In my latest column on North By Northwest, heard on CBC Radio One in British Columbia, Sheryl and I talk about the incredible popularity of Mindfulness. What is it? Who is doing it? And is it the magical cure all for stress, depression and even happiness at work financially and emotionally? You can hear the column in podcast form after April 25th here or tune in this weekend between 7 and 9 to hear it.
What is it?
Mindfulness is a term that originates from the practice of meditation. Traditional meditation is known in Sanskrit as Shamatha. Shamatha translates as ‘peaceful abiding’. I can tell you as a coach, that I haven’t had a client yet that didn’t wish for more peace in their life. No wonder so many are tempted to try it out.
This form of meditation was introduced by the historical Buddha 2,600 years ago, and I believe it hasn’t changed at all. So, why ‘mindfulness’ now? Why not call it meditation? Many credit Jon Kabat-Zinn with the wide spread adoption of the term ‘mindfulness’. He offered a non-theistic approach to meditation as part of a health program he spear headed. It seemed to him that this practice offered such great benefits, that no one need be put off due to notions of spirituality. By using the term ‘mindfulness, Kabat-Zinn made clear that no special belief was necessary. This wasn’t, and isn’t, a Buddhist practice exclusively. Mindfulness is available and can be beneficial to everyone.
How did it come to the west?
You can thank yoga. In the late 1890’s when yoga schools began to appear, meditation was part of the practice. By the 1960’s with the secularization of hatha yoga, meditation as well began to find an audience with people who wanted a relief from stress.
Mindfulness. The Magic Pill for stress?
Science is saying yes. Jon Kabat-Zinn was a pioneer in this field. He created the well known Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. When surveyed, participants in this eight-week program reported that they still felt the health benefits three years later.
Beyond that anecdotal report, more thorough studies have been performed recently. Most notably on monks. Previously, science reported that after age 30 your brain stopped growing and making new connections. Basically, it was downhill for us cognitively after that. But recent meditation research by neuroscientists suggests that mindfulness gives the brain fresh connections and activity. Scientists from the University of Wisconsin measured brain waves called gamma synchrony in a study with monks with ten years or more meditation experience against the control group of 8 college students. Normally, these gamma waves are slow and uncoordinated, but in the monks the scientists said they saw the brain waves like “ numerous jump ropes turning precisely together”. What this signified was that the monks were better able to pay attention, they showed more sharpness in perception, they had better memories, they had the ability to learn new things more efficiently and also showed better emotional control.
I want to start a mindfulness practice, but how?
The actual instruction for this practice is very simple.
When you are mindful, you are training the brain to come back to the present moment. Mind and body synchronize. Here and now
To cultivate this awareness, there is an object of meditation. In mindfulness, the object is the breath. Free, Reliable. And always available.
- You sit
- Take a good posture-with energy and uprightness
- Feel your body.
- Notice your breath. Any physical sensations that arise from the breath. Continue to notice the breath over and over again.
- Thoughts arise and when you notice them, let them be, and come back to your breath.
I’ve been meditating for five years now and I sit most days between 15 to 30 minutes. I’ve done weekend and weeklong retreats. Have I found peace? Some sort of blissful hide out?
There are glimpses of something, other than what I normally have. I’m not sure it’s peace. But it isn’t the usual noise and distractions. I have a sense of being much more present in my moment-to-moment life. I also have a sense of so space between an event and my reaction. Sometimes I have clarity in unexpected places.
Is it easy? Not always. But is it important? Yes.
I meditate to meet my mind. Not to change it.
Meditation has trained me in the practice of being and connecting with a sense of that being enough.
There is no one to meet on the cushion but myself. Meditation is experiment. Don’t accept any ones stories about it. Try it for yourself and see.
The Books to help get started
A quick search in Amazon under “meditation books,” reveals over 105,000 to choose from. Let me save you a bit of time with my top three picks if you are starting from ground zero.
Loving Kindness-The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzburg. At the end of each chapter there are suggested exercises for your practice including powerful contemplations.
Mindfulness for Beginners Jon Kabat Zinn. The man who brought us the term ‘mindfulness’ shares his clear and non-theistic instructions for this practice.
There’s an App for that!
If sitting and being stuck with only your breath to occupy your monkey mind for ten minutes strikes fear in your heart, then why not try one of these apps. Each offers a timer if you want to create your own practice and a selection of guided meditations if you want some support.
They are each excellent for different reasons and worth trying out to see if there is one that is a good fit for you.
YouTube and the Search for my Mind.
Online is thriving with offers of guided meditations in podcasts and with fun visuals and music. Here are a few suggestions if this appeals:
Tara Brach offers guided meditations free as well. She’s always adding more to her play list.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on YouTube
If you have some favourites, please drop me a note and share them and I will pass them on to others here.
Tips from the Cushion
You only need to remember these 10 things to start and keep up a mindfulness practice.
Set a regular time. First thing in the morning is often best. Before the day takes you away.
Choose a place. Take the time to make it feel comfortable so you will want to sit.
Commit to length and stick to it. Ten or fifteen is good, and studies showed 20 minutes a day for 8 weeks makes a difference you can notice.
No need to sit in lotus. Be comfortable. In a chair or on the floor. Be sure to sit with pride in just being a human, sitting there.
Get a community-live or online. All new habits benefit from support and community.
Follow the instructions. Follow the breath. Feel yourself in this body. Don’t get fancy. Keep it simple.
Thoughts aren’t a problem. You aren’t trying to stop thinking. Thoughts aren’t bad. (Lost in thought)
You aren’t trying to reach nirvana and get blissed out. Not an escape. You are zoning in, not zoning out. (From here to –here)
You can’t do it wrong. There is no perfect. You are meeting yourself, your mind, whatever arises is ok.
Be kind to yourself. Practice instant forgiveness. There is no bad meditation. Remember, every time you come back to the breath, no matter how long you have been away, it’s a fresh start.