It’s great to spend time with people with common interests. Peter Tolly and I met in the corporate environment and – in the breaks between work – we found we had a common interest in mindfulness meditation and self-improvement in general. When I asked Peter to be a guest blogger on my site, I was very pleased when he said “Yes!”. Peter will be sharing a series of three posts over the next three months. Here is post #1. Enjoy! — Lisa
Mindfulness. When was the last time you heard this m-word? At yoga class? In the break room? From popular health websites to wellness programs at school and work, mindfulness is lauded with increasing scientific backing as a cure for the stress and distraction so pervasive in our time. But how does one achieve mindfulness and the emotional effectiveness that it promises?
Mindfulness often appears alongside another m-word: meditation. Spending time sitting still and focusing the mind is supposed to help us cultivate mindfulness while reducing anxiety and depression, lowering blood pressure, increasing attention span and more. But what is this age-old, mystical-sounding activity really all about? Is it practical, and can it actually make a difference?
Since starting a mindful meditation practice about four years ago, I’ve seen a major change in my life—especially in regards to my mental health—and I am grateful to Lisa to have the opportunity to share about this experience in a three-part post on mindful meditation. I know there is ton of writing on mindfulness out there already. I am excited to share how it has been working for me.
First, a couple straightforward definitions.
I find it helpful when talking about mindfulness and meditation to lay out some simple definitions to work with. There are also countless ways to talk about meditation, from highly philosophically to sit-down-and-shut-up-militaristically. Here are a couple straightforward definitions geared for my context of mental health.
Mindfulness is based on the idea that the mind’s usual way of functioning is a kind of autopilot that, even though it seems like we’re in control, leads us into unhappiness. To live mindfully is to switch from autopilot to fully aware so we can see and appreciate life’s possibilities and use them to create positive change in our lives.
Easier said than done, right? That’s where meditation comes in.
Mindful meditation is something we do intentionally to help us stay out of autopilot and in tune with what is actually going on. As it turns out, what I think is going on can be quite a bit off from the truth.
So, mindfulness is a way of living that’s different from—and some say more effective than—what we do automatically. But, it takes practice in the form of meditation.
Got it—so what’s involved in mindful meditation?
Someone who’s learned about mindfulness and is interested in meditation will discover many ways to go about it. Here are a just handful of examples of different forms of mindful meditation:
• Pausing throughout the day to take a series of deep breaths
• Taking a mindfulness walk where you focus on all the different sensations you experience along the way: sights, sounds, smells, etc.
• Listening to a guided meditation track online bringing awareness to what’s going on in the present moment
• Movement-based meditation like yoga or tai chi where awareness falls to the state of the body and quality of movement
• Formal seated meditation as you would find in Buddhism or another spiritual tradition
What all of these activities have in common is that they challenge us to step out of our constant stream of thoughts—our mind on autopilot—and just pay attention to what is happening right here and now.
For example, a yoga teacher might tell us to notice how a pose feels in the body without judgment. The focus is not on what we think or feel about an experience, which can often take the form of needless self-criticism, but simply on the experience itself and the joy that it can bring.
The essence of meditation is being aware of life as it happens instead of getting caught up in our thoughts and feelings about it. You may be asking, why bother? Just how practicing meditation can lead to positive change in life—which is what all this mindfulness business is about, anyway—is something I’ll take a closer look at in my next post.
In the meantime, I hope this post helps bring a little clarity to two m-words that are being used more and more frequently. Check back for Part 2: What Are You Practicing?
Author: Peter Tolly
Peter Tolly is a creative writer based in Northeast Wisconsin. He writes as a means of personal expression as well as to help others connect with and inspire their audience. He also practices mindful meditation, at the heart of which is his involvement with Zen River Sangha, a community that meets in Appleton (www.zenriver.org). For more from Peter, visit www.petertolly.com.