Meditation often has a mystical, far?Eastern meaning to most people. In fact, some people are even made anxious about meditation because of religious prejudice. Since the end of WW II, there has been a great deal of research on the effects of meditation practice, regardless of whatever religious tradition is studied.
Peter began meditating with Transcendental Meditation in the early 1970’s, and continued more intensively through Mindfulness of Breathing meditation practice since 1982. He has been on dozens of long meditation retreats, lasting from 3 days to 3 months in duration. He’s the founding teacher of the Orlando Insight Meditation Group, established in 1997 to promote meditation practice. He teaches introductory courses on mindfulness meditation and lovingkindness meditation around Central Florida.
Mindfulness meditation is a major focus of scientific research these days. The effects of the practice on the body and the mind are ongoing. In fact, due to the influence of the Dalai Lama, major research is being conducted on how meditation practice actually creates happiness, in addition to warding off suffering.
What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is the capacity for observing what happens in the mind as it happens. This quality of self observation is not judgmental or harsh. It’s simply noting the condition of the mind in a situation—the thoughts, moods and urgencies that are cascading through consciousness as they are being formed and passing away.
How is mindfulness helpful? Our life experiences are processed in multiple ways. Mindfulness focuses on two of these processes: what we are thinking, and the urgent feelings that accompany each thought.
THINKING: Mindfulness allows us to notice in a more objective way the thoughts that arise—they’re just thoughts, not commands or certainties (although they may feel certain at the time). Thoughts are provisional, that is, they provide meaning to experience and guide potential responses.
URGENT FEELINGS: When a thought arises, it’s accompanied by a feeling, either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Except for neutral feelings, there’s a sense of urgency about the feelings. As the thoughts change, the feelings change in urgency and directions. How often I’ve noticed pleasant feelings of love turn abruptly to unpleasant feelings of fear or anger, when my thoughts about the loved object change!
How do I practice mindfulness meditation? The practice of mindfulness meditation is very simple and straightforward. Set aside a time when you will be undisturbed. Sit up straight in a not?too?comfortable chair. Either with eyes open or closed, just focus attention steadily on the touch sensation as air enters and leaves your nostrils. Not thinking, just sensing the neutral sensation. Focusing for long periods of time on breath awareness allows the thoughts and more or less urgent feelings to subside, so the body relaxes and your mood softens. Naturally the mind will wander. Mindfully notice the shift of focus and whatever urgent feeling arises. After noting the thoughts and
feelings briefly, disregard them and return awareness to watching the breath. Repeat this procedure of noticing and letting go back to the breath for the whole meditation. Try to stay with breath awareness for as long as possible to produce a calm and clear mind. However, noticing and disregarding the thoughts and feelings that arise is also important, as it makes it possible to desensitize yourself to the urgency that causes anxiety, depression, quarreling, addictive behavior, and other similar problems.
How does this help? It helps in several important ways:
- Staying with the breath sensations naturally calms the emotions.
- Maintaining an ongoing curiosity about what will happen during the breath cycle strengthens the “mindfulness muscle” so there is more internal awareness.
- Practicing letting go of urgency without acting on it is the most intimate and immediate way to cultivate self?discipline.
What is lovingkindness? Lovingkindness meditation involves repeating a phrase that cultivates good will, tolerance and compassion for whatever arises in the mind. It’s normal to think that someone or something external “makes me angry” or fearful, etc. Through careful self?examination, it’s clear that the emotions are generated by our attitudes regarding external events more than the event itself.
How can I practice lovingkindness? I suggest a person find a quiet spot suitable for meditation practice. Focus attention on the area around the heart—not to notice heart beat sensations, but rather just whatever sensation arises. It might be achy or hard, soft, pulsing, expansive or seem to be absent of sensation. At the same time, repeat this phrase with great sincerity, over and over again:
May I be safe
May I be happy
May I be healthy
May I be content
May I love myself completely
And with great kindness
Just as I am now
No matter what happens
The benefit of this practice comes from using the emotions derived from repeating the phrase to keep the part of the brain devoted to verbalizing busy with positive emotion?generating words. This also helps to calm the mind and soothe angry or anxious moods.
Meditation practice not the answer to all of life’s concerns, but it provides us with a very powerful tool for managing what we think, how we feel and our behaviors. I often encourage clients who are willing to use meditation practice to enhance the benefits of psychotherapy.