What is mindfulness meditation like?
Meditation is an ancient practice to help your mind be more disciplined in focusing on the very present moment. This stills the mind and helps let the ‘dust’ of unhelpful thinking settle so that you can see your life more clearly.
Mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) is a Western non-secular adaptation of the ancient Eastern art of meditation. It is based on mindfulness and has strongly incorporated Western influences of modern psychology. This Western approach involves weekly group meetings to learn meditation, body scanning and gentle stretches and movement. The program has been well researched to show that mindfulness meditation lowers blood pressure and reduces physiological and emotional reactivity to stress.
In meditation, your body is still to help you watch your mind’s habits live. Meditation helps you watch your thoughts as you might watch passing traffic clouds. The quotes at the bottom of this article show how very experienced internationally renowned practitioners and teachers of meditation describe what this process is like. Essentially, these people describe how in meditation you learn to still the mind by standing back and observe thoughts, emotions and feelings come and go. You watch your emotions, thoughts, and body sensations as they come up and you bring the intention of not becoming distracted or trapped in them.
As you watch the thoughts, emotions and feelings without dwelling on them or pushing them away. You can learn to see more clearly how your mind reacts to stress. Instead of being caught up in all the difficult emotions, you can watch them ebb and flow, rise and fall in your mind for the short time that you meditate. This helps you distance yourself a bit from the stress reaction, tolerate it and so to be more resilient in the face of difficult times. In watching your stress reaction, a short gap develops between the reaction and the behaviour. In the words of psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl:
"Between stimulus and response there's a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom."
In other words, in between the feeling of stress and your habitual behavioral reaction to it, is a space for you to pause. This stops the dominoes effect of a thought or feeling automatically leading to a behaviour creating more tense thoughts and feelings. Between feeling your blood rise when someone jumps the queue at the supermarket, for example, and having an angry outburst is an important moment. At this instant, you can watch live the thoughts and feelings and your impulse to act on them. This moment of pause is a very special opportunity to choose. To choose something different that does not get you caught up in repetitive patterns that cause a knock-on effect of more pain. Instead of having an embarrassing outburst, you might choose to be generous in waiting the just the extra couple of minutes to pay. This helps you develop different ways of being in the world.
The growth and popularity of mindfulness in the West has meant that the field has developed quicker than it has been able to be regulated. It is important to check that any teacher offering mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) or mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT), have had specific formal training at a recognised mindfulness teacher course as set out by those who adapted mindfulness for the West. It is important to find a skilled and experienced teacher with an understanding of the philosophical framework and theory of mindfulness. In 2010, the UK Mindfulness Trainers' Network developed some good practice guidance for teaching mindfulness-based courses which might help you make sure you get quality training.
Quotes from world-renowned meditation teachers describing meditation
- “The mind in its natural state can be compared to the sky, covered by layers of cloud which hide its true nature.” Kalu Rinpoche
- “If you let cloudy water settle, it will become clear. If you let your upset mind settle, your course will also become clear.” Jack Kornfield, Buddha’s Little Instruction Book
- “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” Thích Nhat Hanh, Stepping into Freedom: Rules of Monastic Practice for Novices
- “If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.” Amit Ray, Om Chanting and Meditation
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About Sherylin Thompson
Dr Sherylin Thompson is a Chartered Psychologist and trained mindfulness teacher. She runs mindfulness classes 1-2-1, group courses and business mindfulness programmes.