Thursday, May 21, 2015

Mindfulness and Me

Patchman Meditating, by Jordan Pearce

Earlier this year I came to a realization about myself: I was becoming too judgmental about where I was in life (or, at least, in the American ideal of what life is "supposed" to be), and I felt completely unfocused with regard to my daily life. I felt distracted by my perceived failures, and I was most assuredly mentally and emotionally depressed. So I decided to do something about it.

In an attempt to regain a connection with myself, I took up daily mindfulness meditation. That decision has been personally rewarding and I've found myself more motivated, more relaxed, and just plain happier. I feel like I can better control my focus now, and I've been slowly building healthier thoughts about what I'm doing in my life. 

I'm by no means an expert on mindfulness meditation, but I thought I'd share a few of my thoughts as I begin my path to being more mindful about myself and my connection with other people and other parts of this life. Below are some of the things that I've done so far to begin my mindfulness meditation practice.

A monk in meditation, from imgkid

Finding Some Headspace

When I first started daily meditation, I wasn't really sure what to do. I grew up training in the martial arts and have tried to meditate many times before. I guess I was too quick, even now in my thirties, to try to force myself to "think about nothing". 

I think there's a very common misconception that meditation needs to be about completely clearing your mind. As an active thinker and a scientist, that's not something I've been very good at. I imagine most of everyone else is pretty much in that boat as well. It's hard to tell yourself to stop thinking.

In fact, I think every time I tried to meditate when I was younger and I told myself "okay, now I'm meditating; stop thinking" it actually forced my mind to wonder even more. Each time I felt like I was losing control of my ability to stop my mind from wondering, I lost my focus on the meditation and would end the practice. There are a lot of articles online suggesting that this is one of the most common problems, if not the single most common problem, that a lot of people have with meditation (outside of any negative stereotypes some people might associate with meditation).

Finding guided meditations has been the key for me to get started in mindfulness meditation. It's helpful to have someone else's guidance, to hear their voice, and to try following the paths they've already cleared. There are lots of tools out there, online and in print, that can help with guided mediations. My favorite so far, and the one that has helped me to really get into guided meditation, is called Headspace.

Headspace is an online and mobile app that offers guided meditations as led by former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, a person whom Ed Halliwell of The Guardian has said is "doing for meditation what someone like Jamie Oliver has done for food" (see this New York Times article for more). Here's a video from a popular TED talk that Puddicombe delivered where he introduces the idea of taking some time to be mindful:

If you check out the Headspace website, you'll see that you can sign up for free and even check out the first set of ten 10-minute meditations for free. Those first ten meditations were fantastic! Puddicombe's guidance is wonderful and the introduction to mindfulness is superb. 

Each of those ten meditations started with finding some awareness of the sounds in the local environment and the feelings in the body. A slow scan of the body was helpful in noticing how things were feeling, while Puddicombe pointed out not to dwell on trying to make something feel different (instead, just noticing how everything feels at that moment). Much of the time in those meditations dealt with focusing on the breath; being aware of the inhalation and exhalation and the process of breathing. Focusing on the process of breathing seemed to make it easier to focus my awareness on one key thing. Indeed, much of my work in mindfulness meditation so far has centered on this idea of focusing on my breathing.

Artwork from

Thoughts will come and thoughts will go...

One of the best parts of the first ten meditations on Headspace is that Puddicombe helps the practitioner to realize that there are thoughts that are going to pop up in the mind, but the key is to let those thoughts go as soon as they come without judging yourself for the fact that the thoughts are there in the first place.

I found this part to be the key to my awareness in my meditations. I had to consciously be aware of when thoughts would come into my mind and then let them move on without worrying about whether or not I'd come back to them. However, maybe more importantly, I had to stop judging myself for the presence of those thoughts in the first place.

This process of having thoughts come and go might sound easy, but it's something that I've found to require lots of conscious work. Perhaps what makes this part of the Headspace meditations even better is that near the end of each of the first ten sessions, Puddicombe advises the practitioner to take a moment to let the mind wonder, to allow the mind to entertain those thoughts that come. It's like a brief moment of wonderment. The mind goes off and explores whatever thoughts might come and go. Interestingly, I feel like the thoughts that I entertain this way, after having spent some time focusing on one thing, are fuller and more beneficial thoughts.

I've really enjoyed the free Headspace meditations. I would very much like to subscribe to Headspace, but the cost is a little more than I can currently afford. It's not very expensive (it can be as low as about $6 a month), but I really prefer not to have any more monthly charges in my life right now. Perhaps, depending on where my meditation practice takes me, I will look into subscribing in the future. However, for now, there are lots of free guided meditations out there for anyone who is interested!
Image from the website

Videos and Apps with Guided Meditations:

After trying the Headspace meditations, I've been searching around for guided meditations that fit me and have found lots of good stuff. Here are some of my top suggestions for what's worked for me so far:

The Honest Guys on Youtube

The Honest Guys have a collection of awesome videos with meditation music and/or guided meditations. I like their approach and have found their guidance very helpful. I highly recommend trying out some of their videos to see what you think. Here's a rather good one that focuses on relieving stress, if you would like to give it a try:

Jason Stephenson on Youtube

- Jason Stephenson has also has a variety of guided meditations that have worked well with my practice. I've found so far that there are some guided meditations that just don't work for me, for various reasons. I've found so far that some of Stephenson's meditations didn't seem so easy to get into, while some of them have been smooth and have fit me very well. Here's a rather good one that is aimed at beginners but seems like it can be beneficial for anyone who seeks guided meditations:

Insight Timer, a mobile device app
- Insight Timer is an app that you can download for a smartphone or other mobile device. The app offers a large variety of guided meditations (I've only completed the shorter offerings thus far, as my practice is still usually short in time). Insight Timer also offers a simple timer for meditation. The free version of the app has a simple bell that rings to start and end the timer, while there appears to be a paid version of the app that has more variety in the types of bells and numbers of rings.

Stop, Breathe, & Think

- There are of course other apps to try as well. I've recently started on called Stop, Breathe, & Think. Their guided meditations are available for mobile devices and they also have a web app. I've only just discovered their meditations, so I can't say much about them, but I like their app so far and I think I'll be using it more in the near future.

You can find this image and an article with 5 interesting techniques for meditating here

Moving Beyond the Guide

I've really enjoyed guided meditations so far. They've helped me to overcome the barriers I've previously had to meditating and have made the experience very rewarding. I think that I'm now at the point of moving beyond the need for guided for all of my meditations. I've found myself enjoying meditating on my own, though I still like to have some peaceful music playing. I'm hoping to continue my mindfulness meditation practice, perhaps even eventually helping to guide others with the practices that I have found helpful. If you're interested in mindfulness meditation, then here are a few more things I've found that might interest you:

Here are 7 great suggestions for things to watch out for when meditating (from Barabara Markway at Psychology Today). 

- The Chan Meditation Center has some interesting thoughts about how to meditate, and also offers this nice 8-form moving meditation

- This article from Greatist has 10 ways to meditate, from Tai Chi and breathing meditation to dance and walking meditation

- Here's an article for beginning meditation from Gaiam Life

- Finally, this article has some interesting ideas for meditation for people who are really against the idea of sitting and meditating

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