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HOW TO START PRACTICING MINDFULNESS DURING MEDITATION MONTH

Whoever makes up the seemingly random holidays and monthly honorings has designated May Meditation Month. I am not going to ask too many questions about the how or why, but I’m going to go with it as an excellent excuse to encourage people to get off their butt and get motivated to put that butt right back down onto the meditation cushion.

It’s pretty hard to escape the moment that Mindfulness is having in our popular culture now. Despite its practice for thousands of years without catching on with the mainstream, it seems Mindfulness has finally gotten the right agent and celebrity backers. Oprah meditates, that’s all some people need to know.

It’s ok now to meditate, kind of cool even. Katy Perry, Madonna, Kobe Bryant, Jennifer Aniston, CEOs. Musicians, … everyone is doing it. With the exception maybe of our political figures who arguably need it the most, people are starting to notice this thing called meditation. Your dad’s doctor told him it might help his blood pressure, your sister heard it helps weight loss, your boyfriend read it gives a competitive edge. Meditation and Mindfulness are no longer for the fringe, but for all of us.

Are you feeling left out? Good. Time to get started. But many people have no idea how to get started. Yes, meditation is simple to do in practice, just watch the breath. But it is very hard to begin and stick with. A successful practice needs more than hype, it needs guidance, support, and consistency.

Meditation Apps

The easiest way to get started and not have to go somewhere scary or intimidating to you is a meditation App. My favorite is Insight Timer because it lets you search for meditations, track and time your session, and doesn’t try so hard to be cool and make you go through its own program. Other Apps that people like are Buddhify, Headspace, and Calm. These to me have some start-up guy’s finger prints all over them and seem less authentic and too mainstream packaged, but they are friendly and accessible and may be the right fit for some beginners who are more comfortable with extra structure. Check them all out and see which draws you in.

Retreat Centers

If you’re the type who just wants to dive in and go big, you could get started with a few days at a Meditation retreat. Most of these are multi-day events conducted in silence where you spend your days in sitting and walking meditation and learning from a teacher about the practice. These days are both incredibly challenging and life-changing. You will leave knowing how to practice and having seen first hand the changes in brain and body when you do. There are many opportunities for retreat you can find with a google search, but here is a list of excellent and reputable centers that would be amazing places to find your cushion.

Online Courses

There are many online courses to learn meditation. Most have weekly classes you view at home for 6 to 8 weeks with ‘homework’ of 20-60 minutes of meditation per day between classes. I have personally done this one from UMass and found it to set a great foundation for practice, though it required about an hour a day. Another class from UMass also looks excellent and allows for real-time interaction with the teacher.

Local Groups

This last option isn’t very techy or new, but it might be one of the best. If you live in area where there are local groups getting together to meditate, go join them. Many communities have groups of people who get together weekly to practice, at the library, local college, coffee shop… somewhere people are coming together to do this. Finding a group to share questions and comments and support for your meditation practice can be invaluable and significantly increase your chance of continuing. And most people who meditate are pretty awesome, like Oprah and Katy Perry, and you’ll probably enjoy being around them as an added benefit.

There is a reason that meditation and mindfulness are becoming so popular, this is not an empty trend. There is expanding scientific evidence showing that mindfulness significantly improves many medical conditions as well as or even better than current pharmaceutical approaches, including anxiety, pain, stress, cognitive decline, and immunological diseases. Mindfulness has been shown to change the size and function of brain regions related to emotion and decision-making, as well as empathy and creativity. It is not surprising that a meditation practice leads to less emotional reactivity, more self-control, increased attention, enhanced cognitive performance, and greater social connectedness among many other outcomes for overall better job performance and relationships.

Happy Meditation Month.

 

** This article first appeared on Thirty on Tap

Loving Yourself with Mindfulness

I was having coffee the other day talking about a new idea I had and a dream for an exciting project, feeling pretty hopeful and inspired for a few minutes. Then someone said, “What are you thinking? There is no way you can pull that off? Why don’t you just stop trying to be so special, you aren’t”.

You know who that dream-killer bitch was? Me.

I don’t think I’m alone here in having this mean, grumpy, pessimistic roommate in my head. As I’ve been teaching meditation I’ve seen that this inner critic is prolific and vocal and taking up a lot of real estate in people’s minds. We can love others easily, but are stingy and hesitant to turn the warmth of our hearts inward. Really think about when you last said something nice to yourself. It’s probably been awhile.

Inner critics can be powerful and destructive forces on our lives. The voice saying that we are not good enough, that we are flawed, and that we have little to offer. What will ‘they’ think this voice asks? Allowing the inner critic to have a voice can keep us from happiness and reaching our dreams and greatest potential. We may be so accustomed to this companion in our minds that they become a familiar backdrop of doubt or worry that permeate our daily existence and keep us locked in shackles we don’t even notice are there.

Mindfulness meditation offers the key to unlock ourselves from the cage and take the mic away from the inner critic. An important ‘ah ha’ moment that can come from mindfulness is the recognition of this voice and the awareness of it as an ‘object’ (not you) that can be observed and not attached to. If you don’t buy into the story it’s selling, it can lose strength, creating room for other narratives. Observing your habit of knocking yourself down can help you create new habits to lift yourself up.

The practice of loving kindness meditation (metta) helps us cultivate love for ourselves (and others, but we need to start with ourselves). I believe the most powerful antidote to a harsh inner critic is this practice of loving kindness.

