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.

 

 

 

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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!

Local Centres: Shambhala Meditation Centre of Toronto

It is a little known fact that Halifax, Nova Scotia is a center of transplanted Tibetian Buddhism in the west. Canada’s Atlantic port is the headquarters of Shambhala International, a worldwide network of meditation centres with locations around the world, including one near Bloor and Christie in Toronto.

Where

670 Bloor Street West, Toronto

When

Wednesday nights

Offerings

  • Group sittings
  • Meditation instruction
  • Lectures and courses

The Experience

Newcomers are offered the opportunity for introductory meditation instruction in a separate smaller room, while experienced practitioners participated in an unguided group sitting.

Wednesday night sittings are often followed by lectures. The night I attended, I enjoyed a lecture by contemplative psychologist and meditation teacher Susan Chapman.

The Tradition

Shambhala was founded by Chögyam Trungpa, a Tibetian spiritual leader who fled the country after the failed uprising against the Chinese communists.

Similar to the Dalai Lama, Trungpa fled on foot across the Himalayas into India, where he remained for four years before finding his way to the United Kingdom to pursue studies at Oxford University.

There, he helped establish the first Buddhist meditation centre in the west, Samye Ling in Scotland. But after breaking with his fellow spiritual leader, Akyong Rinpoche, and renouncing his monastic vows, he made his way to America (via Canada, incidentally) where he became a lay teacher known for making Buddhism intelligible to western students.

Trungpa was a controversial figure – known for some less than enlightened pursuits such as alcohol consumption – but I won’t delve deep into that in this post. I’ll just say that during that period, Buddhism in the west was embraced by the sixties counter-culture scene. In fact, Trungpa’s students included rock star David Bowie and beat poet Allan Ginsberg. The renowned Buddhist nun and author, Pema Chödron, also studied with him.

In the 1970s, Trungpa began giving a series of secular teachings about the legendary mythical kingdom of Shambhala which began the movement, and established the hereditary lineage of Sakyongs (or ‘earth protectors’) that head the tradition. The current Sakyong, Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche is less of wild mystic than his father was. He’s a nine-time marathon runner whose books look quite at home on the Indigo self-help shelf.

Shambhala describes itself as ‘a global community of people inspired by the principle that every human being has a fundamental nature of basic goodness.’

Check out this YouTube video from the Sakyong on running: