What is Mindfulness Meditation?

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There is a great deal of confusion about what mindfulness meditation is. Here, you will find a clear set of operations which describe what is actually going on when practicing it.

There is seemingly endless literature available with step by step instructions on how to practice, but very little clarity on why to do things in certain ways, underpinning principles and processes. Mindfulness itself is probably best described as the capacity to consciously monitor sensory stimulae, thoughts and the movements of attention from moment to moment. Mindfulness can be developed in formal mindfulness meditation and by applying various strategies, post-meditation. This article will only deal with formal mindfulness meditation practice.

Mindfulness meditation can be divided into two categories: concentration meditation and non-directive meditation (also termed open monitoring meditation).

Concentration meditation

Concentration meditation requires some effort to direct a focused attention on the chosen object. In mindfulness practice the chosen object will normally be body-based sensations including touch, pressure, stretch, temperature, taste and smell located in a specific part of the body but may also be sounds or sight. Mindfulness of breath is the most commonly used form of concentration meditation. When the attention is distracted by another sensation or a thought, the attention is simply redirected to the chosen object of concentration.

Awareness

The objective of concentration meditation is not to reduce mental activity but to follow these simple instructions. When practiced with an attitude of non-judgmental self-acceptance, the outcome of concentration meditation will, however, produce a mindstate with reduced mental activity and a sense of ease as it will interrupt mental activity and defuse states of emotional arousal being fed by thought.

Limitations of concentration

There are clearly benefits in developing the capacity to concentrate: to focus attention and monitor attention and awareness from moment to moment. An obvious benefit is the ability to regulate emotions by using concentration to interrupt thinking patterns and reduce mental activity.

The capacity to regulate emotions using concentration meditation has limited benefits as it can enable people to use concentration practice merely as a means to control emotions. This can become counterproductive.

Following learning to use concentration practices, it is important to develop non-directive meditation to produce more profound benefits of mindfulness practice. These benefits come about with insight into and awareness of processes of experience of the embodied mind from moment to moment that is developed through practice. Over time, long-term embodied patterns of traumatic emotions, beliefs and behaviour may be processed and transformed.

Non-directive (open monitoring meditation)

Non-directive meditation takes place when the attention is not directed at an object and is allowed to wander. This form of meditation will normally follow a period of concentration meditation. Concentration practice precedes non-directive meditation to produce the conditions in which non-directive meditation can be practiced. Following a period of concentration meditation the focus of attention is then relaxed to produce an intermediate stage of body based awareness. In this stage attention is expanded to include awareness of the whole body to produce an open state of awareness grounded in the body.

Awareness is like the sky

In non-directive meditation, no effort is made to direct or focus the attention and the attention may move to any object that arises in awareness including thoughts. The objective of non-directive meditation is merely to monitor the movements of attention and the contents of awareness form moment to moment. However, when the attention becomes absorbed in thinking the attention will normally be redirected to concentrate on breath for a period before the focus of attention is relaxed to take in a broad awareness of the body in preparation for returning to non-directive meditation.

The importance of body-based awareness

Body-scanning is a form of concentration practice and has a number of functions. By directing attention at different locations, the ability to direct attention with intention at a chosen object is developed. In mindfulness courses, body-scanning is also used to develop the capacity to explore sensations directly, unmediated by thinking, and to notice any tendency to want experience to be different to the way it is being experienced. None of these developmental learning points are exclusive to body-scanning.

What body-scanning does importantly, that other practice do not do in the same way, is to develop body based awareness. Most people will find that there are certain areas of the body where they find low levels of sensation or no sensations. Patterns of body-based awareness reflect psychological and behavioural patterns. Body-scanning practice will increase sensitivity to body-based sense awareness across the body, which will have a direct beneficial psychological and behavioural effect.

Increased body-based sense awareness provides the grounded embodied awareness that is the platform on which non-directive meditation may be developed. Without this background of body-based sensitivity in non-directive meditation, the attention will easily get drawn into thinking when the focus of concentration is relaxed.

Self-acceptance

Mindfulness practice will produce little benefit without an attitude of self-acceptance. Without self-acceptance, concentration practice is likely to become a means of self-control and may even become dissociative.

Self-acceptance needs to be developed in the practice of concentration on sensations of breathing (mindfulness of breath). When the mind wanders, a self-critical attitude or frustration will cause greater stress which will cause greater mental activity. Concentration practice will only produce reduced mental activity and reduce emotional arousal if there is a sense of generous acceptance for the unruly behaviour of the mind.

After beginners experience the early benefits of concentration, which produces a sense of ease as a result of reduced mental activity, they may expect to reproduce these effects in subsequent practice and become frustrated when they fail to do so. Here, non-judgmental acceptance of the mindstate being experienced during meditation, whatever that is, will then need to be developed to make further progress.

If excess effort used in concentration to control the mind where low levels of self-acceptance cause mental activity, this will produce greater levels of embodied tension. This produces the exact opposite of what is needed. Effort must be present in concentration practice with a light touch combined with self-acceptance to progress.

Posture and intention

When sitting to practice mindfulness meditation it’s important to assume an appropriate posture. An upright open chested relaxed posture embodies confidence, self-acceptance and wakefulness. It is only possible to be generous and accepting if one feels well resourced. This posture produces the desired mind-state to practice mindfulness meditation. The upright posture is a sign of social dominance and reduces stress hormones and increases testosterone. The opposite is true with a submissive posture. A submissive, hunched posture especially placing pressure at the back of the neck keeping the head up will create more mental activity and or dissociative tendencies. A slumped or slouched posture will not produce wakefulness.

A sitting meditation may just monitor the posture from moment to moment throughout the whole period of practice. In mindfulness practice, the posture is set at the beginning of the practice and embodies the intention to be awake to experience from moment to moment thought the practice. It is helpful to come back to the posture intermittently during to practice to refresh the intention to be confident, resourced and awake.

In non-directive meditation, the body-based awareness becomes the default mode. This allows thoughts to arise but when awareness is well grounded in the body, the attention is less likely to become absorbed in thought. Embodied awareness maintained by an upright posture becomes the object of absorption in non-directive meditation replacing the normal default mode of mind-wandering.

Combining the elements of practice

Mindfulness meditation practice will include all the elements described above. It is helpful to understand each element as they represent different operations that support each other. With practice, each operation will be repeated many times during a period of silent sitting mindfulness meditation.

TransformationThe transformation that you will experience will only take place with practice. First start with regular small periods of practice to build up a habit that nourishes. Then you will want to return. In your own time the benefits mindfulness meditation brings will draw you in deeper and deeper to understanding your own mind and the way of things.

Mark Leonard, March 4, 2015 edited by Juliet Adams.