Psychotherapy frequently makes use of mindfulness meditation, and it’s something I often encourage clients to try. I wrote about why I encourage meditation in my last blog post, so if you’ve not already read that, you may want to skip back to it first. What follows are six steps for a beginner’s approach.
There are different reasons to meditate, a frequent one being for stress relief. However, I encourage practising mindfulness simply to become more skilled at being habitually mindful.
Being habitually mindful helps grow self awareness. And growing self awareness helps promote the willingness and ability to make meaningful change in one’s life, especially if you are engaging in psychotherapy.
In mindfulness practice, we are always beginners. We approach every meditation with “beginner’s mind”: openness, curiosity, and humbleness. We shift out of the doing mode and into the being mode to see what’s there, as though we’ve never seen it before. Being not doing is an important distinction, because we spend almost all our busy lives (work and leisure) in the doing mode. So we are stopping. Full stop.
Getting out of the doing mode and into the being mode can feel strange and alien. For some, the doing mode is what keeps anxiety, depression, and bad memories at bay, so the being mode can be challenging to connect with. If that’s the case for you, go slow with this, and do it with someone who can guide you.
This is important too, because in mindfulness meditation we are stepping back from our mind. Rather than bouncing around inside it, we are calmly looking at it from the outside, almost as if from above. You can become lost wandering in London, England, but the panoramic view from the Golden Gallery at the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral helps you get your bearing.
That view of the mind from the Golden Gallery of mindfulness provides a calmness and clarity you can take with you. Seeing the mind’s twisting and turning from above helps you settle your mind down and grow your ability to discern patterns within your thinking and behaviour.
Step One: When, and for how long, to meditate
Begin by making a time, perhaps first thing in the morning. Last thing in the evening runs the risk of the mind looking forward to bed (especially if you meditate with your eyes closed). Start with fifteen minutes with the understanding that you will increase the time as you become more skillful. Set a timer out of your line of sight.
Step Two: Where to meditate
Reserve an exclusive space for yourself in which to sit, one that you feel will support your endeavour: a quiet space you wouldn’t use for anything else. Ask others to leave you in peace during this time. Turn off your smartphone.
Step Three: Posture
Now you want to find a comfortable posture that will support your meditation because you don’t want to distract yourself by shifting too much. Try sitting cross-legged on the floor with something underneath for cushioning. I, myself, cannot, so I kneel comfortably using a meditation bench. If that doesn’t work for you, try sitting in a comfortable but firm chair with your feet flat on the floor and knees angled at 90 degrees.
Unless you are physically unable to sit in these various ways, you want to ensure a straight back, an open chest, shoulders slightly back, chin slightly tucked, and eyes closed. If closing your eyes bothers you, take note of that, and keep them open, unfocused, and cast down to the space in front of you. If sitting in a chair, or against a wall, keep your back slightly forward under its own support.
In this pose, imagine yourself a resplendent mountain. A majestic, stable, unmoving mountain, because you want a state of mind where you can start with thoughts of goodwill towards yourself, and to all beings. You might be starting in a bad mood, a sad mood, or a joyous mood, but do not let the mood determine whether you meditate. Stepping back from the mind will let you better see the larger context of that mood and help in your training to self-regulate the emotions and calm the mind.
Step Four: Breathe
Next, bring your attention to the breath. You are placing the mind upon the breath. It’s a touchstone to which you can return and regain the sense of Now. And it’s a physical function that is both tied to, and affected by, your state of mind. When you are not mindful, your mind can affect your breath. When you are mindful, your breath can affect your mind. So, start with some long, deep breaths to bring everything into focus.
Next, settle down and find a breath that’s comfortable and easy. Don’t feel obliged to breathe in any particular way. Just breathe comfortably and follow the breath. Notice the breath coming in. Notice the breath going out. Follow it with the mind until you are in a comfortable zone. Take your time.
Step Five: Scan
When you are ready, begin shifting your attention with each breath. Bring awareness to your stomach and imagine the breath as an energy travelling in through your abdomen and spreading outwards in the belly. Notice any sensations that arises with that. Notice any sense of there being a block, a knot, or a tightness and imagine the breath energy loosening it. Let this unfold until the block resolves, and then move your awareness up your chest, repeating the process in the lower right, lower left, upper right, and upper left areas. Then your sides. Then your neck. Then your head.
With your head, allow the sense of breath energy to be drawn in through the top, the sides, the eyes, the nose, and the mouth. Be gentle with the top of the head. Look for tightness around the mouth, or around the jaw, and breathe through the tightness until it has resolved.
Now move to the back of the neck, repeating the process. Imagine the breath energy entering through the back of the neck on the inbreath. Gradually let that sense of energy spread downwards to your shoulders, shoulder blades, and spine. Work your way down to the tailbone, the buttocks, thighs, and legs until you reach your toes.
There’s a good chance that by now you have used up your fifteen minutes. If you’re feeling comfortable and you have time, keep going. But pace yourself if you are new. You want to build up the habit of meditating daily, without it becoming a chore. Jumping into the deep end too soon may discourage you to sit again because the mind may feel obliged to “match” what you did yesterday.
Step Six: Go deeper
Beyond this, once you have finished a body scan, return to the simple breath awareness, and find a spot within your body where you are comfortable staying for a while. Continue with the inbreath and outbreath, letting the energy flow in and out. Gradually expand your sense of that spot to eventually fill your body. As you breath in, the energy enters your body from all points, and flows out from all points.
In my last blog post, I wrote about “being outside the mind.”
Where does this fit in?
As you begin meditating, you will quickly find out. You will notice the mind’s tendency to wander.
And that deserves its own blog post.
In my therapy practice, mindfulness is a tool for helping grow self-awareness. But it’s only part of the broader process of fostering self-awareness and understanding, and of shifting how you relate to yourself. You may have been considering engaging in that process recently. And if you have, I invite you to reach out and contact me through the links below.
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