It is easy to get mixed up about these two practices. Both help us focus and relax the mind to work harmoniously for our wellbeing and benefit; however, they are quite different in many ways! Meditation can be a path to mindfulness, while mindfulness is not a path to meditation.
Mindfulness is being consciously aware of the present moment. It is noticing the world around us, as well as our own thoughts, emotions, behavior, sensation, feelings, movement, etc., with focused attention. For example, while taking a shower, focus on the feeling of water hitting your skin, focus on the temperature, the pressure of the spray, the drops running down your body. Listen fully when your partner, co-worker, family member is speaking, paying full attention without distraction. Hear the sounds of nature when you walk outside without blocking it with mental chatter or your to-do list. When we are focused on the present moment, we are not reliving the anxiety or guilt, embarrassment, or pain of the past, and we are not living in fear or apprehension of the future which can cause intense stress and negativity.
Our modern technology and lifestyle continually try to distract us and pull us away from the present moment. News and social media actively provide daily fodder for us to relive the past or project the future, creating emotional triggers like anger, fear, associative distress, pain, and panic. We absorb that information and make it real in our minds, even things that haven’t happened yet and are not guaranteed to have that projected outcome! Mindfulness brings us right to the here and now and can be practiced anywhere and at any time. For example, practice mindfulness while doing the dishes, noticing the way the soapsuds feel on the skin, the sensation of temperature of the water and the motion of your hands and arm muscles washing a glass or a plate. Mindfulness helps us focus and relax the mind to work in harmony with our well-being and for our benefit.
Meditation can be a pathway to mindfulness, while mindfulness is not a pathway to meditation. Meditation is an intentional practice that uses focus on one thing for the entire meditation, such as the inhalation and exhalation of the breath, listening to or chanting a mantra, or focusing on a particular part of the body like the third eye or the space between the nose and mouth while breathing. Meditation trains the mind to focus within, while mindfulness trains the mind on focusing outward. Meditation trains the brain to notice the thoughts that come in and let them go, observing them without judgment or attachment to them. Benefits of meditation include reduced anxiety and stress, improved focus, and related skills such as problem solving, attention to detail, and performance of a job, as well as reduced pain and lower blood pressure. Following meditation, quite often insights, visions, and new understandings surface for us to look at, absorb, journal, etc.
So, how do I start a meditation practice?
Attending a meditation class is a wonderful plan to create a commitment to yourself and get instruction and advice; however, you can also begin to meditate right in your own home. People have some misconceptions about meditation that often stop them before they start! The most common misconception that people have is that they have tried to meditate but gave up due to distracting thoughts moving through their mind and, therefore, they are not meditators. The truth is that anyone can learn to meditate with practice, everyone has distracting thoughts, and there are ways to move through that to meditation.
Many people believe that they must be in a completely quiet place to practice meditation. This may make meditating easier at first but, with practice, you can learn to meditate in the middle of a crowded mall or in a downtown park filled with the sounds of people, traffic, and other sounds or disturbances without being overwhelmed by distractions. Just like with thoughts that come into the mind, sounds are observed without judgment, accepted as part of the meditation, then let go, and we keep breathing.
People also believe that they can lie down and practice meditation. Yes, meditation can be practiced while lying down; however, many people fall asleep in this position, and sleeping, while restful, is not meditation.
Sitting in one position without moving during meditation can be difficult for most people. The mind is exceptionally good at bringing our attention to the itchy nose, the lower backache, the restless leg. It can feel almost impossible to resist moving to relieve the sensation. That’s where the terms “monkey mind” and “itty bitty shitty committee” got their start, and the mind’s game is distraction! There is a term used in meditation called “unyielding determination,” meaning that no matter what itches, hurts, aches, or tries to distract us, we choose to not move for the full time we are meditating. As you learn to meditate, you may set a time limit of, for example, five minutes.... five minutes where you make a commitment to yourself to stay in stillness, without yielding to distraction, no matter what! With practice this gets easier, and you can extend the time; however, even five minutes every day in meditation will be life-changing!
So, let’s get started!
Create a comfortable space for your meditation, preferably a quiet one where you won’t be interrupted.
Take a seated position on the floor, on a cushion, or in a chair. Sit with your legs crossed or straight, finding a comfortable position.
Take time to scan your body for tension, aches, and pains, and stretch or move to release it.
When you are feeling ready, begin to focus on your breath. The breath is called Prana, meaning life force energy. The Prana is the first thing we receive when we are born. We inhale it! We exhale it! We need it to live!
Inhale deeply, filling the belly with Prana first, and then the lungs; exhale, releasing the Prana from the lungs and then the belly. Continue breathing in this manner.
Place your tongue on the soft palate in the roof of your mouth. This creates a circuit which stimulates a meridian that stimulates the pineal gland.
Begin to count while inhaling, 1...2...3...4...5, whatever number your inhalation takes you to. Then keep your exhalation to the same count, creating a comfortable rhythm as well as a focal point for your meditation. Keep repeating the sequence, counting your breath recitations.
As things come to your mind that draw your focus away from your breath, allow those thoughts to pass through without attachment, and bring your attention back to counting your inhalation and exhalation.
You may begin to see colors or visions, you may not. Either way, allow them to pass through without attachment and just breathe.
If you are meditating alone, you can set a timer for 5 minutes to let you know when to end your meditation.
You did it! After your meditation, take time to reflect and feel, noticing how your body feels, your emotions, your mind. (This is where mindfulness comes in as a useful practice.)
You may want to keep a journal of your meditation practice as insights begin to come to you. Every person is different and receives their messages in their own way and in their own perfect timing.