Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment of daily life. To be mindful is to be truly alive, present, and at one with those around you and with what you are doing. We bring our body and mind into harmony while we are doing laundry, driving, or taking a shower.
It helps to become aware of what is already true moment by moment. The capacity to be mindful provides a wholesome way for us to care for ourselves and attend to our experiences and helps us to overcome the unskillful habits of our mind that cause us to suffer needlessly.
The foundational technique for cultivating mindfulness is the practice of meditation. Meditation is a form of physical and mental exercise that serves to strengthen our natural ability to bring moment-by-moment awareness to our lives. Since mindfulness is the skill of opening ourselves to reality without judgement, it’s important that we approach the practice of meditation in this spirit, relinquishing preconceptions and expectations. It is also essential to provide a spiritual and physical context conducive to meditation.
When we are mindful, we show up for our lives; we don’t miss it by being distracted or in wishing for things to be different. Instead, if something needs to be changed, we are present enough to understand what needs to be done. Being mindful is not a substitute for participating in our lives and taking care of our own and others’ needs. In fact, the more mindful we are, the more skillful we can be in compassionate action.
Beginning the actual practice of meditation starts with focusing attention on the breath and observing when the mind strays. By noticing when our attention has wandered away from its focal point and gently returning it to the breath, we gradually strengthen our concentration and awareness.
Sitting meditation is very healing. We realize we can just be with whatever is within us-our pain, anger, and irritation, or our joy, love and peace. We are with whatever is there without being carried away by it. Let it come, let it stay, let it go. No need to push, to oppress, or to pretend our thoughts are not there. Observe the thought and images of our mind with an accepting and loving eye. We are free to be still and calm despite the storms that might arise in us.
Practice is the key to mindfulness. Mindfulness techniques are skills that anyone can develop and apply to the simplest aspects of living: breathing, sensing, feeling, eating, walking, speaking, and even driving. Going beyond the fundamental aspects of meditation, we must also practice the more challenging things: cultivating compassion for ourselves and others; developing a life of generosity; accepting our mortality; and coping with physical pain, grief, and anger. We’ll explore difficulties often encountered in meditation and ways of working with these impediments to strengthen concentration and to counter frustration and discouragement.
Compassion—the desire to alleviate suffering—is an essential component of our nature as human beings. Mindfulness practices such as metta meditation allow us to cultivate compassion and develop empathy for others, deeply recognizing their inner experience. Dana ( sharing with others) reveals the life-giving effects of generosity on both the giver and the receiver and helps us understand our attachment to “things.” We’ll also consider the ways in which both inner experience and outward action are influenced by our use of language.
Finding compassion for ourselves is more challenging for many of us, particularly the perfectionists among us; mindfulness techniques can help us embrace and accept both imperfection and perfectionism as an opening to freedom and deeper humanity. The skills of mindfulness also offer powerful means to work with physical discomfort—through understanding the crucial distinction between pain and suffering—as it directly affect our perceptions.
Reflecting on the universality of loss we’ll take a deeper look at the notion of impermanence. By learning to embrace life’s transience and to center out focus in the present moment, we are able to experience loss and even grief without fear or aversion. In the mindfulness tradition, the practice of reflecting on death is considered to be both liberating and essential to living a full and satisfying life. We’ll examine the ways in which our culture conditions us to avoid and deny death, and we’ll learn meditations that deepen both the awareness of life’s transience and our ability live freely.
Finally, we’ll reflect on the capacity of mindfulness practice to profoundly alter our perceptions of ourselves, the work , and our place in it.
So, how do we actually practice mindfulness meditation? There are so many basic techniques. If you are interested in pursuing mindfulness within a particular tradition, you might at some point wish to connect with a meditation instructor or a class at a meditation center. You may also practice with me. You can contact me .
Still, I can provide some of the basic instructions here so that you can begin.
There are three basic aspects used in this meditation technique: body, breath, and thoughts. First, we relate with the body. This includes how we setup an environment. Since we use meditation as a tool to help us connect and work with others, we my use an eyes-open practice. That makes what we have in front of us a factor in our practice. Very few people can dedicate a whole room to their meditation practice, so they choose a corner of a room or a spot in their home where they can set up a quiet space.
If you like, you can decorate your space with pictures or photos and sacred objects from your own tradition. You may use candles and incense, but you can also have a plain wall in front of you. As long as you are not sitting in front of something distracting, like the TV or the computer, it doesn’t matter that much what’s in front of you.
