’s easier to engage when you find a tradition that speaks to you. I’m most comfortable in a secular setting, and that’s where I’ll continue to sit. But I’ll continue to learn as much as I can about the philosophies behind the practices, because they fascinate me and I’m not sure the two can be separated.

 

 

 

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Practice Makes Imperfect (and that’s OK)

Meditation Sticker

It’s been a full two weeks since taking on the challenge of adding a mindfulness practice into my daily routine, and the benefits so far are subtle, but tangible. I’m definitely feeling motivated enough to pursue a more substantial practice as the weeks go on.

First of all a shout out to the Mindfulness App, which has turned out to be a helpful tool – one that I would recommend to any first-timer to help structure your attempt to add time for meditation and reflection into your busy schedule.

The app offers easy, portable access to both guided and silent meditations of various lengths. As a novice, guided meditations helped me get the hang of things by providing an audible narrative providing direction and a clear point of focus. The mind will always wander during meditation – even for seasoned practitioners, I’m told. However, I’m finding breaks in focus are less frequent when I have specific instructions to concentrate on.

Taking an incremental approach to the length of sessions has also helped me. I’ve worked my way up through about ten short sittings, first three, then five, then fifteen minutes in length. Like going to the gym, this helps gradually build mental skill and stamina.

At the start of each guided meditation, I’m directed to assume a comfortable position, in a state wakefulness and presence. That first instruction always reminds me that, while therapeutic, mindfulness is by no means about resting, tuning out or escaping. On the contrary, during the best moments of my practice, I enjoy a level of increased awareness that I rarely experience when I’m in ‘doing’ mode.

Most of us live on autopilot, disconnected from our bodies, our breath, and our thoughts. During meditation, I’m asked to quietly observe these processes, and it’s surprising how much there is to see. In fact, ten short sessions have shown me both how shallow my normal breathing is and how much unnecessary tension I carry in my body. I’ve learned that merely dropping the breath can help replenish the body, just as physical tension, brought on by churning thoughts, can deplete it.

Mindfulness is also teaching patience. The guided meditation always emphasizes a gentle acceptance whatever may arise. Rather than responding in frustration each time my mind wanders (and as a beginner, my concentration often falters). As my guide gently advises, “when the attention starts to wander towards thoughts, fantasies, plans, memories, worries – just notice where it is gone, then gently and deliberately bring the attention back to focus on the breath.” A truism, yes, but it is about the journey and not the destination. It’s about doing it every day, not about perfection.

I’m encouraged enough to keep at it. And armed with this helpful advice from aboutmeditation.com, I think I can avoid the pitfalls that get in the way for beginners.

On a final note, one more thing that’s been a great help – I’ve discovered my workplace has a quiet room, so it’s easy to find fifteen minutes during a lunch break to recharge and start the afternoon with a refreshed sense of attention. More on the benefits of mindfulness in the workplace in later posts, but here’s an article from HRM Canada on the corporate quiet room phenomenon.

In the coming weeks, moving up to thirty-minute sessions, in complete silence.

Photo credit: ‘Meditation Sticker (Flickr)‘ by Sanne Schijnt, CC BY 2.0.

 

 

 

Getting Started

For me, 2015 has been the year of the fragmented brain.

Information overload can take its toll, making memory recall and organizing tasks a challenge. By the end of the day, it’s hard to stop thinking and planning, and sleep  doesn’t always come in eight hour increments.

I’ve made a lot of progress with diet and exercise to help sharpen the mind. I cut sugar from my diet, along with simple carbohydrates and most of the junk that disrupts the body’s equilibrium while offering little nutritional value. I took on a light, five-day per week exercise routine and got rid of an unwanted forty pounds that snuck up on me when I wasn’t looking.

But I’m realizing that to experience deeper, long-term wellness, I need to make the most of how I use my mind on a day to day basis. And mindfulness meditation might have something to offer.

So what is mindfulness, exactly? In his primer, Mindfulness for Beginners, Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness practice as ‘awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.’ It is a form of meditation, which Kabat-Zinn describes as (and I paraphrase here) regulating our attention to transform our experience, ‘in the service of realizing the full range of our humanity and our relationship to others and to the world.’

OK, pretty heady stuff… I thought mindfulness was taking a mental break now and then to keep stress levels in check and help the brain function better. Enlightenment seems a bit of a more of a stretch, but you never know until you try.

Off we go on week one of a two-month experiment.  I’ll start by trying to learn the meditation part, just trying to sit still and focus for ten minutes a day this week. (Fortunately, there’s an app for that.) ‘Realizing the full range of my humanity’ is probably a longer-term goal, but I’ve entered it into task manager in Outlook – just in case!