We live in a world where we are always trying to figure out a way to improve upon our financial, mental, physical and emotional health. We are always worrying about what the future holds for us, how to correct our past mistakes and how to deal with the currently demanding issues in our lives.
As we do this, we tend to overthink about situations that results to being overwhelmed by stress, anxiety and at times, depression, that takes a toll on our health. We can all agree that in any depressed state, it is hard to think straight and be able to work out proper solutions to the problems facing us.
Mindfulness meditation is a practice that can come very much in handy during such situations. It not only helps your mind reduce the racing thoughts about the past that only weigh you down but also the worries of the future that get you anxious. This type of meditation teaches to focus on the present moment and remain mindful, which comes with so many benefits.
We take a look at everything you need to know about mindfulness meditation as a beginner.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is a mental training that is aimed at helping meditators become aware of the present moment. It helps you get to experience “the now” and direct your attention to your thoughts, sensations and emotions in the moment.
This type of meditation is more about helping you quiet your mind and remain present, without being carried away by the thoughts of the past or the future. It helps us be in the now without forming any opinions or judgments but simply be purely present, no matter what is happening around us during that moment.
There are many types of meditation that are based on different techniques and end results, and mindfulness meditation specializes in building mindfulness and awareness which helps reduce many mental, emotional and physically related issues including anxiety, stress and even pain (1).
It allows those who meditate become aware of the activities and patterns of thoughts and behaviors that run on automation within themselves and then be able to change them into more desirable patterns and behaviors that work well in their favor.
By constantly engaging in mindfulness based meditation, the physical structure of your brain is changed and long term permanent changes that are beneficial to you happen, that lead to better choices that get crystallized into good habits which benefit you on the long term.
Where Does Mindfulness Meditation Come From?
Mindfulness meditation, just like many other forms of meditation, can be traced back to the Eastern countries. Many people believe that it came from Buddhist and Hindu traditions, which is not entirely true.
Although there is no specific information sharing how, where and from whom exactly it came about, it is believed that almost all religions including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism have always made use of this practice.
The practice was introduced to the Western world mainly by 2 people, Thich Nhat Hanh and Jon Kabat Zinn.
Jon Kabat Zinn is the founder and executive director of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and he is an experienced mindfulness meditation teacher. He also trains in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Jon studied under various teachers of Buddhism including Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk who is a well-known global spiritual leader.
From them, he understood mindfulness and later came to integrate it into the health industry to form MBSR, which is an 8 weeks training aimed at reducing stress through mindfulness practice.
This training has made mindfulness even more popular in the Western countries.
Other influential people who contributed to the spread of the ancient tradition in the West are Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, who founded the Insight Meditation Society in the 1970s.
This and other organizations as well as various individuals have helped mindfulness meditation to be adopted and practiced by many westerners.
How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work?
Mindfulness meditation goes a long way in the lives of the meditators. On the surface, it helps you reduce the constant unrest of past and future thoughts that stimulate negative feelings and make you overthink.
This helps to bring a balance in your emotional and mental life which makes you more peaceful and calm.
On top of that, it helps you bring down the levels of stress and depression that comes with overthinking. It even helps you have a better understanding of things in your life as you are present.
When we get into the brain, mindfulness does a lot to it. Firstly it increases the size of the gray matter in the brain that is linked to executive functioning.
This results to better planning and improved problem solving skills as well as having a better control over emotions (2).
Secondly, it reduces the size of the amygdala, the part that is associated with anxiety and stress and this makes you more mentally stable, calm and peaceful
Thirdly, it affects the brain waves by getting you from higher brain wave frequency to low brain wave frequency that makes for mental clarity. It also makes it possible for you to take your time before responding to sensations and demanding situations in your life.
It also increases the size of the cortical thickness in the brain that really helps with improving learning abilities and memory processes.
The Difference Between Meditation and Mindfulness
Mindfulness and meditation are often confused to mean the same thing, which they are not. Mindfulness is the quality of being in the moment, being aware of your thoughts, emotions, behaviors and sensations without having judgment or opinions. Simply observing.
Mindfulness experts define it as paying attention to the present moment experiences with openness, curiosity and a willingness to be with what is.
