I practice mindfulness meditation every day. This is how I practice.
I begin early in the morning, first thing after I rise and move around a bit to wake up: bathroom, coffee, a few minutes of writing in my journal. It’s best if I meditate before I begin my day. I will be alert and not physically tired, and thus not likely to drift into sleep or reverie. And meditating before my day makes my day more mindful.
Position is important. I find a comfortable place to sit, either on the floor, or on a chair, bench, or similar. When at home, I usually sit on my yoga mat on the floor1. When traveling, usually on the chair in my hotel room. I often meditate while the plane taxis and takes flight too. It is a good time to be mindful.
Ideally I am alone and there are no distractions. I sit straight, with my spine neutral and my weight balanced from the top of my head through my pelvis, my head level and neutral. I place my hands in my lap naturally, either cupped together or on my legs depending on the situation. I am seeking a relaxed physical posture that I can maintain for some time, yet which is not lying down or reclining in a way that will tend to make me sleepy. Upright and without any support except the floor is best. If in a chair with a back, I sit away from the back.
Then I become aware of my existence. Not labeling anything, just progressively noticing the is-ness of being:
Keeping my eyes open and soft-focused on space somewhere in front of me, I become aware of the space around me, and then take several deep breaths in through my nose and out through my mouth, just noticing how my chest rises on the inhalation, how my body softens as I exhale. After a few breaths I allow my eyes to close and let my breath return to normal, simply letting my breath “breathe itself.”
For a few breaths I notice the contact between my body and the floor or chair. I feel the weight of my body pressing down: feet, seat, knees, ankles: anything that gravity presses against something. I feel the contact between my hands and arms and the tops of my thighs, between my hands, fingers, thumbs. Anything resting on anything and forming a point of contact. What do I notice about that contact? Is one foot more tightly pressed to the floor than the other? Is weight uneven? I do not label or fix, I just know.
For a few breaths I notice the sounds I can hear. Anything near to me, anything far away, anything loud, anything faint. The sound of my own breath, or my pulse if I can hear it. The components of the sounds I hear (the air conditioning has a high soft hissing sound, but there’s a low hum too.) Any ringing in my ears, tinnitus, any other sounds, whether external or internal. If I swallow, the sound of swallowing.
For a few more breaths I become aware of each part of my body, using a body scan technique, as though a plane of attention is slowly scanning from the top of my head to the lowest part of my body. I feel the hair resting on my scalp, the air against my skin, the touch of my eyelids against each other, that small itch, the aching knuckle, the warmth of that spot on my ribs. I become aware of the thusness and suchness of each part of my body, just briefly, noticing and moving on. As I notice my thumb, I know it is a thumb, in the fullness of thumb-ness. If I notice any tension in my posture (usually I am leaning slightly forward of perfectly balanced) I adjust, but otherwise I simply know and accept what is true about my body at that moment.
I begin to allow my attention to come to my breath, but as I do, I become curious: what is the general overall feeling of my body right now? Heaviness, lightness? Stillness? Motion? Restlessness? Solidity? Tiredness? And what about emotion—is there any strong emotion? Anxiety? Peace? Impatience? Eagerness? Nothing?
Before I begin to turn my focus to each breath, I form an intention for the time I will spend, and form a concept of for whom I do this. As I do, I notice if any feeling arises, such as gratitude, or love. By this time I have spent several minutes. If my attention has been prone to wandering and I have had to bring my mind back to what I am doing, sometimes quite a few minutes indeed.
Then I begin to notice breaths. As I breathe in, I know I am breathing in. When the breath ends, I know it ends. When I breathe out, I know I am breathing out. I simply notice the physical sensation of breathing. It is physical knowing, not a cerebral thing. One day it may be the movement of my navel, another the flexing of ribs, another the sensation of air in my nostrils. Whatever is the most noticeable, I bring my attention to that and simply notice.
This is the heart of mindfulness: “breathing in, I know I am breathing in.” When I know I am breathing in, I am not caught up in the past or the future. I am right here, right now.
My attention wanders. When I notice that it has wandered, I return it to the breath. Knowing that my attention has wandered is the point of meditation. My mind still thinks, but now I know something about it. That is the point. Sometimes when I wander, I simply return to the present breath. Sometimes I note what distracted me from the breath: “Thinking.” “Feeling.” Very gently, like a feather wafting the air. Sometimes I also take a moment to be curious and note the nature of the distraction: Pleasant, unpleasant? Future, past? Real, unreal? Any emotion? Through curiosity I know the truth about the distraction. Then return. Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. Thinking, I know I am thinking, and choose to return to breath awareness.
When a dog sits near the table and hopes for a scrap of food to be dropped, it gives its complete attention to that watching. So I watch each breath.
I count the breaths, ten at a time, on the out-breath. In. One. In. Two. In. Three. Up to ten. Then, repeat: In. One. In, Two… In, Nine, In, Twenty. Again: In, One, In, Two… In, Nine, In, Thirty. When I count to eighty, I meditate twenty minutes total. On weekends when I do not need to follow a strict schedule, I might count hundreds of breaths. Or if I was distracted often during getting to know my body and being, I count to seventy or sixty to stay within twenty minutes.
When I have practiced long enough, I bring my attention back to the sounds, for the space of a breath. I notice the weight of my body and hands pressing down. I know again that my body exists. I allow my eyes to open, and remember my intention. I carry that intention into my day.
Ideally, all day long, as I breathe I know I breathe. When I sit, I know I sit; when I walk I know it; when I eat I know it. Formal practice, sitting mindfulness meditation, is simply practice for making this more possible.
What is meditation not? It is not stopping thoughts, it is not being immensely at peace or enraptured, it is not a state of “flow,” it is not being in a trance, it is not mystical or religious, it is not hard or complicated. It is not for stress relief, it is not for health, it is not trying to be smarter. It is simply knowing the present moment through awareness of the breath. It is undiluted awareness, complete alertness, present-moment-now attention. It is access to the insight to know the truth. It is, literally, life.
With the patience and self-love to choose to practice daily, I have become more alive. I am not yet today fully alive and present in each moment. But I know it is within my reach, and each day that I practice I become more able to exist in every moment.
- I sit for stability and alertness, not out of the belief that any posture itself produces an effect. My body is not flexible enough to sit in lotus position, with a foot on top of each thigh. I sit in half-lotus most of the time: one leg on the floor, the other leg on top. “Cross-legged,” with a knee resting on each ankle, is not as stable or comfortable for me. When my hips feel tight I sit on a Zafu: a small, stable cushion filled with buckwheat. I place it on my yoga mat folded in half. [return]