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The Truth About Meditation and Mindfulness

A lit candle in a pottery signifying meditation
Photo credit: Hans Vivek via Unsplash.com

“What a liberation to realise that the “voice in my head” is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that”. – Eckhart Tolle

Mindfulness and Meditation – What are they?

We often encounter experts, bloggers, and pundits expounding on the benefits of mindfulness and meditation, speaking as if the two are synonymous. This widespread misconception continues to be disseminated through repetitious blog posts, social media posts, etc., often by those who position themselves as subject matter experts. 

As a result, we find that both subjects are commonly misunderstood. Let’s unravel some of the mystery.

John Kabat-Zinn began popularizing the concept of mindfulness in 1979 when he created a stress-reduction program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction(MBSR). He defines mindfulness this way:

“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. ” It does so, Zinn says, “in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”

So, mindfulness is a form of awareness. As we’ll see, meditation is a practice that can lead us to mindful awareness. This is a subtle but critical difference. 

Said another way, if you aspire to be more mindful, one method of meeting your goal is to practice meditation. 

About Meditation

So let’s clarify just what meditation is. When meditating, we become observers of our consciousness and our inner world. We focus on our present reality, our inner experience. We observe stimuli coming in through our five senses and the mental activity (thoughts, emotions, etc.) being spawned automatically by our brain. This differs from mindfulness, where we mainly observe these experiences in the external world.

Only when our mindful attention is directed inward can we say mindfulness and meditation are roughly the same. Nevertheless, the ability to act mindfully is usually thought of as attending to external reality, and we know that sustained attention in that manner is enhanced by practicing meditation. 

How to meditate

When we meditate, we try to focus all our attention on something – our breath, a sound, an object, etc., to quiet the flow of random thoughts.

Beginners often start by sitting in a quiet space with their eyes closed for several minutes, focusing on their breath. The breath is the most common focal point for beginners because it is consistent and always with you. One can focus on the feeling of the air flowing through the nostrils or feel the belly rise and fall. In-breath. Out-breath. Count to yourself silently if you like.

It won’t take long before you find your thoughts drifting. This is expected and even happens to people who have meditated for many years. That your thoughts drift off is inevitable. Nothing is wrong with this, nor does it mean you are a meditation failure. The critical moment comes when you catch yourself having those thoughts. That is the essence of the practice.

This is when you begin to notice that you are not your thoughts. If you were, you would not be able to observe them, just as you cannot see your own eyes. 

When you see that your mind has drifted, just let the thought go non-judgmentally and resume your earlier focus.

That is meditation. Simple yet never easy. That is why it is a practice. The more you meditate, the clearer this all becomes.

Why it’s important

So why is this important? As you repeat this process over and over, you begin to see that your thoughts are objects of the mind and completely separate from you, the thinker. Your brain spawns them continuously without any conscious effort on your part. You don’t pick the subject or the direction that your thoughts take. That comes from a place outside your current awareness. 

These thoughts can involve regrets (past events), problems (I can’t pay my bills), or plans (future events). They usually have no relevance to our lives at this moment and can potentially trigger powerful yet inappropriate emotions. Thoughts can trigger intense feelings like joy and anger and set loose a series of physiological processes identical to those we would experience in an actual real-life situation. Understanding that the source of our emotional reaction in any given moment is a thought and not an actual event can help us prevent acting out on those emotions.

Mindfulness – taking it outside

Eventually, we begin to apply these tools in our everyday lives. When we are mindful and unwanted thoughts arise during the day, we recognize them for what they are and let them go. This brings us back to the present moment and often preempts any opportunity for these thoughts to develop into powerful, inappropriate emotions. We attend more to the details of our environment – to its tastes, sounds, and colors. We experience more and worry less!

By focusing exclusively on the present moment, we enjoy the many benefits of mindfulness, among which are:

  1. Stress reduction
  2. Improved focus, attention, and memory
  3. Increased empathy and compassion for others
  4. Enhanced self-awareness
  5. Health benefits include lower blood pressure and improved immune function.

Just the beginning…

There are many reasons to meditate that extend well beyond mindfulness. There are also many ways to meditate – insight, loving kindness, etc. These will be covered in the weeks ahead.

So, what are you practicing?

First published on https://www.glenngilchrist.com/blog/

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