What is Meditation

What is meditation? What is mindfulness?

The mind becomes your tool, and you are no longer the tool of your mind.” – Serge Augier

Meditation could be thought to be mind training: Concentration training. Usually the mind wants to exist anywhere but the present. It tries to draw us into thinking about what has happened, what could happen, and what we wish might happen. We believe we are in control, but we struggle to sit quietly without reaching into our pockets or purses for our phones. We get bored. We feel entitled to be entertained, rather than engaged. We do not have mind control.

There are numerous and varied meditative practices from all over the world, from almost all religions and spiritual practices. Mindfulness currently is undergoing a ‘fad’ as a way of treating stress, pain, mental health, addiction… etc. It is heavily research and there is plenty of good evidence in support of it. There are also many fantastic practices that have be adapted and ‘made modern’ (such as ‘The Wim Hof  Method’).

While many traditions have developed from Buddhist meditation practices and eastern philosophy, there are plenty of ‘western’ practices that reflect similar ideas and concepts. For example the ancient Greek practice of stoicism in undergoing a resurgence and helping many people manage their thoughts, feeling and emotions better.

Some forms of meditation heavily use visualisation of images or deities. Other forms rely of physical sensation of the body. Some are about controlling the mind by making it act passively and ‘watch’ thoughts, some forms are active and impose thoughts on the mind, holding them in place.

Meditation means many things, to different people. But at it’s essence, it is about training the mind. Can it help you with developing empathy? Being more kind? Being happy? Managing stress? Controlling emotional reactions? Managing pain? Yes, but it is not a magic bullet. It might be difficult. You might get bored. It does require practice and disciple, just like developing any other skill.

Benefits & problems of meditation & mindfulness

There are thousands studies on mindfulness alone, I do not have the time nor inclination to write a review on them. There is good scientific evidence at mindfulness’ effectiveness, despite the difficulties in the measurements, blinding, control and placeboes. Some (obviously cherry picked) reviews and data that suggests that mindfulness can Improve:

  • Adaptive psychological functioning.
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Subjective well-being
  • Self-regulation of behaviour
  • Working memory
  • Focus & attention
  • Relationship satisfaction
  • Fear modulation
  • Immune functioning
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Counselling skills
  • Sleep

Mindfulness can also Reduce:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Rumination & worrying
  • Pain, high blood pressure
  • Insomnia

Now, I know reading a list of things that mindfulness can help with makes it seem like the best things that could ever happen. But lets be put it in context for a moment: Until very recently historically, we had large amounts of time when there was nothing to do except sit and think. There were plenty of manual labour/menial tasks that could be done, unconsciously, with ‘Samu’ (physical work done with mindfulness). There were fewer distractions and we couldn’t be entertained whenever we wanted. Now it is impossible sit somewhere and not do anything without suppressing the urge to listen to music, go online, watch tv, stare at your phone or pick up a book or magazine. The contemplation that used to be a normal, natural part of human life, is now largely missing. We reject the opportunity to contemplate because feel bored.

For many people meditation is a way to buffer themselves against the effects of modern life. Obviously, for many other people meditation is more spiritual or religious in nature. Just remember that it is not a ‘life hack’ to become more efficient or stress-proof. It is a practice that can reduce your ego and sense of self importance; allowing you to see you have been following a path that doesn’t match your values. It can be humbling, life changing, and lead to a deeper journey than expected.

The only problems I have personally heard about from people have been from rejections of the ‘spiritual’ or ‘wishy-washy’ aspects of meditation clashing with their own beliefs and values; Difficulty practicing and self-discipline problems; and frustration at not seeing benefits immediately.

There is a potential risk with meditation and mindfulness, which is referred to as ‘The dark night of the soul’ (there is a good Atlantic article about it here). I have never experienced it myself, but know of people who have suffered from this sort of existential, psychological and emotional disturbances following developing a practice. It is very rare, and often is the result of ‘too much too soon’, sometimes it emerges when even a gradual approach is taken. Shinzen Young describes it as the Shadow of Mindfulness, and has developed three strategies to attempt to transform this state:

1) Accentuate the good parts of your ‘Dark Night’, even though they ‘may seem very subtle relative to the bad parts’. Looking for sensations of positive energy, or feelings. Tranquility, despite darkness.

