The Power of Mindfulness and Types of Meditation
Learn about the power of mindfulness, and the different types of mediation in order to increase your mental well-being
The ability of our minds to do what we want them to do, and not do what we don’t want them to do, is maddeningly elusive. Anyone who has sat down to attempt meditation will quickly find that trying to get the mind to focus on one thing—the breath, for example—is incredibly difficult.
The nature of our minds when faced with this task is either to run scattering off in every direction at once, or to shut down and fall asleep. Imagine lassoing a wild animal that keeps wanting to run off. The job of gently but firmly pull it back time and again is analogous to training the mind and practicing mindfulness.
Even without practicing formal meditation, we all know that our minds don’t necessarily follow our commands. If we are worrying incessantly about something, we can’t just tell our minds “stop worrying.” If we are grieving deeply, we can’t just say “get over it” and become happy again. If we are angry it doesn’t always work to just “calm down.” The mind gets overwhelmed by so many emotions. It gets dull and cloudy, or wild and unruly. Sometimes even concentrating on mundane tasks proves too much for it.
What is mindfulness, and how does it help? Scientist, author and meditation instructor Jon Kabat-Zinn said, “My working definition of mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. And then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”
In its broadest definition, mindfulness brings in the awareness of so many different things. Let’s say you are taking your lunch break at the park and decide to practice for a few moments. You hear a bird flick its wings in the branch overhead and you focus completely on that sound. You look up into the tree and see each individual leaf. You feel the park bench under your seat and the warmth of the sun on your face. Then you become aware of a rising mental anxiety because your lunch break’s almost over and you’ll have to hurry back to the office, which brings an associated physical feeling in your chest. Inhaling deeply, you return to a state of calm. Each of these things you notice in turn, while recognizing that they are all just passing phenomena. You respond to them as necessary but you’re not driven into a frenzied, unbalanced reaction. Your mind remains calm and present. That is mindfulness. Mindfulness is something covered throughout in our Ultimate Well-Being program.
All sorts of books have been written, courses developed, and retreats offered to teach this ancient practice. The most powerful way to begin is with formal seated meditation. Generally speaking, meditation can be described as the cultivated practice of turning the mind away from its incessant running thought-narrative and trying to fix it on a single object (such as the breath, mantras, visualizations or body scans.) To the extent that the mind becomes engrossed in a single object, rather than scattered like a radio tuner on scan, it becomes calm and concentrated. Some people find a kind of peaceful meditative state just in the one-pointed focus they achieve during the creative process, or while running, or even stirring a pot on the stove.
In the case of mindfulness meditation, the object is not something imagined, like a mantra or visualization. Rather it is a reality, either internal or external, that keeps us trained on the present moment. The goal is to simply be aware of this reality without judging it or forming emotional reactions. It is important to note that whenever your mind strays into distracting thoughts, you should try to bring it back calmly and patiently without feelings of failure. By this effort alone you will reap tremendous benefits.
Once you understand the basic concept, you can practice mindfulness in all your daily activities—for example by focusing on the act of chewing and swallowing during a meal, or on the sensations in your legs and feet while walking, or by paying attention to the thoughts and feelings that arise while you fold laundry. The key is to observe them calmly and objectively, almost clinically, without engaging.
The purpose of a mindfulness practice is to make the mind responsive rather than reactive. The sharpness your mind develops, and the quiet space you’ve routinely given it, will help prevent you from getting swept away into negative emotions and behaviors. Rather than having knee-jerk reactions, you will be able to see situations clearly and therefore respond appropriately. The person who practices mindfulness is less likely to lash out in an argument, more likely to come back later with a thoughtful response. They are more likely to check themselves when reaching for that forbidden food or substance, less likely to suddenly look up at the clock and realize they spent three hours browsing the internet when they were supposed to be studying. They are less likely to lose their keys or injure themselves through lack of body awareness, more likely to remember things and be on time for appointments. They are less likely to buckle under stress, more likely to stay present and effective through difficult situations. They are more in control of their emotions, more in control of their actions.
All forms of mindfulness are helpful, but internal mindfulness is especially powerful. This means that instead of focusing on something outside, like a sight or a sound, one turns the awareness within. Observing the breath and sensations in one’s own body, as well as mental states as they arise and cease, constitutes internal mindfulness. When practiced this way, mindfulness becomes an incredibly powerful tool for understanding and improving our behavior patterns, as it allows us to see our subconscious thought patterns more clearly and gives us the mental space to curb blind reactions.
Although the connection may not seem obvious, determined, habitual effort to be mindful of everything we experience does ultimately pay off in a better understanding of the subtle processes at work within ourselves and our lives. This understanding, or wisdom, opens the way for positive change. That is the true power of mindfulness.
- Notice what happens when you try to focus your mind on a single object, such as the breath.
- Practice concentrating on things one at a time. Give your full attention to a single sight, sound, taste, touch, smell or task.
- When the mind wanders, calmly return to the object without frustration or judgement.
- If you do find yourself having negative reactions, observe those too: “Frustration has arisen in my mind.”
- Pay attention to physical sensations during daily activities like walking, eating and drinking.
- Try to objectively observe thoughts and emotions that pass through your mind without feeding into or latching onto them.
- Read a book about mindfulness, watch YouTube videos, join a meditation group or sign up for a retreat.