Mindfulness helps us be more self controlled and not to fall into quickly responding to all the thoughts and feelings we get. And this provides the ability to handle even the most difficult and serious scenarios with calmness and carefulness.
Mindfulness does not take away the severity of the situation, the difficulties or the stress. Neither does it keep us from being sad or angry.
Rather, it helps us become more aware of the thoughts and feelings that take control of us in such situations and as a result, gives the ability to respond better to them.
Mindfulness is not present only when meditating. It should be something we have throughout the day. If possible, we should be mindful every time.
However, the human mind is known to wander every so often and we get lost in thoughts and emotions that explains why it is fairly difficult to be always mindful.
And this is where meditation comes in.
By meditating, we build mindfulness slowly by first having short period where we train ourselves to be mindful. Over time and with consistent practice, we are able to apply mindfulness in all areas of our lives.
Mindfulness should not be a few minutes thing, it should be part of us when we wake up to when we sleep. It should be there every time.
We can always be mindful anytime and anywhere.
And by being totally mindful, we are able to cultivate focus and peace within ourselves that will help us respond better to situations and make the proper change we need to have for our own good.
Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
Here is the list of benefits you get by doing mindfulness meditation frequently.
1. Increases level of compassion – A study done on this practice revealed that participants who underwent 3 weeks of mindfulness meditation had improved compassion and were more likely to do acts of compassion compared to the other group of people who didn’t go through the training (3).
2. Increases control of emotions such as aggression – Mindfulness meditation is able to help you control your levels of aggression and be more in control of how you act during various circumstances including provocative events of provocation. You are less aggressive when you are mindful because you are aware of yourself (4).
3. Reduces stress, anxiety and depression – Studies show that engaging in the practice of mindfulness can help you bring down the level of the Cortisol, the stress hormone. Also, it helps make people who are anxious and depressed be aware that they are experiencing these emotions and better react to them (5, 6, 7).
4. Managing pain and fatigue – Mindfulness meditation helps promote the strategies of regulating emotions and feelings through being aware of and changing the thoughts that are dysfunctional. It also increases positive emotions that improve upon your positivity (8).
5. Enhances calmness and improve quality of life – With mindfulness meditation, you are able to reduce mind wandering and thought racing which in turn makes you calmer and quieter. This helps you see life from a more reasonable and realistic point of view as opposed to what your thoughts show you. This translates to a more fulfilled life (9).
6. Improves quality of sleep – Studies show that mindfulness meditation can help improve the quality of sleep and daytime impairment in older adults. The fact that you reduce mental noise, it promotes a peaceful environment to drift into deep sleep (10).
7. Reduces loneliness in older adults – An 8-week study with participants going through mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) program showed that it may help reduce loneliness and pro inflammatory gene expression in older adults (11).
8. Reduces momentary negative effect – Mindfulness meditation also has the potential to reduce momentary negative effect. Mindfulness practices such as walking meditation has proven more beneficial in regulating negative feelings of the present moment compared to meditation while you are seated (12).
9. Improves moods and cognitive functioning – A study on mindfulness meditation concluded that being involved in a brief mindfulness training can significantly boost your visuo-spatial processing, executive functioning and working memory. It is also believed that even 4 days of meditation training can improve levels of attention just like long term meditators experience (13).
Diana Watson, Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA Mindful Awareness Center and also the author of several mindfulness meditation books, says that mindfulness meditation for long term meditators helps reduce age related cortical decline that makes the brain start thinning out as you age.
10. Increases the density of the gray matter – Mindfulness practice has been associated with the increase in the concentration of the gray matter in the brain especially in the areas that are linked to emotional regulation, learning abilities and memory processes, perspective thinking and self-referential processing (14).
11. Improves attention and focus – There is an essential brain wave in the brain called the alpha rhythm which is said to reduce information that causes distraction.
Researchers from Havard Medical School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Massachusetts General Hospital said that participants who underwent the 8-week mindfulness meditation program had a faster response to cues that were based on direction of attention than those who were in the control group. This is all due to regulation of the alpha rhythm (15).
