After a few weeks of sacred practices that wedged their way into my life, this week was a return to regularly scheduled programming. I undertook a practice that is probably the most highly publicized practice in our world today, the form of meditation, originating in Buddhist thought but now thoroughly Westernized, known as mindfulness meditation.
Meditation is any practice of intentional stillness undertaken to quiet the mind and cultivate mindfulness (being-present-ness). Practices of meditation have never been as popular in Western society as they are today, and mindfulness meditation is by far the leader in popularity right now. Measured by Google searches, 2014 saw double the number of searches for “Mindfulness” over the previous year, and a fourfold increase since 2004. Companies like Google and the Huffington Post have implemented “mindfulness breaks” in their workdays for interested employees. Apps designed to assist with meditation have jumped near the top of the charts on iTunes. While mindfulness meditation may be trendy right now to the point of being a fad, it is certainly nothing new. Most cultures around the world have seen the value in meditation and have some local form of it. Moreover, even beyond the hype of meditation’s most vocal proponents, Western medicine has been discovering that the benefits of meditation go far beyond the obvious calming effects for the spirit and mind: The Mayo Clinic for example has recommended meditation as a complementary treatment for not only psychological conditions like anxiety and depression, but also for asthma, cancer, heart disease, and chronic pain. Research at Harvard Medical School has demonstrated that meditation activates sections of the brain that regulate the autonomic nervous system, which governs things like digestion, immune response, and blood pressure. And, a study of those at high risk for heart disease showed that, while the control group of non-meditators saw a thickening of the arterial walls over the course of the study, the group that meditated actually saw a reduction in the thickness of their arteries.
Between the purported benefits to mental and physical health and mindfulness meditation’s apparent distance from any sort of religious language, it’s little wonder that it has caught on to such an extent in our current moment, when people are generally anxious and over-busy and have a deep spiritual intuition but no spiritual tradition within which to express it.
What is it?
There are hundreds of introductions to mindfulness meditation just a Google search away. I won’t link to any particular one, since there are so many, but the basic principle is this:
- Set a timer for a specific amount of time. Beginners normally start at between 5-15 minutes.
- Seat yourself in a comfortable position. Again, there is a lot of advice about what this position should ideally be; I’ll just suggest that whatever position you end up, make your decisions before you start so you aren’t thinking about it during your meditation.
- Breathe in and out at a normal pace, but focusing your attention on your breath.
- Keep your attention on your breath until the timer goes off. When your mind wanders — and it will — simply recognize that it’s wandered without judgment and return to your breath.
I have had an inconsistent mindfulness meditation practice for over five years now, so this week was like hanging out with a friend I love but don’t see as often as I’d like to. I’m finding, however, that, whether it’s because I’m aging or because of a decreased attention span due to technological addiction, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to stay with my breath. This week was no exception. I could not focus on my breath for more than a few seconds to save my life! It’s a bit funny, and a bit frustrating, but definitely makes me want to try more, to keep returning to the practice until I can calm my monkey mind just a bit.
One of the things I have always appreciated about mindfulness meditation is that I never felt it was something I could or should ‘succeed’ at. Or rather, the way ‘success’ is measured is such that I can only not succeed by giving up. My mind wanders. All the time. In the course of ten minutes, I might ‘successfully’ keep my attention on my breath for thirty seconds at a time. This week was no exception, and as I just mentioned, I feel like it’s getting harder as time goes on to stay with my breath, rather than easier. So, the week was a little frustrating in that respect, but the success isn’t really to be found in staying with the breath but in consistently returning to it when your mind wanders. It’s the “Fall seven times, get up eight times” of sacred practices. And for that, I love it.
Fad or no, I’m glad to be in a moment where mindfulness meditation is common. I think it can do a lot of good. It does, however, have the potential to stir up things in the mind we might not want to deal with. Humans spend a lot of time distracting ourselves from or repressing certain ideas, memories, scripts, and feelings. And so, staying with our attention in the way that mindfulness meditation requires can sometimes be a frightening thing. And this, more than anything, is the downside of it being so popular beyond its spiritual tradition of origin. Being a part of a spiritual tradition or community of faith doesn’t make one any more ‘spiritual’ (whatever that means) or necessarily even more pious; but it does provide context for spiritual experiences, positive or negative, and narratives within which to understand them. Something like the simple mindfulness meditation has been done for thousands of years; there is nothing its practitioners haven’t seen over that time. Rather than reinventing the wheel — especially when the wheels fall off during a negative experience — it seems better to talk to the experts.
At any rate, welcoming this practice back into my life this week was a great reminder of how badly I need it, and I want to redouble my efforts this Summer to establish a more regular routine of taking a few minutes a day to stay with my breath.