2) Eliminate the negative parts by deconstructing them through observation. (Dividing negative reaction into parts such as ‘mental image, mental talk, and emotional body sensation) (Divide and conquer strategy).

3) Affirm positive emotions and behaviours. With patience, reconstruct a ‘new habitual self’ based on loving kindness and related practices.

Some sources & references used

Black, D.S. and Slavich, G.M. 2016. Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1373(1),pp.13–24.

Bostic, J.Q., Nevarez, M.D., Potter, M.P., Prince, J.B., Benningfield, M.M. and Aguirre, B.A. 2015. Being present at school: implementing mindfulness in schools. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 24(2),pp.245–259.

Davis, D. and Hayes, J. 2011. What Are the Benefits of Mindfulness? A Practice Review of Psychotherapy-Related Research. Psychotherapy. Vol. 48,(No. 2,),pp.198–208.

Grecucci, A., Pappaianni, E., Siugzdaite, R., Theuninck, A. and Job, R. 2015. Mindful Emotion Regulation: Exploring the Neurocognitive Mechanisms behind Mindfulness. BioMed Research International. 2015,p.670724.

Hidaka, B.H. 2012. Depression as a disease of modernity: explanations for increasing prevalence. Journal of Affective Disorders. 140(3),pp.205–214.

Keng, S.-L., Smoski, M.J. and Robins, C.J. 2011. Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: a review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review. 31(6),pp.1041–1056.

Khoury, B., Sharma, M., Rush, S.E. and Fournier, C. 2015. Mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthy individuals: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 78(6),pp.519–528.

Martires, J. and Zeidler, M. 2015. The value of mindfulness meditation in the treatment of insomnia. Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine. 21(6),pp.547–552.

Olson, K.L. and Emery, C.F. 2015. Mindfulness and weight loss: a systematic review. Psychosomatic Medicine. 77(1),pp.59–67.

Simkin, D.R. and Black, N.B. 2014. Meditation and mindfulness in clinical practice. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 23(3),pp.487–534.

Weare, K. 2012. Evidence for the Impact of Mindfulness on Children and Young People.

Young, S. 2013. What is Mindfulness?

A few useful concepts

Shoshin:

Shoshin is a Japanese term that is translated as ‘Beginners mind’. In Shunryu Suzuki’s ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ he states that “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” This is an essential component with learning new practices, or even practicing existing ones. Practicing Shoshin has been fundamental to my learning, in all things. It has helped with my understanding and practice of meditation and communication. It allows me to listen better and reflect more honestly, rather than just waiting to speak or deliver my opinion.

Fudoshin & Equanimity:

Fudoshin is a Japanese term that means ‘immovable mind’ or ‘immovable heart’. It is similar to equanimity, but usually used to refer to an advanced practitioner of martial arts.

Equanimity is derived from the latin ‘aequus’ meaning level or equal and ‘animus’ meaning meaning soul or mind. It describes a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind.

The nature of practice:

We do not enjoy being bad at things. Unfortunately, the only way we really get good at things, is practice. Practicing affects our physiology and body, as well as our mind. If we want to cultivate qualities or abilities – we must learn to practice.

Like nature, we must be tenacious and persistent. If we set concrete goals, and fail to meet them it causes frustration. The only goal we should have, is the goal of practice.

When it comes to the mind – I recommend a minimum of one breath a day. One mindful breath a day as a minimum. I recommend this because in learning to practice, we learn to ‘simmer’. Simmering a big pot of water required regular heat. Heating it very quickly for a short period, and then not at all, isn’t allowing the water to simmer. Simmering occurs when heat is applied at a lower level, all the time. This is daily practice.

Using the body:

The mind wants to exist anywhere but the present moment. The body only exists in the present. In order to ‘ground’ your mind and stop it’s wandering – the body is a useful tool.

We can listen to the body’s sensations, and they can immediately draw us away from our wandering mind, and we can re-tune our attention to ourselves.

It is an easy, always present anchor to use at any moment. Connect to the body, calm the mind.