Once, you’ve chosen your spot, you need to choose your seat. You can sit on a cushion on the floor or on a chair. If you choose a cushion you can use one designed for meditation practice like a zafu or gomden or you can use a folded up blanket or some other kind of cushion or low bench. The point is to have a seat that is stable and not wobbly.
If you choose to sit on a chair, pick one that has a flat seat that doesn’t tilt too much toward the back. If you are short like me, you will want to put something on the floor to rest your feet on to support your weight. You don’t what your legs to be dangling uncomfortably, or not having your feet planted flat on the floor. If you are very tall, with long legs, make sure that your hips are higher than your knees-either on a chair or on a cushion. If you don’t do that your back will start to hurt pretty quickly.
Okay, once you have your seat and spot, go ahead and sit down. Take a posture that is upright but not rigid. The idea is to take a posture that reflects your inherent brilliant sanity, as one who is dignified but not stiff. The back is straight with the natural curve of the lower back. I was once told to imagine that my spine is a tree and to lean against it. It works for me; you can see if it works for you.
Sitting on a cushion, cross your legs comfortably in front of you. There is no need to contort yourself into an uncomfortable position. Just simply cross your legs as you might have done as a child. Notice again, that you want your hips to be higher than your knees. If necessary, add more height to you seat by folding up a towel or blanket. However, if you are very flexible you can sit in a half lotus position, legs crossed with one foot resting on the floor and the other foot resting on the top of the thigh.
Hands rest on thighs palms facing up with one palm sitting on the other with thumbs touching forming a circle. Eyes are somewhat open and your gaze rests gently on the floor in front of you about four to six feet away. If you are closer to the wall than that, let your gaze rest on the wall wherever it lands as if you were looking that distance in front of you. Don’s stare or do anything special with your gaze; just let it rest where you’ve set it.
Let your front be open and back be strong.
Begin by just sitting in the posture for a few minutes in this environment. If your attention wanders away, just gently bring it back to your body and the environment. The key word here is “gently.” You mind WILL wander; that’s part of what you’ll notice with your mindfulness-minds wander. When you notice that yours has wandered, come back again to body and environment.
The second part of the practice is working with the breath. In this practice rest your attention lightly (yes, lightly) on the breath. Feel is as it comes into your body and as it goes out. There’s, no special way to breathe in this technique. Once, again, you are interested in how you already are, not how you are if you manipulate your breath. If you find that you are, in fact, controlling your breath in some way, just let it be that way. It’s a bit tricky to try to be natural on purpose, so don’t get caught up in worrying about whether your breath is natural or not. Just let it be however it is.
Again, sit for a few minutes with the posture and the environment and with your breath. In and out. In and out. Sometimes this is quantified as 25% of your attention on your breath. The idea isn't to get it "right," but instead to give you an idea that you're not channeling all of your attention tightly on to your breath. The rest of your attention will naturally be on your body and the environment.
Finally, the last part of the practice is working with thoughts. As you sit practicing, you will notice that thoughts arise. Sometimes there are a great many thoughts, overlapping one over the next: memories, plans for the future, fantasies, snatches of from TV commercial jingles. There may seem to be no gaps at all in which you can catch a glimpse of your breath. That's not uncommon, especially if you're new to meditation. Just notice what happens.
When you notice that you have gotten so caught up in thoughts that you have forgotten that you're sitting in the room, just gently bring yourself back to the breath. You can mentally say "thinking" to yourself as a further reminder of what just happened. This labeling is not a judgment; it is a neutral observation: "Thinking has just occurred." I like to think of it as a kind of weather report: "Thinking has just been observed in the vicinity.
How long should you practice? If you are new to it, try to sit for 10 to 15 minutes and gradually increase to 20 or 30 minutes. Eventually, you could extend it to 45 minutes or an hour. If you want to sit longer, you might want to learn how to do walking meditation as a break. We'll get to that in a later posting.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, remember that mindfulness meditation is about practicing being mindful of whatever happens. It is NOT about getting ourselves to stop thinking. Repeat: it is not about getting ourselves to stop thinking. It is easy to fall into believing that that is the goal. Many people have a mistaken idea that becoming blank is the goal of meditation. Perhaps it is in some approaches, but it's not in mindfulness meditation. So once again: if you find you are thinking (and you will), include it in what you notice. Don't try to get rid of your thoughts. It won't work and it's the opposite of the spirit of the practice. We are trying to be with ourselves as we already are, not trying to change ourselves into some preconceived notion of how we ought to be instead.