Mindfulness Basics

myfreemind.org mindfulness trees

Why can’t I get my mind to switch off?

First it’s important to recognise that thinking is the default setting of the mind. It’s what the mind does and without it we would be in serious trouble.

Basically you can’t get your mind to switch off or calm down as long as you’re paying attention it. Our thoughts can be compared to fire and our attention as the fuel; as long as we are paying attention to our thoughts they dominate our headspace.

Why? Because we believe that our thoughts tell us something real and authentic about who we are and how the world is. The more obsessed we become with what we think and the kinds of thoughts we have, the more they crowd our headspace. So you can’t switch you mind off because you’re addicted to it. Sadly most people live their lives dominated by their thoughts to the extent that their health suffers as a result of stress, worry and compulsive thinking. Most of us live our lives entirely in our heads, completely missing out on moment to moment reality.

How can I still my mind?

Although you cannot simply switch your mind off, you learn how to consciously shift your attention away from thoughts and onto your breath or the sensations in your body. The more diligently we can shift our focus away from the mind, the quieter and less disruptive it becomes.

When we stop habitually analysing and commenting on our thoughts, the mind becomes still and quiet. The result of practice is the ability to quieten the mind at will and develop a fresh, non-judgemental and accepting relationship towards it.

What exactly is Mindfulness Meditation?

Mindfulness Meditation is the ancient art of paying attention to each moment because our lives are a series of moments. If we miss the moment then we miss life.

Many of us live as if we are asleep, thinking the same old thoughts, doing the same things, reacting in the same predictable ways; living the same old life. In fact every moment is literally brand new and by living mindfully, or consciously, we become able to live fully in each moment, free from thoughts of past and future and totally available to whatever this moment offers us.

To practice Mindfulness Meditation is to practice being awake in our lives to our lives.

What kind of people meditate?

Ok, for a while it seemed that only hippies and Zen monks had the monopoly on sitting cross-legged, absorbed in meditation, chanting OM, but over the past 20 years scientific research has proved the mental and physical benefits of meditation and it has moved into the mainstream.

It’s now recognised as an effective way to manage your mind, reduce negative emotions and develop happiness and wellbeing.

Mindfulness Meditation is currently being used in diverse fields such as:

  • Integrative medicine
  • Healthcare
  • Psychology
  • Psychotherapy
  • Stress reduction
  • Childbirth & Parenting
  • Education
  • Cognitive therapy
  • Diet & Weightloss
  • Coping with chronic pain
  • Coping with depression

It’s currently being used by Olympic Teams, the Military and multinational corporations such as Google and has been introduced into schools and prisons. Mindfulness is for anyone interested in becoming a happier, healthier and more peaceful person, and that’s everyone isn’t it?

Do I need to believe in anything?

Not at all, in fact we could say that Mindfulness is all about putting down our ideas and beliefs and seeing them for what they really are.

Here, we are not interested in picking up a new belief or lifestyle to show off, or interesting theories to debate with people, rather we practice being with the present moment, again and again, learning to let go of our concepts, definitions and expectations, and open ourselves to the fresh and new experience of here and now, whatever that experience may be.

How often should I practice?

For beginners, a 20 minute meditation practice in a quiet room with little distraction is great. As you begin to develop your attention of the breath and bodily sensations you can begin to extend your sitting time to 30 or 45 minutes.

Although a formal sitting practice is the bedrock of mindful living, you can also begin to cultivate a conscious, mindful attitude within your daily life. Your drive to work, the people and situations you find yourself in during the day, eating your evening meal, showering and brushing your teeth, are all excellent opportunities where you can bring yourself back to the breath and meet the present moment with clarity and calm.

When is the best time to practice?

Actually, every moment is the best time to practice simply because you have the opportunity to be aware in every moment.

As far as your formal sitting practice goes, the best time is really up to you but I would suggest early morning just after you get up as your mind is still fresh and bright and uncluttered.

Alternatively, sitting when you get home from work is a great way to clear your mind and begin the evening fresh and calm. I would suggest avoiding sitting after eating or when excessively tired as this tends energise the mind and make it more chaotic, although for hardcore meditators this can also be a great opportunity to watch the mind when it’s powerful and wild.

What am I supposed to be doing when I meditate?

We could say that, actually, meditation is the art of doing nothing. It is the practice of stopping, both physically and mentally, and simply observing the flow of thoughts, feelings and sensations of this body and mind that we call ‘me’.

Mindfulness Meditation is about cultivating the shift from doing (where we spend our lives always chasing the next thing that will make us happy) into being (where we simply stop and relax into the present moment with awareness).

The basic methods of Mindfulness Meditation involve becoming aware of the breath and then expanding that awareness to include all sensations, internal and external, and from this place of being, simply observe all thoughts and feelings coming and going.

Do I need to visualise something or repeat a mantra?

Some meditation traditions do use visualisations or repeated sounds to concentrate the mind but in mindfulness meditation we simply shift our attention to the breath.

We don’t want to add anything extra to this moment. We don’t want to imagine something ‘nice’ but rather see this moment just as it is in reality. Our practice is to simply observe the flow of thoughts and feelings from an open space of awareness.

I already know how to meditate, how can I deepen it?

Meditation is a lifelong practice. As our practice deepens it gives rise to insights and our insights then deepen our practice further. For seasoned meditators looking to develop their practice, I would suggest a few things:

Attend a regular sitting group in your area and make the effort to go to any talks by teachers of meditation and mindfulness
Go on a meditation retreat to really deepen your practice (anything from 5 to 7 or 10 days, often silent, although many retreats last months).

Try self-enquiry, this is the process whereby you ask yourself questions such as ‘Who am I?’ ‘Who is asking this question?’ ‘Who is this happening to?’ in order to turn our attention inwards, towards the core of our being. Do not look for answers, but rather listen to the ever-present silence behind the answer.

One of the most transformative practices is simply to bring mindfulness into your every day life, in all circumstances. This is difficult as we are habitually unconscious in many aspects of our daily life even if we have a strong sitting practice. To suddenly catch ourselves in the middle of a reaction or emotion and bring mindfulness to it is difficult but transformational.