It’s been my intention for a while to write something about mindfulness meditation – what it’s like to actually do it – partly, I’ve found it really helpful, so I’d like to share what it’s about – and partly because often when I read articles debating the pros and cons of mindfulness, it doesn’t always sound like something I recognise. I came to mindfulness in the form of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy – so that’s where I started from.
I find a comfortable, but not too comfortable, place to sit. The aim is to be settled and still, but without the risk of falling asleep. I set a timer on my phone, and close my eyes.
I start by concentrating on my breath – not controlling it, or making it especially slow or deep, but just being aware of breathing in and out, however it comes. I notice what it feels like.
In the early stages of learning mindfulness, that was pretty much it. I would pay attention to my breath, and every time my thoughts wandered off – as they often did, when I noticed that they had gone awol, I brought them back to my breath again. I often spent far more time in a day dream, than watching my breath, but I started to realise that’s just what brains tend to do – and a big part of mindfulness is about becoming familiar with what our brains do, so noticing that is ok, not a failure to beat myself up about. Every time I realised that my awareness had wandered I brought it back – and tried to be kind to myself about it.
After a couple of weeks of doing this regularly, for 10 minutes at a time, I started to pay attention not just to my breath, but to sensations in my body too – a sense of strain in my knee, because of how I was sitting, or a weird itch above my eyebrow. Some of the sensations were unpleasant, but I didn’t try to get rid of them, by shifting postion, or having a good itch – I let it be, and just paid attention to what it felt like. (This is an exercise in awareness, not self-punishment, so if it was really horrible, I would shift a bit) I noticed how the sensations changed, over time, or got stronger, or faded away, without judging what they “ought” to be like. Still, my thoughts often carried me away, but when I caught myself in the act, I would bring myself back to my breath and any sensations I was experiencing.
Later still, I started to pay attention to not just breath and body, but also to sounds around me, as I sat, and then to the thoughts and emotions that come and go in my head. I’m not aiming for an altered state, or to increase my relaxation, but instead, just to see what is there, right now. My aim is to see what things arise, be aware of them, let them have a moment of being there, then let them move on. Inevitably, I often get caught up in memories, or planning, or worry, or to do lists, and get carried away by them, (and when I say often, I mean really often), but when I notice that I’m no longer here and now, I come back to my breath again. And again. And again.
Why? Why am I doing this? Does my naval really need so much gazing at?
What I’m finding is that I’m gradually learning how my mind works, by watching it in action. And as I get a sense of how it works, how I am wired, I can live more comfortably with myself. I came to mindfulness while in the midst of depression, and being really, really uncomfortable within myself – so this is a big deal.
What have I learned? How has it changed me?
My head feels a bit less cluttered. I am less overwhelmed by all the stuff washing around in there. I realise that my thoughts are not always that reliable. I have a little more space to choose whether to accept them or not. And when my thoughts are full of how horrible depression is, and what an utter failure I am for not coping, then having the space to question those thoughts and examine them, rather than just accepting them as Gospel Truth, is invaluable.
I can see that emotions come and go, all by themselves, and treat them with curiousity and kindness, rather than like Chicken Little, thinking the sky was falling in.
I’m starting to notice patterns of unhelpful thinking that come back again and again, such as a the amount of time I spend justifying my actions to an imaginary audience of critics. Now I’m aware of some of that stuff, it is (slowly) losing a little of its power to control me.
I am more able to live comfortably with negative thoughts and emotions. That might seem an odd thing to value. But it’s better than what I had been doing. I’d been either fighting against all that negative stuff, desperately trying to work out how to “fix” it – and actually, that just seemed to make the negative stuff more powerful (like the way that struggling to get out of quicksand only makes you sink even deeper). Or I would try to drown out the negative stuff with noise and constant distractions and endless procrastination about tasks and situations that provoked the negative reactions and ended up almost paralysed into complete inactivity.
I do mindfulness meditation for about 40 minutes a day – two lots of 20 mins, more or less. I think of it as a bit like going to the gym, but for my mind. Lots of repetition leads to gradual progress – just dabbling wouldn’t really do me that much good. It’s not a miracle technique to cure all ills. I still have depression and still struggle, and still have a lot of unhelpful stuff in my head. But it has helped. I’m more comfortable within my own skin – and I like that a lot.