Hello everyone, So happy to share the second post in Peter Tolly’s three-part guest blog series on Mindful Meditation!! Enjoy! — Lisa
Is there something you’d like to be better at? Maybe you play an instrument in a band, or perhaps you’re working on your public speaking skills for your career. For me, lately, it’s swimming. I’m training for a triathlon this summer, so I spend time in the pool practicing my stroke.
Like swimming, mindful meditation is often described as something you practice, as in, “how is your meditation practice going?” Exactly what ability are we practicing when we meditate?
In my last post, I offered a couple definitions for mindfulness and meditation. Both stem from the idea that our minds tend to operate on a sort of autopilot: it seems like we know what’s what in our lives, and yet, we’re still left feeling not quite satisfied, or even suffering.
When we meditate, we’re practicing turning autopilot off and awareness of the present moment on. While “being tuned into the present moment” has a bit of an esoteric ring to it, this ability has benefited my mental health in a very direct and practical way, which I’d like to share about from my experience.
Reinforcing unhelpful habits—day in, day out.
I discovered mindful meditation during a time when I was struggling with persistent rumination and worry. It seemed I was always either stuck stewing about something that had happened or fretting about something that could.
With the help of a therapist, I learned that the worrying and ruminating that I was spending so much time doing were just my mind’s natural problem solving abilities on overdrive. They were keeping me stuck on my problems rather than helping me work through them.
Just like how swimming gets easier the more time I spend in the pool, the more time I spent worrying and ruminating (and I could do it for days), the easier it became for me to fall into their trap—and the harder it became for me to get out.
Practicing something else for a change.
I gave mindfulness a try at this time in the form of Zen meditation, which, in a nutshell, involves sitting still and focusing on breathing for a period of time. As I mentioned in my last post, meditation challenges us to let go of our constant stream of thoughts and just pay attention to what is happening right here and now. In meditation, I felt like I was practicing something other than my normal rumination and worry for the very first time.
At first, just sitting still and breathing felt awkward and challenging—both physically and mentally—but as I stuck with it, I started to notice a change: my worry and rumination habits were getting weaker.
What was getting stronger instead? Just the opposite.
The mind’s constant stream of thoughts doesn’t really stop during meditation, but in the same way we choose to keep sitting still even if our knees ache, we choose not to follow the thoughts that pop into our heads. Instead, we are just aware of them in the same way we are aware of our breathing in the present moment.
Practicing not reacting to my thoughts during Zen meditation helped me build a few key abilities:
- I gained a little distance on my thoughts: they became mental events rather than a reality that I had to go along with.
- Next time something stressful would happen in life, I was better able to see the rumination and worry thoughts coming and then—just like I did while meditating—choose to not let them take over.
- Instead, I was better able to do what I practiced during meditation, which is to take a deep breath and pay attention to what’s going on.
The stress-reducing power of taking deep breaths alone is well studied, but taking a deep breath in the face of a challenge is just a starting point. With unhelpful habits stopped in their tracks by a clear and calm mind, I found that I no longer had to react to stressful situations like I always had, but could choose a response.
So what does a mindful response look like?
I don’t really think I could break it down better than this simple mindfulness handout created by Carol Vivyan, which someone shared with me not too long ago. The side-by-side comparison of mindless and mindful responses to stressful situations has served as a very practical guide for me—perhaps you too will find it helpful.
When practiced, mindful meditation helps us build the ability to choose responses to what life deals us. Stopping in the midst of a stressful situation to take a deep breath and respond with clarity is a skill we can develop just like swimming or playing an instrument, but real improvement requires consistent practice. In my next post, I’ll share a few lessons gleaned from regular mindful meditation and how it has come to apply to more in my life than just rumination and worry. More soon in Part 3: Lessons from a Frying Pan.
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.