Mindfulness Meditation Tutorial
In working with sufferers of chronic pain, I’ve taught hundreds of people to practice mindfulness meditation. I do this not only because mindfulness meditation is in itself an effective treatment for chronic pain, but also because it helps the practitioner to manage their thoughts and emotions more effectively. It can help you to boost your creativity and can even improve your hypnotic ability.
Mindfulness meditation is probably the simplest form of meditation. It is deceptively simple; a lot of people have difficulty understanding how doing so little can have such deep and powerful effects on well-being. In studies with headache patients practicing mindfulness meditation every day for just 20 minutes a day, the most notable psychological effect of the practice was a pervasive sense of improved control. This is a common experience for people who take up the practice of mindfulness meditation:
- Mindfulness meditators experience an improved sense of control over their own physical sensations. For sufferers of chronic headaches or other types of chronic pain, this comes on as a noticeably higher pain tolerance. Other people who practice this type of meditation often find that their ability to comfortably exercise also improves, and that they begin to feel generally more comfortable in their own bodies.
- Frequent mindfulness meditators also begin to notice an improved sense of control over their thoughts—a growing ability to think with more intention and to pare down the types of racing thoughts that anxiety brings about. If you find yourself worrying all the time, being easily distracted, or feeling overloaded with information, this effect will be particularly useful to you.
- Similarly, frequent meditators typically experience an improved sense of control over their emotions. If you often feel moody or irritable, or become frustrated more easily than you wish, mindfulness meditation is a fantastic way to develop a more balanced and enjoyable emotional life.
The way that mindfulness meditation does all of this is by activating and exercising the frontal cortex of your brain, which is the command center of the entire brain. That means it is responsible for regulating almost all of your conscious activity. Anytime you’re feeling particularly focused, are engaged in problem-solving activity, or are working very hard to moderate your emotional expressions, the frontal cortex is at work. So by exercising this critical area of the brain, mindfulness meditation strengthens your ability to do all of these things. If you do it for long enough, the increased activity and bloodflow in the frontal cortex actually begins to physically alter the structure of your brain. After years of regular meditation practice, the cortical tissue actual grows thicker and more robust, like a muscle that has been regularly worked out.
I’ve already mentioned that this technique is deceptively simple. All you have to do is to pay attention to something. Anything, really—a very good place to begin is with your breath. Just paying attention to your breath.
- Begin by finding a comfortable position where your body can feel reasonably relaxed. If you know any relaxation exercises like diaphragmatic breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, you may find it easier at first if you first get yourself nice and relaxed before beginning.
- Now begin to pay full attention to your breathing. You don’t have to change anything about it, just pay attention to it. Notice all of the physical sensations associated with it. For example, you might notice the sensation of the air going in and then out through your nose or mouth. You’ll probably be able to detect some differences in the way the air feels going in, versus the way it feels going out. On the way in, you’ll probably notice that the air is a bit cooler. There may even be a little bit of a tingling sensation associated with it. On the way out, the air will probably have a warmer, softer quality to it. Notice any changes that you might be able to feel in your face as you breathe in and out, in and around your sinuses, through your cheeks and eyes. Notice the way the muscles naturally push and pull in your chest, and any sensations in your lungs. Just try to completely attend to any and every aspect of your breathing that you can notice.
- Inevitably something will distract you from this simple task at some point. Some people find it difficult to block out noises or commotion happening around them. This is perfectly okay. As soon as you realize that you are being distracted, simply take note that this has occurred and calmly return to your breathing. If you feel irritated or frustrated, that’s okay too. Just allow yourself to focus as fully as possible on your breathing and nothing else. Many people also find that their minds wander; one minute you will be attending to your breath and the next you will find you have been thinking about something else—worries, responsibilities, plans, ideas. This is also okay. When you notice that you have been distracted, simply return to your breathing, again paying attention to the simple, natural motion and all of the sensations which it brings about.
- Keep trying! Don’t get frustrated! When you get distracted, you should know that absolutely nothing has been lost. The whole point of this exercise is to train your brain to be able to focus more effectively, and it is a slow and easy process. Some days you will find it easier to focus, and other days it will be harder. Even on the days that it is completely difficult, however, the positive effects of the meditation that we have discussed here will still be taking place—perhaps even moreso! The struggle itself is the activity. So there, when you lose your concentration, you can even feel good about it, because by the time you realize that you have been distracted, you will already have realized, and then you can return to being mindful.
This is something that you can do in whatever amount of time you have available to you. Personally, I like to practice meditation on my morning bus commute—the time costs me nothing and the extra distractions give me something to work on! But literally any time that you have available to you will do. Ideally, you’ll spend at least 10-20 minutes at a time practicing mindfulness at least once or twice each day.
As your skill increases, you may find that you’re motivated to spend even more time meditating. It won’t be long at all before you will be able to comfortably sit for an hour or more, doing nothing but being mindful of your breath or whatever else you have chosen to be mindful of.
And that brings us to the final point of this lesson, which is that in time you will find that nearly anything you do can be done mindfully. When you begin practice, it will be beneficial to stay in one spot, and pay attention to a simple, natural, effortless process like breathing. But when you have become relatively proficient in this practice, you can begin to branch out into other more complicated forms of mindfulness meditation.
You can, for example, walk mindfully, by simply taking your time and paying attention to each muscle movement, to each exertion of pressure against the bottom of your foot, to the sensation of the breeze passing against your face, and to the faint sound of your clothing rustling against your body. You can eat mindfully by chewing slowly and deliberately, paying attention to each little explosion of flavor and texture on your tongue, by attending to the movements of your jaw as you tear or grind or perforate your food, by being mindful of the sensations of the food traveling down your esophagus toward your stomach.
If you try this technique for a little while and decide you’d like to get a little heavier into it or have some extra guidance, I recommend Jon Kabat-Zinn’s excellent audio program Guided Mindfulness Meditation. In the meantime, I’m here to help, so please post your comments here about your experiences. Let me know if you would like clarification on anything I’ve talked about here, tell me what parts of the experience you found particularly easy or difficult, and feel free to ask any questions about how to improve your practice for maximum effectiveness and enjoyableness!