Language of the Body:

The language of the cell is force, the language of the body is sensation. What this means is that when working with our bodies, as you do in certain type of meditation, don’t intellectualise everything. This lesson is true for physical wellbeing as well. Take time to listen and understand the language your body is communicating to you with. Pain isn’t always ‘bad’, ‘nice’ isn’t always ‘good’.

Our bodies have a history, and we use our own narrative to explain our bodies: For example someone might say “I hurt my back three years ago and it hurts when I lean backwards!” But  if that person were to slowly and carefully move their back and explore the feelings as there are at this moment (and not how they think it will be) – they might find a sense of tension, or fear, or anxiety where there was ‘pain’ before. The process is a little more complicated than this, but the underlying concept is useful: It’s being mindful, and not listening to your internal narrative or story. When I find myself or my clients trapping in our own narratives I call it the ‘story-trap’, and it requires you to put aside your ego to exit your story, and experience how things are in the moment.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is just one form of meditation. There are many teacher and practitioners who might disagree with my perspectives. It’s origin is in Buddhist Vipassana meditation (often translated as ‘insight’ meditation) and it’s popularity is largely attributed John Kabat-Zinn’s work with MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Relief).

Mindfulness, as a practice, can be described in a simple manner:

“Deliberate attention to the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.”

My personal definition would be something like:

“Intentional, present attention and equanimity”

Many people use the idea of setting a correct Intention, Attitude & Attention. I think this is valuable as it enables you to find words that ring true to you.

IIA

Commonly used terms to use for Intention, Attention & Attitude.

Intention Attitude Attention
On purpose Equanimity Refocussing on the here and now
Slowing Down Non-judgement Noticing and naming
Remembering Curiosity Letting go, creating space
Knowing Why Kindness Checking in
Deliberately Willingness In a particular way

Practicing mindfulness

I use two simple distinction of practice: Formal & Informal.

Formal mindfulness is a period of your day dedicated to your meditative practice. Informal practices are about applying mindfulness to your daily life and activities.

Descriptions of some mindful practices

Formal

Mindfulness of Breathing:

– Sitting in a comfortable, yet alert position.

– Breathing through the nose (if possible)

– Slowly bringing awareness from the outside world to the sensations of breathing in the abdomen(or the feeling of breath on the top lip, or at the back of the throat)

– Being aware of the rising and falling of the abdomen

– As soon as you become aware of your mind wandering, and thinking of the past, the potential future or distractions – return your attention to the abdomen.

– Do not become frustrated when your mind wanders, it is normal. Just calmly return your attention to the sensations of breathing.

– When you are finished, slowly move your body are your intuitively want to and end your meditation.

– It doesn’t matter if it is easy or difficult. Any practice is better than no practice.

– Remember that it is a practice, not a performance.

Body Scan: (There are many variations of this)

– Laying down, face up.

– Palms facing up.

– Cushion the head/neck, and underneath the knees (to relieve lower back) if needed.

– Slowly draw your attention to your body

– Throughout this meditation: As soon as you become aware of your mind wandering, and thinking of the past, the potential future or distractions – return your attention to

– Draw your attention to the toes of your left foot.

– Notice the position, any sensations present, and how it ‘feels’.

– Picture that part of your body dissolving and melting away.

– And move your attention slowly through your foot, lower leg, knee and thigh doing the same.

– Repeat the process on your right foot and leg.

– Now do the same, but from your groin and pelvis, up your abdomen and lower back, chest and upper back.

– Then from your left fingers, palm, wrist, forearm, elbow, upper arm and shoulder.

– Repeat the process on your right hand & arm.

– Now follow the process up your neck, back of your head, scalp and face.

– Then, slowly be aware of your whole body resting on the ground, and the ground supporting you.

– When you are finished, slowly move your body are your intuitively want to and end your meditation.

Loving Kindness:

– Sitting in a comfortable, yet alert position.

– Breathing through the nose (if possible)

– Slowly bringing awareness from the outside world to the sensations of breathing in the abdomen(or the feeling of breath on the top lip, or at the back of the throat)

– Being aware of the rising and falling of the abdomen

– Keep going with this meditation of breathing for a little while

– Now delve into your memories for a time when you have felt truly loved and cared for. Cherished.

– This could be a memory of a dear friend, parent, family member or partner.

– Picture and remember that feeling of being loved.

