Basic how-to meditation instructions and information on an upcoming class.

For those of you with an interest, or even a curiousity about meditation, I will be offering a two week class in mindfulness meditation in conjunction with the YWCA.  It will be on the next two thursdays, the 19th and 26th, from 6-7:15.  In the interest of accessibility, the cost will be only $25 for both sessions. For more information or to sign up, call 309-647-0441 during business hours.  I'd like to use the rest of the post to give a bit of a primer on how to practice mindfulness meditation.

winter quiet

Let's start by returning to the brief definition of mindfulness as supplied by Jon Kabat-Zinn:

Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.

It means paying attention, and that attention should be purposeful, focused on the present, and without judgement.

First off, what is paying attention? Attention is the act of focusing on something. It is pretty broad- we could be paying attention to an aircraft flying over head, a video game, the sound of a teacher's voice, or a memory from long ago. You could argue that, as long as we are awake, we are always paying attention to something, even if that something jumps around a lot.

So we have to be more precise than merely paying attention. Mindfulness is purposeful.  This means that we are to choose what we will attend to, and commit to maintaining our attention on that one thing. When we inevitably become distracted, we simply return to what we are doing.

Focusing on the present means focusing on what is here and now, in our own experience. In this way, we are eliminating paying attention to movies, books or any other media that tear our awareness and our imaginations away from our direct personal experience in the present. Likewise, daydreaming, planning, ruminating and wondering are all ways in which our attention can lead us away from what is happening in front of our noses right now. None of these things are problematic, by the way. It is simply that they are not part of the practice of mindfulness.

The last component is non-judgment. This essentially means that we are not selectively trying to control our experience. We control lots of things during mindfulness practice; we sit down for a given length of time, focus our attention and breath slowly and deliberately.  Mindfulness is a fairly disciplined, rigorous practice. But there are also parts of the experience we do not try to control.  A whole orchestra of thought, feeling, aches and pains are likely to arise. Our job is not to conduct the orchestra, it is to sit in the audience and pay attention, rather than get up and go to the bathroom, check our iphones, or go to sleep. Even when the orchestra in question is a group of six year olds squawking away on overly loud wind instruments.

So, what are we paying attention to, anyway? That is the simple part. It can be any number of things, but I find that the most reliable thing to focus on is your own breath. It is always with you, as long as you are alive. It is pretty even and consistent, and very predictable. It is also easy to determine when you have strayed in your attention.

To start, just sit down in a comfortable yet upright position, with relatively good posture. Begin by taking a couple of really big, deep breaths. Close your eyes. Bring your attention to the simple act of breathing. Notice they way the air feels as it passes through your nostrils. Notice how your diaphragm relaxes to accommodate the influx of air. See if you can pinpoint the moment in which the inhale  turns over into an exhale, and feel your diaphragm flex as the air is expelled. See if you can observe the temperature of the air on the way out, compared to the way in.

Well, that's it! I said it was simple. I am only a  bit kidding. You would not think that such a simple practice would not spawn endless books and reams of research. Of, course, when the simplest practice imaginable runs into the wildest, most complex organic system in the history of the world (a human being), even simple things become complex.

You will run into trouble sitting still. You will get distracted. You will wonder about what the point of all this sitting might be. You will get bored and daydream. No matter what experience comes your way, the mindful response is the same:

Sit still, pay attention.