How to do Mindfulness Meditation
If you are just starting, getting guided mindfulness meditation from an experienced teacher, trusted meditation apps, mindfulness-based organizations is highly recommended. You will be able to get quality training and understanding of the practice.
All mindfulness based trainings follow the same strategy with the main aim being on focusing on your breath as well as directing and maintaining your focus and attention on your breath. Ultimately, the basic idea is to be and remain in the present moment.
You are also encouraged to start by doing the practice for a few minutes, 5 to 10 minutes, and then increase the length with time and as you get used to it,
Here are the steps you should follow when doing mindfulness meditation:
Step 1: Sit in a fairly comfortable position – Find a place where you won’t be disturbed throughout the session. Sit in a comfortable upright position with your spine erect. You can sit on a chair, a meditation cushion or bench, or even a regular bench.
Step 2: Focus on your breath – You should now direct your attention to your breath, how you breathe in and out. Don’t breathe differently from the way you normally do. Just do it naturally but this time feel it, the way air goes in and out of your body. Feel the way your chest and belly reacts as you take air in and out. You can also note in your mind when you are breathing in and when you are breathing out.
By feeling and listening to the way you breathe and body sensations, your mind is able to relax and focus.
Step 3: Return your attention to your breath when you wander away – As you meditate, your mind will often wander, more so if you are a beginner. Don’t worry or stress yourself. When you notice your mind has wandered, bring your attention back to your breath. This happens a lot and your job is to redirect your focus and attention.
Also, you should remember to feel your breath without any judgment or opinion. When thoughts come up, either of the breath or other things, simply let them go and go back to your breath.
Step 4: Be lenient with your mind – It is always important to keep in mind that your mind is going to wander away many times. Thoughts will come up every other time as you are meditating and your attention will be carried away by them. When this happens, don’t beat yourself down, this is very normal.
Many people tend to quit because of this as they don’t realize that this is part of the process of growing in meditation. So be sure to go easy on yourself. The idea is that you are supposed to do your best to remain in the present moment without your attention shifting, and it takes practice to get there.
You will start off by drifting away but as you get back to your breath every time this happens, your mind will be able to grow more attentive and focused.
Step 5: End your meditation session – As your time is up and your meditation session is over, take your time and open your eyes slowly.
If they were open and you had a low gaze, raise your head and open your eyes as they should be. Take note of how you feel within yourself, your emotions and thoughts. Take note of how calm, relaxed and focused you feel. Now make a decision and plan of how you are going to proceed with your day.
Please note that this is not as easy as people make it appear. It takes time, patience and persistence to make it work.
Meditation Techniques That Enhance Mindfulness
You can also make use of these techniques to improve your level of mindfulness. You can choose 2 or 3 techniques you feel you are comfortable with and use them frequently.
1. Visualization – This is all about visualizing. When you visualize a person or something you know exists although not physically, like love, it keeps your focus levels high and it really helps you calm down as well.
2. Loving kindness meditation – This is another strategy that makes you relaxed and aware without having to focus on your breath. Here, you first wish yourself the best by repeating in your mind phrases that hope the best for you like “May I have peace and happiness”.
After that, you get to hold the images of people around you in your mind who have gone a long way in making you happy, including those you know and have met as well as those you haven’t. Afterwards, you do the same with those you know don’t really like you or wish the best for you.
3. Body scan meditation – This is just as it sounds. You get to scan your whole body from up going downwards to your toes with your mind. As you do this, you take note of the thoughts, sensations, emotions and discomforts that you feel with every part of your body.
4. Reflection – This technique involves dropping a question in your mind in the second person and the observing the feeling you get from that. You should remember not to ask yourself the question in the first person or else you will involve the intellectual mind and there will be no sense of space needed for this.
A good example of this is by asking yourself, “What excites you the most?” And then take note of the sensations and feelings you experience.
5. Walking meditation – This type of meditation requires you to find a space where you can walk quietly and observe your sensations as you move. The area should be fairly spacious, about 3 to 6 meters. Your main focus on this strategy is your sensations. Feel how you are walking, how you turn and go back when you get to the end of the path and how you feel when you are standing.
