The Mindful Life

3870006964_57d04d9c95_oLast week I taught a class about “The Mindful Life” at my college.  Mindfulness is rooted in the Buddhist philosophy that only the present moment exists.  The future does not yet exist.  The past no longer exists.  Therefore, we should focus our energy and attention on that which is real, the present moment.

Personally, I think Jesus would approve.  “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.  Today’s trouble is enough for today.”  (Matthew 6:34) Jesus was incredibly present to the people he loved and served.

I had a good turnout for my class.  Lots of people are interested in meditation these days as a way to help them cope with anxiety and stress.  But mindfulness meditation offers more than a sense of calm.  New research is coming out about how meditation actually changes the way your brain performs.

A recent study by Harvard University revealed that meditation rebuilds the brain’s gray matter in eight weeks.  An article on this new research states:

Previous studies found structural differences between the brains of experienced meditation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation, observing thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. But those investigations could not document that those differences were actually produced by meditation.  Until now, that is.  The participants spent an average of 27 minutes per day practicing mindfulness exercises, and this is all it took to stimulate a major increase in gray matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.  Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.”

Did you catch all those benefits of meditation?  Let’s run through them again:

  • Better Attention
  • Emotional Integration
  • Self-Awareness
  • Compassion
  • Introspection
  • Reduced anxiety and stress

5691277643_ae020b36e2_oOf all these benefits, I most value the self-awareness I have gained from the time I have spent practicing mindfulness meditation.  I have learned a lot by sitting with myself in meditation.  I think of it as time spent observing, even honoring, the thoughts and emotions that pull me away from the present moment.  This new awareness, or self-knowledge, helps me control those thoughts and emotions better, rather than allowing them to control me.  Knowledge definitely is power.

At the end of my class I led the group in the following meditation.  I invite you to find a quiet spot and a comfortable place to sit and practice it yourself.    More books and meditation resources are listed at the bottom of this post.

Awareness Meditation

Sit comfortably.  Sit up straight with your shoulders back.  Open your chest area and heart space. Close your eyes.

Notice the sounds in the room.  What do you hear?

Notice the smells in the room?  What do you smell?

Feel the clothes on your body.  Feel the fabric stretching along your arms, back, chest, legs.  Feel the socks on your feet.  Feel the warmth your clothes hold close to your body.  Feel the way your clothes shelter you from the chill of the room.  Are your clothes comfortable?  Feel this comfort.  Do your clothes pinch?  Feel this discomfort.

Feel the weight of your body on the floor (or in your chair.) Feel yourself on the earth.  Feel the gravity pulling you down.  Feel your stability.   Feel grounded.

Notice your breathing.  Pay attention to your inhale and your exhale.  Notice how the air is cool on way in and warm on way out. Picture the air moving in and out of your lungs.

Focus your mind on your breathing for the next few minutes.  If you get distracted, that’s okay.  Just notice the distraction.  Smile at it in your mind.  Acknowledge it. Then return your mind’s focus to your breathing.

Conclude your meditation at any time.

More Good Resources on Meditation:

 Books:

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with your Mind by Pema Chodron

Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience by Sally Kempton

Online Resources:

Insight Timer Guided Meditations

The Freedom to Choose Something Different Online Class by Pema Chodron

Headspace by Andy Puddicombe

[Feature Images: Mitchell Joyce and Keoni Cabral]

Holding each Moment

10176739514_0aaa3f47d5_oI am growing accustomed to an annual end-of-the-summer episode of the blues. I am wallowing in this place now, grieving the passage of time. Mourning the loss of the summer’s long days when I read and write and giggle with my children. All this and the summer isn’t even over yet.

No stranger to anxiety and depression I create strategies to lift my spirit. I will manage my sleep patterns and avoid alcohol. I will schedule time each day for that which feeds me: meditation, writing. I will stop checking my email first thing in the morning. I will read more in the evenings and watch less stupid T.V. Just making this plan makes me feel better.

These steps to avoid a downward spiral feel healthy. It’s never good to get psychologically stuck. But part of me is wondering if my desire to avoid the darkness is a desire to avoid life itself.

Into my wondering a new book arrives; a book of poetry by a rabbi I recently met. In Waiting to Unfold, Rachel Barenblat has written a poem each week of her son’s first year of life. I got wrapped up in this book immediately. Barenblat’s writing is clear and honest, returning me poem by poem to the first year of my son’s life. I appreciate how she captures the beauty of her first moments as a mother. I appreciate more how she captures the pain, the exhaustion, the post-partum depression. Each week’s poem is new; a multidimensional, complicated mix of awe, joy, exhaustion, grief, amazement, mystery and change. Barenblat’s ability to convey the undulating highs and lows, emotional chaos, and heightened nature of new life makes for one great year of poetry.

Out of Barenblat’s dark moments poetry was birthed—poetry that spoke to, resonated with, and held deep meaning for this reader. So even though there are experiences of life that I am impatient to see pass—like this time, here, at the end of the summer—and experiences of life that I want to linger—like sneaking into my children’s bedrooms at night to risk waking them with too many kisses—all of life, all experience holds potential and promise. So perhaps I need to simply hold each moment, like a newborn baby holds bottle or breast, and drink deeply of all life offers.

 

 

[Feature Image: David Precious]