The mind is like a river. Typically, we are swept up in its current, constantly following whatever path it takes. We are so engulfed by its current that we often have no distinction between the river and ourselves. Meditation is the practice of sitting on the shore and watching the river flow by, using an anchor, typically the breath, to keep us there. However, meditation is as much the nonjudgmental and accepting observation of the river as it is the constant recognition that we have fallen back into the river, and we need to focus on the present once more to pull us back to shore to return to our peaceful place of observation.
Throughout this blog I have and will continue to discuss meditation. More specifically, I will often discuss what is clinically referred to as mindfulness meditation. I am no monk, nor guru, so I cannot describe what meditation is as eloquently as they can. However, through my reading and research I have developed a fairly adequate understanding of what mindfulness meditation is. I find that the word meditation is often misunderstood, and people therefore have a hard time practicing it or incorporating it into their daily lives. However, meditation is fundamental to a healthy body and mind. For this reason, I will try to describe meditation in a way that is understandable so that we may all begin to practice it if desired. The reason I will focus on mindfulness meditation is that it not only closely resembles the meditation technique rampant throughout eastern cultures, but is also highly used within clinical studies and has been shown to have considerable effects on health and wellbeing1–4.
So, how do you practice mindfulness meditation? Firstly, you put yourself in the position that most people think of when discussing meditation: you sit down either on the floor, pillow, or a chair with your back comfortably erect. You place your hands wherever comfortable, and close your eyes. These are the basics. Fairly simple right?
The question then becomes: what do you do with yourself while in that position? Well, the first thing that most traditions recommend is that you keep your attention focused on your breath. This is known as focused attention meditation5. Keep in mind that in eastern practices, advanced meditators slowly transition from focused attention to open awareness as their skills develop6. Open awareness is characterized by having a non-deliberate selection of focused stimuli, rather actively monitoring and not judging all internal and external sensations5. One could also describe open awareness as focusing on awareness itself6. Nonetheless, those are more advanced skills. In the beginning one should practice maintaining focus on the breath. While maintaining focus on your breath, there are important mental attitudes and processes to practice while intrusive thoughts try to distract your mind. Whenever other thoughts, feelings, or emotions come into the forefront of your consciousness, recognize them with an open and nonjudgmental awareness, and then gently return your attention to your breath. This nonjudgmental awareness of all thoughts, while simultaneously not clinging to them, is fundamental to mindfulness awareness practices7. This mental process helps in dereifying thoughts. This means that we slowly learn to recognize that the thoughts are simply imaginations conjured by the mind, and not representative of reality7. To do so, be open, curious, accepting to all incoming thoughts but do not mentally elaborate on them7. Simply let them go in a non-judgmental manner and return to your breath. This mental processing and awareness are the key aspects of meditation. It may be obvious then, that one can practice this mental attitude at all times, and not simply when sitting in meditation.
In my mind, this adequately sums up the instructions of how to meditate. You adjust your mental awareness towards a more open, non-judgmental and accepting attitude toward all incoming stimuli.
You will face all kinds of hurtles when doing so, and that is completely normal and a good sign. For example, you may experience impatience or frustration while meditating. All of these feelings will make you want to stop, feel bad about yourself, or give up. The key is to be aware of these thoughts, but recognize that they are simply thoughts and not reality. You recognize them, don’t judge yourself for having them, and continue to meditate. This is why meditation is called a “practice”. It is a slow but true journey in learning to take control of the perspectives your mind takes towards yourself and life. Everyone will encounter their own roadblocks, and the goal is to continue practicing so that you may overcome them.
I hope this post provided some help in explaining what mindfulness meditation is. I sincerely hope that the posts throughout this blog, and the evidence put forth within them, provide some interest in curiosity into this practice. If this is the case, then I hope this post provides any help at all in you beginning that journey.
1. Greeson JM, Zarrin H, Smoski MJ, et al. Mindfulness Meditation Targets Transdiagnostic Symptoms Implicated in Stress-Related Disorders: Understanding Relationships between Changes in Mindfulness, Sleep Quality, and Physical Symptoms. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2018;2018. doi:10.1155/2018/4505191
2. Querstret D, Morison L, Dickinson S, Cropley M, John M. Mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for psychological health and well-being in nonclinical samples: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Stress Management. 2020;27(4):394-411. doi:10.1037/str0000165
3. Oken BS, Goodrich E, Klee D, Memmott T, Proulx J. Predictors of improvements in mental health from mindfulness meditation in stressed older adults. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 2018;24(1):48-55.
4. Kostova Z, Levin L, Lorberg B, Ziedonis D. Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Adolescents with Mental Health Conditions: A Systematic Review of the Research Literature. Journal of Child and Family Studies. 2019;28(10):2633-2649. doi:10.1007/s10826-019-01477-7
5. Ainsworth B, Eddershaw R, Meron D, Baldwin DS, Garner M. The effect of focused attention and open monitoring meditation on attention network function in healthy volunteers. Psychiatry Research. 2013;210(3):1226-1231. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2013.09.002
6. Lippelt DP, Hommel B, Colzato LS. Focused attention, open monitoring and loving kindness meditation: Effects on attention, conflict monitoring, and creativity – A review. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014;5(SEP):1-5. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01083
7. Wielgosz J, Goldberg SB, Kral TRA, Dunne JD, Davidson RJ. Mindfulness Meditation and Psychopathology. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. 2019;15(1):285-316. doi:10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-021815-093423