Sit still. Breathe in. Breathe out. Focus on the breath. Simple? Until I try and do it. Nothing about mindful meditation is as easy as it looks.
Mindful Meditation – the hardest thing to practice
How I’d love to sit with nothing to do. In a busy day where it feels like I hit the ground running and don’t stop until I collapse into bed for the night, a little time where I can sit and do nothing, say nothing, think nothing, seems like it would be a vacation.
But sitting down to mindful meditation is the hardest thing for me to do on a regular basis. Before I begin my brain assails me with excuses why I don’t have the time or luxury of meditating.
When I do manage to get seated, my mind becomes a playground for thoughts, feelings, concerns, things I need to do, things I want to do. It seems the more I strive to relax and get into a state of non-thinking/non-reacting, the more my mind revs up like a race car. I notice and get stolen out of the moment by itches and aches. Sounds from outside that I wouldn’t notice any other time resonate loudly. I think of things that can’t wait. I need a drink of water. I lost count of my breath. Does mediation actually even work, I wonder. What time is it? How much longer? How much looooooooooonger?
Why mindful meditation matters to me
I need to spend time on a mindful meditation practice for one main reason: It is the only way I am going to lose weight and get fit.
I know I can eat less and make better food choices and that will lead to weight loss. I know I can push myself to stretch and exercise and that will lead to better health. But none of that happens without the support of my mind.
Not every thought I take results in an action. But every action I take starts with a thought. The issue is which of those thoughts are deliberate, and which are reactive, instinctive, or unconscious?
For years I have lived most of my life on automatic, it seems. I have gotten up when I felt like it. I ate what I felt like. Exercise was a routine I’d take up whenever I had the motivation. It was not something I did as a routine or a rule. I engaged my brain in other pursuits. Because of those behaviors my mind is as untrained, undisciplined, and as unfit as the rest of me.
Mindful meditation is a course for me to get the mindset I need to achieve the things I want. It is the starting point for all my actions and the only way I will control my habits and behaviors.
Mental benefits of a regular mindful meditation practice
For a man my age and in my state of health, there are many reasons to practice some mindfulness. Meditation helps with many stumbling blocks in everyday life. So serious meditation is the starting point to gaining many more benefits.
One thing it helps with is managing stress. Stress is a major health issue in our culture. It generates physical and well and mental health problems. Regular meditation reduces stress levels and generally makes people more optimistic and positive.
Meditation grows gray brain matter. This is the tissue that is responsible for memory, learning, concentration, and cognition. Just a few weeks of meditation builds gray matter the way bench presses build muscle. As I get older brain health is a concern. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia impact many older people. Keeping the brain flexible has been shown to reduce the chances of developing these conditions as I grow older.
Mindful meditation lets me take stock of my emotional state, too. I am prone to reacting to things anyway. Stress and depletion of will power intensify my tendency to focus on the negative. Meditation makes it possible for me to observe my state of emotions from a detached state of mind. I can train myself to consider my circumstances and emotions, then respond to them with deliberate intent instead of reactionary emotion.
Most importantly for me right now is that mindful meditation builds will power stamina, provides a clear sense of purpose, and focus to stay on track with my goals.
Check in with myself
My practice is following a fairly standard format of guided meditation.
I take a seat in a quiet place. I have a couple of pillows setting on the floor in a corner of the bedroom for when I am upstairs. If I’m meditating downstairs then I sit on the sofa.
I set a timer on my phone for 20 minutes, or I use my 20 Minute Mindful Meditation Video on YouTube. Then I relax and begin taking stock of my body, starting at the crown of my head and moving down. I take a moment to examine every ache, itch, tingle, and discomfort in my shoulders, back, knees, and feet. I do this without a sense of judgment or self-pity. It is an important part of simply viewing a situation dispassionately.
Breathe in, breathe out
After my self check-in, I begin to focus on my breath. This is the really hard part for me. At almost no other time does an avalanche of thoughts, feeling and challenges come pouring down on my brain as it does when I am just trying to count breaths in, breaths out.
This is normal, however. Everybody who starts meditating experiences the “monkey mind”. And they tell you that it never really goes away. But with practice and discipline it will diminish. That is the point, after all. This is exercise. And exercise is going to be tough.
So I sit, and I take in deep, steady breaths. Slowly, I breathe with purpose. I breathe to calm myself. I focus on my breath.
In and out.
See what comes up
While I am focusing on my breath, I also take my mind through a visualization journey. This is not the same as letting my mind wander. I am on a purposeful path in my imagination, and my breath is still the focus of my meditation.
In my mind, I imagine that I enter a forest path, or follow a track to an empty beach. The key here is that I am in an environment that encourages me to be calm. It is a place that disperses stress and frustration. There may be a cottage or tent ahead of me that I can enter. If I go inside I then I discover visual cues relevant to what the goal of my focus is for this meditation.
Perhaps I will encounter myself in the tent or cottage. Perhaps we will exchange words. The goal of my alter-ego is to impart wisdom and truth. My goal is to listen. Through my meditation I put my desires out into the Universe. Through my avatar the Universe guides me.
When my mind wanders, come back to the breath
So far I can’t sustain these imaginary travels for more than about 5 minutes. Then the monkey brain jumps back in and I have to focus on my breath.
When thoughts or concerns come up not related to my focus point, the object is to see them in my mind. I am not suppose to react to them. I just observe them. I turn the ideas or thoughts around. I look at them from different angles. I seek to learn things about it such as where it came from, what it means, how deeply do I feel it.
Then I am supposed to let it pass. Not fight it, not change it. I am supposed to acknowledge it and then set it aside. It is not supposed to anger or frighten or distress me. It should not make me feel pain or hunger. I should not respond to it in any way except with compassion and forgiveness for myself.
This is to help me get in the mindset of not reacting but instead responding. When I react out of instinct I am not always solving a problem. When I am responding with deliberatly and with purpose, I am more prepared to tackle the issue. And it is to help me learn to let things go and accept that there are some things that are out of my control. Knowing that spares me the stress of frustration and anger, and allows me to focus on the things I can control, like my actions and my thoughts.
And through it all, I just breathe.
Get 1% better with each practice session
There is no way I can consider myself anything other than a novice at meditation. But if I strive and extend my comfort zone, I know I can get better.
Getting better will produce some pretty astounding results in my mind, body, and spirit. That is why I am going to try to get just a little bit better with each sitting. I’m going to seek to sit without reacting to my discomfort. I am going to try and keep my focus on my vision-quest just a little longer. I am going to remain conscious and focused on my breath. And I am going to get a little better and stopping, handling, observing, and letting go of my thoughts and emotions.
And since mindful meditation is a practice I can take anywhere with me, I will be applying the practice more and more when I am out and need greater concentration, determination, and confidence.
It will also help me in achieving my goals and improving my brain.
Just by breathing.