– As you breathe in, picture that feeling growing and filling your whole body.

– Keep picturing this love filling you, and growing stronger and stronger.

– Now, keeping that feeling inside you, picture a loved one in your mind.

– And imagine them feeling the same thing.

– Really generate a sense that you want them to feel that same feeling of being loved

– These next steps can be harder, and you might face mental resistance to the practice.

– Picture someone you know, but not very well.

– And imagine them feeling the same love, the same feeling

– Really generate a sense that you want them to feel that same feeling of being loved

– Now picture someone you know, but don’t like. Or have had a bad experience with recently

– And imagine them feeling the same love, the same feeling

– Really generate a sense that you want them to feel that same feeling of being loved

– If possible, slowly picture your community, society, or just the people in the same city, town or building as you

–  And imagine them feeling the same love, the same feeling

– Slowly let that feeling fade, and hold onto that sensation of love inside you

– Return your attention to your breathing, and the sensations of breath

– Slowly bing your attention to your body, and move however you intuitively wish to

– Finish the meditation

– It doesn’t matter if it is easy or difficult. Any practice is better than no practice

– Remember that it is a practice, not a performance.

Noting:*

– Noting is very similar to ‘Mindfulness of breathing’

– Sitting in a comfortable, yet alert position.

– Breathing through the nose (if possible)

– Slowly bringing awareness from the outside world to the sensations of breathing in the abdomen(or the feeling of breath on the top lip, or at the back of the throat)

– Being aware of the rising and falling of the abdomen

– As soon as you become aware of your mind wandering, and thinking of the past, the potential future or distractions – return your attention to the abdomen.

– Do not become frustrated when your mind wanders, it is normal. Just calmly return your attention to the sensations of breathing.

– Now, while sitting, you can begin notice the thoughts, feeling and emotions that emerge

– As soon as you notice a though emerging, or a feeling occurring, or though developing you can ‘note’ it

– Once noted, return you attention to the sensations of breathing: The rising and falling of the abdomen.

– Maintain this practice for some time

– Then slowly finish the meditation, and bring your awareness back to your whole body

– When you are finished, slowly move your body are your intuitively want to and end your meditation

– It doesn’t matter if it is easy or difficult. Any practice is better than no practice

– Remember that it is a practice, not a performance.

* A few examples of noting. Noting is associated with Mahasi Sayadaw, the famous monk and Vipassana teacher. There is plenty written about the practice of noting. It is often performed in a more nuanced manner than my description but here are a  few examples of noting, that might be of some practical help:

– If I feel the need to swallow, I might mentally note ‘Need: Swallowing’. If I actually swallow I note ‘Action: Swallowing’.

– If I become aware of an angry thought or emotion forming I note ‘Thought: Anger’ or ‘Memory:Anger’

– If I become aware of something that might be difficult to label, I note ‘Thinking: Something’ and if it occurs frequently I try to quickly note something more accurately. If I remember what it was after meditation, I formulate a label for it.

Informal

Samu

Samu is the Japanese Zen term for physical work done with mindfulness. This informal meditation can take place in the activities of daily life (ADL). Typically manual labour or mundane physical tasks. Samu can be quite practical, as a practice, because it means you are practicing mindfulness and ‘getting things done’. Typically, in monasteries tasks such as gardening, cleaning, cooking, chopping wood are performed as Samu.

What this entails is performing tasks, with full awareness and attention to the present action. This means tasks are often performed slowly.

Stretching

It is very easy to include informal mindfulness when stretching or other relatively simple exercises. Just being aware of your body, experiencing sensations and not holding onto those sensations.

Other

A very similar kind of practice can be done when doing things like brushing teeth, eating, walking.

Some personal experiences of teaching this involves teaching people to focus on moving as quietly, and softly as possible. With as much grace as they can muster.

My personal history of meditation

I first visited South Korea when I was 20. I was reading lots of eastern philosophy and practicing parkour a lot, and trying to understand Zen meditation. I had come to Seoul to prepare for a trip to Mongolia where I was going to try to do some reconnaissance for an expedition I wanted to get funding for (Exploring the territory that Grigory Grumm-Grzhimaylo wrote about was the goal). I spent the winter is Seoul, tutoring English and trying not to spend all my money. The owners of the guesthouse I was staying in were king enough to let me stay, for much less money, at a room in their home nearby. It was there I met a monk who was friends of the owners, who fortunately spoke English. He introduced me to Hua Tou practice (Koans), which were completely confusing, but the practice of questioning them was enormously helpful to me. I started practicing every day.

