Thanksgiving is a few days away and we are well on the way to a holiday season full of visitors, gatherings, events, treats, and end of year reports. We ask two UW meditation and mindfulness partners for some best practices for getting through—and thriving—during what can be a hectic, stressful time of year.
Anil Coumar, clinical assistant professor in Psychiatry, says true meditation is not something we do while sitting on a cushion for “x” minutes a day. Rather, true meditation is simply being open to the moment-by-moment experience of being alive.
“Meditation is a direct experience of the uninterrupted moment we commonly call the now,” he says. “In true meditation, we are not trying to get rid of or modify the experience. Instead we remain, as best as we can, open to the experience without separation from the movement of life itself.”
“If we meditate in order to get somewhere or be someone, we may be setting ourselves up for frustration and failure. When we turn our attention to its source, all sense of doing something or being someone fades away and only a sense of living in the moment remains. We realize how nothing can distract us, including thoughts and feelings, because everything is part of meditation.”
Coumar says that in meditation, there is no one controlling the experience and no goal or destination.
“Sitting quietly, we observe thoughts, emotions, sensations, sounds, image, and smells, appearing and disappearing as they have always done We see clearly how life is, what it is in the moment, and how it is changing from one moment to the next.”
Three-Minute Breathing Space Meditation
Step 1: Becoming aware
Deliberately adopt an erect and dignified posture, whether sitting or standing. If possible, close your eyes. Then, bring your awareness to your inner experience and acknowledge it, asking: what is my experience right now?
What thoughts are going through the mind? As best you can, acknowledge thoughts as mental events.
What feelings are here? Turn towards any sense of discomfort or unpleasant feelings, acknowledging them without trying to change them from how you find them.
What body sensations are here right now? Perhaps quickly scan the body to pick up any sensations of tightness or bracing. Acknowledge the sensations, but, once again, not trying to change them in any way.
Step 2: Gathering and focusing attention
Now, redirecting the attention to a narrow ‘spotlight’ on the physical sensations of the breath, move in close to the physical sensations of the breath in the abdomen — expanding as the breath comes in — and falling back as the breath goes out. Follow the breath all the way in and all the way out. Use each breath as an opportunity to anchor yourself into the present. And if the mind wanders, gently escort the attention back to the breath.
Step 3: Expanding attention
Now, expand the field of awareness around the breathing so that it includes a sense of the body as a whole, your posture and facial expression, as if the whole body was breathing. If you become aware of any sensations of discomfort, tension, feel free to bring your focus of attention right in to the intensity by imagining that the breath could move into and around the sensations.
In this, you are helping to explore the sensations, befriending them, rather than trying to change them in any way. If they stop pulling for your attention, return to sitting, aware of the whole body, moment by moment.
The Hourglass Shape of the Breathing Space
It is helpful to view your awareness during the Breathing Space as forming the shape of an hourglass. The wide opening at the top of an hourglass is like the first step of the Breathing Space. In this, you open your attention and gently acknowledge whatever is entering and leaving awareness.
The second step of the Breathing Space is like the narrowing of the hourglass’s neck. It’s where you focus your attention on the breath in the lower abdomen. You focus on the physical sensations of breathing, gently coaxing the mind back to the breath when it wanders away. This helps to anchor the mind – grounding you back in the present moment.
The third step of the Breathing Space is like the broadening base of an hourglass. In this, you open your awareness. In this opening, you are opening to life as it is, preparing yourself for the next moments of your day. Here you are, gently but firmly, reaffirming a sense that you have a place in the world – your whole mind–body, just as it is, in all its peace, dignity and completeness.
We asked Claudia Finkelstein, general internist in the Department of Medicine, to teach us more about mindfulness. Claudia directs the UWSOM Faculty Wellness Programs and has been endeavoring to be mindful for well over a decade.
Many existing definitions of mindfulness don’t feel entirely adequate. One of the more recognized definitions of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, who says, “Mindfulness is paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose in the present moment without judgment.” This seemingly simple statement actually contains some very profound basic principles of mindfulness.
Paying attention sounds superficially very easy, until we realize that we have arrived at work without having paid conscious attention to any moment of our drive. Spending time in the present moment is also less common than it appears. Pause for a moment to think about how much time we spend mulling over the past or planning for the future, and how little time we actually spend in the experience of being here now.
The third element—non-judgment—can be equally elusive. We love to sort things into good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, for us or against us. It’s rare to merely meet an experience without judging it.
What does mindfulness look like? How can I learn to be mindful?
An easy way to look at mindfulness is as a way to train the mind. It is more of a process than an actual product. It can be thought of as the deliberate practice of cultivating presence and turning off autopilot.
It is not about escaping reality, achieving bliss, or an altered state. It is about being fully present to reality.
The best way to learn mindfulness is to practice it. An excellent analogy is that everything that one can learn about the taste of a banana in a 20-week seminar is completely eclipsed by one bite.
The one bite of mindfulness would equate to attending a daylong or weekend retreat, signing up for a 5-week mindfulness training class, or an official 8-week, mindfulness-based stress-reduction class.
What’s in it for me? Why should I try it?
There is a mounting body of solid scientific evidence showing that mindfulness can enhance emotional self-regulation and positive emotional states. Mindfulness-based therapies have been useful in reducing relapses of patients with moderate depression, in reducing relapses of substance abuse, and even in diminishing self-harm and suicidal behavior in patients with borderline personalities. It is an opportunity to be more fully present in one’s life. Cultivating the qualities of presence and non-judgment in the present moment can be revolutionary.
It’s hard to believe that anything is really good for everything. However, in our current state of highly fragmented attention, it is hard to think of any instance in which mindfulness would not support us.