6. Resting awareness – This is where you give your mind a good rest. You don’t try to focus on or visualize anything that will involve your mind. Instead, you just simply rest. A string of thoughts will come, but they will go without any efforts. Your work is to rest and observe what happens during this state of rest.
7. Taking note (Noting) – Here, you apply a note or a label on a thought or a feeling that arises in the mind. It helps to give you space and enhances awareness. The way you go about this is, when you are meditating and you get lost in thought, you say in your mind, “Oh, that’s a feeling” or “That’s a thought.” Then go back to your object of focus.
Being More Mindful Even After Meditation
Mindfulness can also be built through the normal daily activities we get involved in on a daily basis. From the moment we wake up to the time we retire to bed, we have plenty of opportunities to engage in mindfulness. Take a look at the things you do daily and list them down.
All of us take a shower, brush our teeth, wear clothes, eat breakfast, go to work or school, talk to people, rest, go to sleep and travel. And if we can do these things more mindfully, we are able to grow more mindful. The ultimate aim of doing mindfulness meditation is to become more mindful.
And as earlier said, by meditation we learn the basics of mindfulness, which we can then apply to the other areas of our lives to help us be more aware and mindful through the day.
So by incorporating mindfulness in small daily activities, we get to stretch it outside of meditation, which really adds value to our lives. So make a decision to do it and remind yourself every day to be mindful in what you do based on your lifestyle.
Always ensure you take note of your sensations, thoughts and emotions that each activity stimulates within you, without judging any. This also helps you focus on the activities more and enjoy them in the long run. And when you couple these mindfulness practices with meditation, you get double the benefits.
They can also stand in for your daily meditation sessions during the days you are not able to meditate.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) on Mindfulness Meditation
1. How should my feet be during this kind of meditation? There is no specific way to keep your legs with this type of meditation. If you are seated in a meditation cushion, cross them in a comfy way in front of you. If you are on a bench or a chair, rest them on the floor.
2. If I choose to keep my eyes open, should they be completely open? There are people who meditate better when they keep their eyes closed and there are those who find it useful to keep them open. If you prefer keeping them open, keep them half closed while maintaining a soft low gaze.
3. What posture should I maintain during the meditation session? It is always recommended keeping a straight posture. Always ensure your spine remains upright. But then don’t be too stiff. Simply keep your back straight.
4. How often should I meditate? The basic concept behind getting the benefits of meditation is the more you do it, the better you get at it and the more benefits you experience. So, naturally, you want to do it as often as you can. If possible, do it on a daily basis and make it part of your schedule during the hours you know you are free.
5. What can I do during a meditation session that will make me miss on the benefits? Well, if you follow the steps we outlined above, you should be good to go and you will have done it right. The only mistake you can make is to give up on it, or think your mind is too noisy and shadowed with thoughts and emotions for you to meditate.
That is wrong. Mindfulness meditation is pretty much about focusing on your breath or your object of focus, your mind wandering away, taking note of that, bringing your focus back to your breath or your object of focus and doing this over and over again.
6. What ways do you recommend for practicing mindfulness meditation? There are many ways to go about the practice and it all depends on what you are comfortable with. There are those who prefer doing it on their own, some prefer group meditation and others choose professional and trusted guidance on the same.
All are good provided you make good use of them. You can either choose to read, master and apply the above steps or choose a meditation app that offers mindfulness meditation and work with it. You can also go for Mindfulness Based Srees Reduction (MBSR) or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) or any other professional mindfulness based training centers.
7. How do I find a meditation teacher? If you are near any center that offers mindfulness meditation, you can choose a meditation teacher there who you know is well knowledgeable and experienced in the area and one that you get along with very well.
Then you can create time to be meeting for that, based on how you two agree. You can also find meditation teachers online. Just be sure to do your due diligence before settling for one.
As we have seen, mindfulness meditation helps you cultivate mindfulness, a state that unlocks numerous benefits.
By only setting aside a few minutes a day to meditate, you can reduce a good deal of problems you are having at the moment such as stress and anxiety and become more stable mentally in a way that you’ll be able to live a more peaceful, happier life.