Several months later I met man from Finland, who had spent a year at a temple as a monk, and was returning to Finland to live. I was sharing a room with him (at a different guesthouse) and he had spent all day carrying around heavy gifts to send back to Finland. Every post office he went to sent him to a different one yet again. Four hours later he was virtually dragging his heavy bags and boxes as he arrived at the guesthouse – exhausted and unable to post his packages. I smiled, said hello and offered him a beer and some snacks. He turned down the beer, but was excited by the thought of snacks. We sat, chatted a little bit, and he told me about his stressful day. Suddenly he closed his eyes, paused, then smiled and said “I’ve been letting this day stress me. I was having a really bad day, I remembered that I can choose how my day is. Thank you for your kindness and conversation, it reminded me that I can choose to see happiness.” (I’m not sure if those were his exact words… it has been ten years since that experience. I believe I am still friends with him on Facebook, perhaps I will ask him if he remembers that experience). I asked many questions about meditation and practice.  I was left with a feeling of wonder that we have choice, we have control of how we emotionally react when things happen to us. This was my goal.

My last encounter with meditation in Korea was when I had turned 21 (I never made the trip to Mongolia), and was hiking in the mountains. It was winter and very cold. I found some shelter from the wind and was eating lunch (Gimbap), when an old man came to sit next to me. We shared food (and he gave me some Makgeolli, which is mildly alcoholic) and we spoke about how nice and quiet the mountains are in winter (they are very busy in warmer weather). I spoke about meditation and he said he has been meditating all morning “Walking is my meditation. Never take a wrong step, make every step perfect”. We parted ways and I tried to ‘make every step perfect’. It sounds easier than it is.

On returning to the UK I studied, practiced and read. I had a few meditation teachers, and lots of self learning. Years of working, becoming a personal trainer, becoming an Osteopath were shaped by my continued practice of formal and informal meditation as well as studying about the human body, psychology, neuroscience and meditation. During my Osteopathy studies I was lucky enough to be trained in ‘OsteoMAP’ which is ‘Osteopathy, Mindfulness and Acceptance Programme’ for persistent pain. Taking patients through elements of mindfulness and understanding their inner selves was something I had spent years doing myself. It felt good to give what I had spent a long time learning.

More recently I got deeper into my meditative practices and made several trips to Bhutan. I learnt a lot about incorporating mindfulness into training, what people found benefit in and how to teach things. I also saw how people embody kindness and caring. There is less emphasis on the individual and more on emphasis on helping their community and family. There is an implicit understanding of our interconnectedness and mutual responsibility for the world around us. I studied Gross National Happiness (GNH) and learnt how communities and even a country can attempt to develop their inner selves.

Forms of meditation or mindfulness I teach:

– ‘Modern’ Mindfulness practices:

– Noting

– Body Scan

– Breathing

– Loving Kindness

– The 4 postures meditation

– Lying, Sitting, Standing, Walking

My personnel practices have followed several paths which have overlapped and faded. Practices I have done for more than two years, or still do:

– Mindfulness Meditation

– Vipassana (Mahasi Sayadaw’s ‘Manual of Insight’ has been especially useful to me)

– Zazen practice (Zen sitting meditation, Soto School)

– Korean Seon (Hua Tou)

– Qigong

– Daoist Shen Gong practice (Daxuan specifically)

– Tibetan Ngöndro practice

– Vajrayana (Tibetan) Maraṇasati practice (Meditation on death)

– Tummo Meditation (Inner Fire)

– Wim Hof Method

I have also been strongly influenced by:

– Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

– John Kabat-Zinn’s works on mindfulness

– Otto Scharmer’s ‘Theory U’ work

– Dr Tho & Dr Kim from the GNH centre in Bhutan and the work they are doing.

– OsteoMAP (Thanks to Hillary Abby, Lorraine Nanke & Danny Church)

– Kit Laughlin (Founder of Stretch Therapy & meditation teacher)