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]

Mindfulness Meditation: There’s An App for That

14707168819_e6c1bd0e70_zI’ve recently heard about a new genre of “apps” that are being developed to provide “digital therapy,” or relief from all the stress and distraction caused by… all those other apps. Yeah, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’ve found the best therapy for my overworked, distracted, and oftentimes anxious mind, is to get away from anything with a glowing screen.

But recently, (on an eight hour drive to Northern Michigan with my family) I had the luxury of reading a whole article in the New Yorker on mindfulness meditation, and on one meditation guru in particular, Andy Puddicombe. The article bills Puddicombe, as a “mindfulness guru for the tech set.” Based in Venice Beach, California (around the corner from Google) Puddicombe is the developer of Headspace, an iPhone app that teaches meditation and mindfulness techniques.

Since I have been studying and practicing mindfulness meditation for a few years now, I initially eyed this “techie” version with suspicion. Is this the real thing, I thought to myself? Or some watered down version, for Google executives and Silicon Valley types.

As I read, though, I was pleasantly surprised. It turns out Andy Puddicombe, a forty-two-year old from London, was trained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. After a series of life traumas in his young adult years, Puddicombe left college and lived for ten years in Buddhist monasteries in Nepal, India, and Burma, where he became a monk in the Theravadan tradition.

After years of sitting, the article describes, Puddicombe moved to California where he could surf (a sport enhanced by mindfulness) and he developed Headspace as a tool that would make meditation more accessible to the “harried strivers” of today’s contemporary world. According to the New Yorker:

He translated Sanskrit and Tibetan terms into English, and eliminated some of the trippier exercises, like ‘visualizing bright white lights.’ In the monastery, an hour of meditation was considered a brief session, but that didn’t fly with Puddicombe’s clients. ‘I realized early on that it had to feel manageable,’ he said. He set about condensing the exercises into short chunks: twenty or even ten minutes.

Overall, the article was excellent. It not only described the growing mindfulness movement and the way scientists are tracking the positive effects of meditation, but it even summarized Buddhism and the history of meditation in India, dating back to before the Buddha was born in 480 B.C.

So I decided to check Headspace out for myself. I downloaded the app and have been working through a free ten day trial of guided meditations.

My overall impression is that this is a good resource for those new to meditation. Puddicombe is a great guide and teacher, his voice (with its endearing British accent) is gentle, positive and easy to listen to. There are some cute animations that really help you understand the meditation techniques in contemporary terms. And although, Puddicombe never uses Sanskrit, Tibetan, or Buddhist language, he obviously understands the tradition and I appreciate how he has translated it for us modern day folks.

My only small critique would be that the ten minute sessions Puddicombe uses are too short to really feel the benefits of meditation. Most practitioners insist on at least 20 minutes. But again, it’s a good start. And I think it would be hard to convince the Google executive to take more than ten minutes to try this contemplative practice. Also, while listening to Puddicombe’s voice guiding me through the session, I oftentimes wanted more silence. I’ve enjoyed my sitting practice of meditating in silence, moving through my prayer beads, for twenty minutes. I feel like I get to know my own mind better this way. But again, Puddicombe’s guided version is definitely worth it. I’ve appreciated the variety it has added to my practice and I will probably even subscribe to Headspace (it’s $13.00 a month) to see what else he offers.