Here is a ten-minute loving kindness meditation to bring push back to that bitch in your head. Try starting every day doing this meditation for a week and see how your days change. Audio can be found here.

Minutes 0-2: Ground into a comfortable seated posture in a chair or on the floor. Feel the stability in your body and begin to open up into a place of receptivity and ease. Move your awareness through your body from your scalp to your toes softening areas of tension and bringing awareness into your body.

Minutes 2-3: Bring your awareness to your breath. Anchoring your awareness on each in breath and out breath. Noticing and releasing the thoughts that come and go through your minds like clouds. On the in breath feel love coming in, on the out breath feel doubt exiting.

Minutes 3-5: Think of someone who loves you wholly and unconditionally. This can be a partner, child, pet, anyone of any species that sees you as the awesome lovable person you are. Noticing in your body how this love feels.

Minute 5: Repeat to yourself the intention “May I be safe”.

Minute 6: Repeat to yourself the intention “May I be happy”.

Minute 7: Repeat to yourself the intention “May I be healthy”.

Minute 8: Repeat to yourself the intention “May I be at peace”.

Minute 9: Move awareness into your heart and feel the energy and warmth and love fill you. Allow this energy to expand out of you, to your friends and loved ones, to your community, to the world, and to all beings. Wishing yourself and everyone to be happy, safe, healthy, and at peace.

** This article first appeared on Thirty on Tap

What is Mindfulness Anyway?

Mindfulness seems to be popping up everywhere- Mindful Business, Mindful Parenting, Mindful Marriage, Mindfulness in schools. Just add the word ‘Mindful’ in front of anything and it seems to hold a promise of better.  And Mindfulness is a pretty powerful thing, proven to increase immunity, resilience, creativity, attention and to decrease stress and pain, among other benefits. But what is Mindfulness anyway

Mindfulness is non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.

That doesn’t clear it up? Sometimes to understand what something is, it helps to talk about what it is not. Here are 5 things that are often misunderstood about Mindfulness and perceived barriers.

  1. Mindfulness will bring on a blissful state. Mindfulness does not aim to create a state; its practice is to observe what is really there and happening. The process is to watch curiously and kindly what is actually going on. In many cases, what is happening is a busy, worrying, anxious, stressed, planning, story-telling, and active mind. Some days you may observe a mind at ease and free of distraction. Other days it can feel like someone left cable news running in your brain or you can’t shake the blues. Whatever comes that day is observed with accepting awareness, and sometimes it’s not that pretty to watch.

 

  1. I can’t meditate, my brain is too ‘crazy’. People unfamiliar with Mindfulness meditation commonly think it is something that they cannot do because they cannot quiet their mind. These are exactly the people who would really benefit! As mentioned in point number 1, the goal isn’t to vanquish all thoughts. You do not fail if you have an active mind. We all do, this is not a unique problem! The purpose of Mindfulness is to bring awareness to the thoughts and your experiences of them, you watch them and release them. In a simple breathing meditation, the practice is to observe your in and out breath. When thoughts appear, you notice and acknowledge them, and then return to your breath. Each distracting thought is an opportunity to practice releasing yourself from it and back to the present moment of your breath.

 

  1. I don’t have time for Mindfulness. Most people feel that they have too little time in their day as it is, and definitely not enough to add in meditating. For many sitting down silently can just seem like a big waste of time, even if there is lots of science to support the benefits. Mindfulness is not about time quantity, it is about consistency. People benefit from a daily sitting practice as short as two minutes a day! If you can’t even fathom sitting still for two minutes, then you can bring Mindful practice to just about anything you are already doing. When you are brushing your teeth, taking a shower, driving, making dinner, walking… these are all perfect opportunities for Mindfulness. Notice where your head is during your daily activities, it’s probably not in the moment. Simply noting where your thoughts are and bringing them to your present direct experience (and repeating infinitely as your thoughts get pulled back elsewhere) is practicing Mindfulness.

 

  1. It’s too uncomfortable to sit cross-legged on the floor. When people think of meditation, most envision a Buddha smiling happily sitting cross-legged on the floor. For many people in our culture the idea of sitting in this way brings up immediate pain and discomfort and feelings of aversion. The good news, you totally don’t need to sit like that to practice Mindfulness meditation! Most teachers advise students to meditate sitting upright in a chair. The key is to have grounded feet and sit bones, and to be feeling upright and at ease. The goal of Mindfulness meditation is not to torture yourself and overcome physical pain. You can find a comfortable posture in your own living room and not try to bend yourself into a pretzel.

 

  1. I dunno, it sounds hard/unfamiliar. Mindfulness meditation is simple (though not easy!). It is as simple as sitting in a chair, closing your eyes, and paying attention to your breathing. No gear, travel, or expense required. There are some pretty amazing resources out there as well to get you started and help you. For many people starting out, guided meditation is most comfortable and effective. There are countless YouTube videos out there to get you started. There are also many apps you can have on your phone that can record, time, and lead your meditations. My favorite App is ‘Insight Timer’, though I have also heard great things about many others including ‘Buddhify’ and ‘Headspace’. There are also many great books out there. Here are two I recommend to get started:

 

  • Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World – Mark Williams and Danny Penman
  • The Art and Science of Mindfulness – Shauna Shapiro

 

**This article first appeared on Thirty on Tap