Developing a Mindfulness Meditation Practice
In a previous blog post, I summarized the benefits of mindfulness meditation for health and wellbeing, and in this one, I offer some suggestions for developing a mindfulness meditation practice.
Setting an Intention
Start by setting a clear intention to practice mindfulness meditation on a regular basis. Start small, perhaps setting an intention to meditate for a few minutes a day or three times a week. In addition, set a regular time of day if possible. Early in the morning or last thing at night are good times for many, but choose the time that works best for you.
To set an intention, it may help to reflect on why you want to practice mindfulness meditation. What are your reasons? Be as precise as you can.
Write down your intentions and reasons. Then, if you lose enthusiasm and energy, you can re-read to your intentions and reasons so they can re-motivate you.
Many people stop practicing mindfulness meditation because they judge themselves and/or believe they are not doing it “correctly.” Instead, just let your practice be as it is. Try your best, but do not blame or criticize yourself. Remember that there is no goal or outcome you need to achieve and that you can always change your intentions. The practice is its own reward and, in my experience, it is called a practice for good reason!
Sit in a chair or on the floor and find a comfortable but alert posture. Let your hands rest comfortably on your knees or lap and allow your eyes to close, or if you prefer, leave them open, with a soft gaze in front of you. Check your posture periodically during your meditation session, as a way of staying connected with your body.
Then starting at the scalp, gradually move your attention downward, loosening and softening different parts of your body. As you relax, become aware of the sensations and energy moving through it.
Next, choose a meditation anchor – a “home-base” that you can return to when you notice that you have become distracted or lost in thought. This will help quiet your mind so you can be more fully in the present moment.
Common meditation anchors include:
- The sensations of breathing wherever you feel them most easily, for example, the tip of your nostrils, the back of your throat, the rise and fall of your chest or abdomen.
- Sensations in other areas of the body, such as your hands, feet, or lips.
Then keep coming back to your meditation anchor whenever you notice that your mind has wandered from it.
Remember that mindfulness meditation is not about getting rid of thoughts, which is impossible. Thinking is what the mind does! Instead, recognize that you are thinking and gently bring your awareness back to your meditation anchor, without any self-judgment, blame or criticism.
You can deepen your practice by repeatedly asking yourself two questions:
- What is happening in my mind, heart, and body right now?
- Can I be with this?
If you need to scratch an itch or adjust your posture, do it mindfully being aware of what you are doing. And if you get sleepy, be aware that you are feeling sleepy and gently bring your attention back to your experience of the present moment.
Above all, remember to be kind and gentle with yourself, especially if you encounter difficult emotions such as fear, confusion, sadness or hurt.
Finally, at the end of your meditation period, thank yourself for taking the time to meditate.
To develop and sustain a mindfulness meditation practice over time, it helps to find ways to support yourself. Common supports include:
- Being part of a meditation group or sangha in person or online. Find a local group in your community or online
- Using a meditation app, such as Insight Timer, Calm, Stop, Breathe and Think, 10% Happier, Headspace, or Meditation Studio
- Listening to free dharma talks at dharmaseed.org
- Going on a mindfulness meditation retreat at a retreat center
- Meeting with a mindfulness meditation teacher
Mindfulness Meditation and Trauma
After my previous blog post, someone commented that mindfulness meditation may not be right for everyone, particularly those dealing with trauma. While it’s true that certain techniques can re-trigger painful experiences, it’s also true that mindfulness meditation is a valuable tool for trauma survivors. Indeed, mindfulness meditation is now widely used by the Veterans’ Administration as a way of treating PTSD.
The “trick” is to minimize the possible risks of meditation while maximizing its potential benefits. This can be done by making sure that trauma survivors know which techniques to avoid, training them to use techniques that minimize the possibility of re-triggering trauma (such as resourcing, titration, and pendulation), encouraging them to take frequent breaks and use appropriate meditation anchors. If survivors are aware of the signs of their trauma, they can respond and prevent re-traumatizing themselves.
- How to Meditate by Tara Brach (free eBook)
- Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness : Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing By David Treleavan
- Basic Elements of Meditation Practice, by Tara Brach Part 1 (53 mins)
- Basic Elements of Meditation Practice, by Tara Brach Part 2 (58 mins)