On learning how to meditate

A study published by researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital in 2001 found that practicing mindfulness meditation for an average of just twenty-seven minutes a day over a period of eight weeks produced visible changes in brain structure, a change that correlated with a significant lowering of subjects’ self-reported stress levels [1].

Mindfulness meditation is the practice that was discovered by Gautama Buddha (the awakened one) some 2500 years ago. In his quest to find peace of mind, he initially tried all sorts of methods that were both physically and emotionally punishing. But then he struck upon the idea that by simply stopping, sitting down in a good posture and following his breathe, his anxious mind calmed down.

Seated thus, he learned how to “just be”, to watch rather than control or fiddle with his mind, his thoughts and emotions. ‘Just being’, the ability to be fully awake and relaxed at the same time, is another way to think about how it’s possible to experience freedom from mental and emotional distractions.

Whilst sitting beneath his tree, the Buddha discovered that freedom comes not from trying to eradicate or cure these various distracting states of mind, be they thoughts or emotions. Rather it is the discipline of learning to be mindful of them that in and of itself lessens their power to kidnap and disturb us. Mindfulness meditation is not about getting rid of difficult thoughts, it’s about learning to watch, to rest, to breathe into and be curious, about them. It is a process which, when done regularly and with discipline, lessens their power to make us anxious. It brings with it a deepening sense of contentment and confidence.

No matter how scatty or undisciplined one might imagine oneself to be, mindfulness meditation is something that anyone can do. It is as simple and demanding as sitting still and following one’s breath. When the mind naturally gets caught up with particular thoughts, feelings or concerns, the practice provides us with the space and the possibility to cut them and return to the breath, to take a clean start. It is learning to come back again and again to the stable and trustworthy experience of the body breathing.

In short, this is how mindfulness meditation works. It is not only a spiritual practice although some use it to deepen their understanding. It is quite simply learning to be fully present, less distracted and therefore more focused on whatever it is that one is engaged in, be that a sporting, artistic, intellectual or indeed a spiritual endeavour.

Mindfulness meditation is a very simple and straightforward practice, however one must be taught it by a trained instructor in person. Its very simplicity is hard to convey just by reading about it.

[1] My Age of Anxiety, Scott Stossel, Windmill Books 2014.

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