What’s it all about?
Mindfulness meditation is a simple training process where we practise focusing our attention on the breath, or sometimes a mantra or a word, for a period of time.
A regular mindfulness practice can help to free us from the busy chatter of our minds. It can also help to reduce stress levels, enhance our brainpower and support us in living a more present, content and happy life. It is also a supportive initial step in awakening to our true basic nature.
The aim of the practice is to stay as present and alert as possible, focusing our awareness on our breath or a mantra, whilst still remaining relaxed. Each time our mind wanders – which it will – we simply recognise it and patiently return our attention back to the breath or mantra. We repeat this process over and over again, usually for around 10 minutes at a time to begin with.
Although the practice sounds simple – which it is – it is not always easy to do, especially in the beginning. However, over time, and through the power of repetition, our concentration levels increase and it becomes easier and more natural to do.
Does it really work?
According to recent scientific studies, people who practise mindfulness meditation on a daily basis have measurable changes take place within their brains. These include:
A decrease in activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with anxiety, worry and stress.
An increase in density in the prefrontal cortex, an area that is associated with improved creativity, attention, memory and decision-making.
An increase in activity in the hippocampus, an area which is associated with the development of self-awareness, compassion and introspection.
These findings support the claims that mindfulness practitioners have been making for centuries. So, it appears that through this practice, we do literally have the power to change our brains and therefore positively affect how we think, feel and function in the world.
However, if we want to become good at something – whether it’s learning to play a musical instrument or mastering a new sport or craft – it does require patience, a healthy degree of determination and, of course, practice. It is the same when it comes to learning mindfulness meditation. And if the scientific claims are anything to go by, then the benefits you can reap from this practice are well worth the investment.
Common myths about the practice of mindfulness meditation
Myth #1: You have to sit in an uncomfortable cross-legged position to do it.
No you don’t! You can practise sitting in an upright chair or on the edge of your bed. The most important thing is that you are comfortable. If you’re unsettled or fidgety, you’ll just spend the whole time meditating on the pain in your knee or back. For those who want to sit on a cushion on the floor, there are variations and helpful tips to make it more comfortable. Mindfulness meditation can also be practised whilst walking or engaging in everyday activities such as washing the dishes.
Myth #2: You’re not supposed to think.
A common misconception a lot of people have about mindfulness meditation is that you are meant to have a calm, empty mind, free from thoughts. But when we first try meditating it’s often the case that our minds will feel busy and agitated, full of chattering thoughts. Working with your thoughts as they come and go is very much a part of the training practice.
Myth #3: You are supposed to feel peaceful while you do it.
Many people, when they first try mindfulness meditation, think that they will instantly experience a sense of complete calm and tranquillity. But often this is not the case. It is not uncommon to feel a bit irritable or restless. The lesson to be learnt here is that we are not trying to feel a particular way. We are practising allowing ourselves to feel and experience the full range of human emotions and senstations as they are. We are making friends with whatever feelings or emotions come up. If we feel angry, then we practise feeling okay with feeling angry. If we feel sad, we practise feeling okay with feeling sad. By allowing ourselves to experience and lovingly accept these emotions as they are, we are learning how to transform them and release them from our minds and bodies.
Myth #4: It is only for “spiritual people”.
Mindfulness meditation is a useful tool for anyone who wants to have a happier and calmer state of mind. It’s open to all, whether you think of yourself as spiritual, religious, atheist or none of these. Religious or spiritual beliefs have very little to do with the practice. Mindfulness meditation can simply be a functional training process for the brain. If, however, you are already connected with a particular spiritual or religious belief it will only enhance and deepen your connection to what is true for you.
So, as you can see, mindfulness meditation can be learnt and practised by anyone. Why not start with a simple 10-minute daily practice and start noticing the benefits?
If you are interested in learning more about this practice, we teach it in detail on both our Relaxation and Yoga Weekends. We also hold occasional midweek training days: check the calendar for details of these. And, after you’ve learned the basics, if you want to, you can also stay connected with The Tree mindfulness community.
Also, watch out for our new guided mindfulness MP3 practice downloads coming soon!