Essentials of Mindfulness Meditation Part 1: The Breath
Maybe this is the first time you have ever tried mindfulness meditation, or perhaps you have been practising it for years, but it has all become... a bit mixed up? Or maybe it is somewhere in between or perhaps you are just interested in learning a different approach?
Whatever the reason is, this first blog will take you through the basics of the mindfulness of breathing. Then part two will take you through a couple of different approaches to the body scan.
From these short introductions, I hope that you will learn some essential skills of mindfulness meditation that you can use in your daily life to benefit your wellbeing.
What is mindfulness?
Before we jump in, let's take a look at what mindful awareness is. I've come across all sorts of definitions from the modern mindfulness approach of say, Finding Peace in a Frantic World (click on the link to find out the what they say) to a monk who said, while I was on his retreat:
"Mindfulness is awakening to the way it is".
All you need to do is type into Google: what is mindfulness? And many differently worded points of view will come up.
My offering on this is simple and practical: mindfulness is an awareness of the body and how it feels in the present moment; this applied knowing helps ground thought formations and leads one to know their states of mind more clearly.
I haven't included anything about calming the mind, releasing old habits or improving well-being as I feel, this takes a holistic approach, that includes mindfulness, as well as how one carries one's self in life.
The holistic approach
From my experience, calming the heart (and mind) involves treating yourself and others with respect and compassion. This settles the heart and naturally settles the mind too; this feeds into better concentration and mindfulness, which helps one treat others more wisely.
The factors all play off each other and improve well-being overall.
In this blog though, we're just going to look at the mindfulness aspect with regards to breathing.
Let's start from the beginning then: how to sit. Check out this video as it will talk you through a variety of options.
A couple of points it doesn't cover are: hands position and moving.
Hands can be placed on your lap, or on your knees in front, either facing up or facing down. Experiment and go with what feels most comfortable.
Not an endurance exercise
Initially, you'll probably only sit for a short period, so this shouldn't be a major issue. However, the general rule is: bear with any discomfort for a period and if it goes then that is ok, if the discomfort stays, and becomes more intense, then make a sensible adjustment to your sitting position.
Yes, you can move in meditation: stretch, change leg position or change hand position, role your shoulder blades... meditation is not an endurance exercise!
Where to focus
OK, so we've covered off the sitting position, the next thing to look at is where you place your attention.
There are a few different places to focus on in terms of the breath and I appreciate you'd like to keep it simple (me too) but people tend to have a preferred place so let's go through three of them.
I'd suggest reading through each one and then choose the one that appeals most to you, sit down in your chosen sitting position and then give the included guided audio meditation a go.
If that doesn't quite appeal then try the others and see if they do the trick.
The nose tip
This involves placing your awareness on the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves at the tip of the nose. One can feel the breath coming in, stimulating the nose tip and then: feel the breath stimulating the nose tip on the way out again.
It is simply a case of just knowing this sensation as it is happening.
Around your chest
This is my favourite as I find it easy and natural to do. It is done by placing your inner awareness around your chest/rib cage area; simply feeling the effect of the breath there. Feeling the expansions and contractions of the chest/rib cage as you breathe naturally.
I've found that it is a relaxed and easy place to be aware of.
The rising and falling of the abdomen
Well, this is where I initially learnt to focus but got a bit confused at first because I didn't know where the abdomen was (to be fair I had failed GCSE biology and was only 19 when I first learnt meditation). A little mistakenly, I took it to be the general belly area.
Later - only about 2 years or so later - I learnt (slow learner so if I can pick up meditation anyone can) that it, of course, the area of muscles below the belly button.
To find what I'm talking about simply put one hand below your belly button and try to feel the rising and falling of your abdomen there. This movement is at the base of where you breathe and often where you feel instincts so a beautiful place to be mindful of.
One just stays with the sensation of the rising and falling of the muscles here - simple.
Dropping the mental notes
In the above meditations, you are advised to make mental notes to help direct your mind to the object to concentrate on. I would advise that, as a starting point, the mental noting approach is fine but in the long run, I'd drop the internal noting and just be aware; just know the breath silently.
Handling the wandering mind
The wandering mind is a big old subject, so what I'll do here is give you a couple of practical tips to keep you going on handling it wisely.
1. Thoughts don't stop when you meditate but the stories you put on top of thought-formations can quieten down. So don't get frustrated with thoughts popping in and out of your field of awareness; accept them and come back to the breath.
2. Work with the mood you are in. If you are restless or tired, accept this and perhaps just meditate for a short time then leave it and come back the next day again. Work gently with how you are.
Need more advice?
I appreciate learning meditation can be a challenge so if you need any advice I'm happy to help out; leave a comment or question below and I'll get back to you.
The body scan
If you would like to have a go at a body scan then here is part 2 of the essentials of meditation series.