Back in September of 2018, I started a regular practice of mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness meditation was so regularly being talked about in the scientific literature and the media that I thought I really needed to try it for myself.
I’ve been practising fairly consistently (10 minutes, 5 days a week) since then.
I set out with some specific goals, both personal and professional.
Personally, I wanted to see if meditation could improve my ability to relax, focus, be more compassionate, achieve a state of transcendence, and visualise more effectively.
Professionally, I wanted to demonstrate that I was willing to follow the type of advice I give others in relation to self-care, and blog the process of trying to establish a new mentally healthy habit.
In March 2019, I provided an update on my practice, outlining how I had changed meditation apps, and also addressing each of my goals and how I was progressing towards them.
In this update I want to focus on a couple of experiences I have had in meditation that speak to at least two of my goals: compassion and focus.
When I started mindfulness meditation, I was interested in developing greater self-compassion, particularly towards my body, which in recent years has suffered from illness and also my poor lifestyle choices.
What I’ve learned along the way is that directing compassion and positivity towards others is a little easier than directing it towards oneself.
Occasionally, the teacher in my mindfulness meditation app (Waking Up) does a ‘loving-kindness’ meditation, in which we are encouraged to identify someone in our life with whom we have an uncomplicated relationship, bring them to mind, and imagine wishing them well – “may you be free from pain”, “may you be free from suffering”, “may you be happy”, “may your hopes and dreams be realised”. The task is not just to imagine wishing them well, but to also lock into what it feels like to wish someone well and sit in that feeling for a while. I find this particular meditation to be quite easy. There are lots of people in my life that I would like to see be happy and contented.
Sometimes during this meditation, you are invited to then direct that ‘loving-kindness’ towards yourself. This is when I find that my mind puts up a few walls. Into your mind comes the counter-arguments of worth (“i’m not a good enough person to deserve happiness”), feasibility (“happiness is a stupid goal considering how crappy life is”) and selfishness (“how self-centred of me to wish myself well”).
However this is something that requires practice. You understand that the goal is to be able to direct ‘loving-kindness’ towards people, so you start with those people where it is easiest. People that you like or admire or love. Then you work up to yourself. Ultimately the goal might be to be able to direct ‘loving-kindness’ towards people who you might not initially accept as deserving it – even people that have done you wrong. It is a psychological skill. You get better at it the more you use it.
In a more traditional mindfulness meditation, you are simply invited to attend to ‘what shows up’ when one is still and leaves oneself open to experience.
What you notice is that a whole lot of things show up:
- physical sensations (e.g. feeling of sitting, moving, pain, heat, cold, the breath)
- sounds (in the nearby environment as well as my gurgling stomach!)
- sights (if eyes open, the surrounding environment, if eyes closed, the light patterns crossing the inside of the eyelids)
- thoughts (images, ongoing internal narrative, plans for the day, memories)
- feelings or mood states (like stress or calm
During different meditations, you might be invited to try to direct your focus towards one or more of these, or try to keep a wide attentional focus and let all of them co-exist.
Focusing your attention on a specific experience (e.g. your breath) is hard. You might be able to sustain a focus on your breath for a few seconds, before other things start to interfere. For example, you start following the breath, but a few seconds later find yourself focused in on pain you have in your body somewhere. During some sessions I find it almost impossible to sustain attention on a single sense. Other sessions I do a little better. Overall, I am getting better at focusing and sustaining my attention on an aspect of experience. I’m not sure whether this is positively impacting on my attention outside of meditation sessions. I am very interested to continue this process.
In terms of my overall experience of mindfulness meditation, I would say that my most pleasant moments in meditation tend to be when I am getting relatively equal input from all of these sources. I feel that I am simultaneously taking in content from all senses and inputs. I’m noticing my body, hearing what is around me, seeing movement, having the occasional thought that floats by and am aware of my overall mood state. I’ve only had a few sessions where I have felt this is the case.
Less pleasant meditations tend to be characterised by one or more aspects of experience being dominant. The most common example is when my thoughts (usually about the upcoming day) dominate all the other experiences. Another common one is where discomfort in my body is the dominant sensation which I get hooked on.
These experiences have given rise to a little ‘mind-hack’ that I am going to try during the day to reset my attention. I first came across the idea of resetting one’s attention in the context of reading about spending time in nature. Attention Restoration Theory (ART) asserts that ‘people can concentrate better after spending time in nature, or even looking at scenes of nature’. The basic idea is that when we are in situations in which we are having to pay deliberate attention (e.g. studying, writing) our attention eventually fatigues. To restore our capacity to pay deliberate attention, we need to shift to a setting or condition in which other attentional systems are used – involuntary systems. Nature is one such setting. I think mindfulness meditation, with an instruction to leave oneself open to the full range of experiences might be another. So during the day, when I notice my attention waning, I will take 10 minutes to be still and mindful of all the relevant inputs to my mind (not just the intellectual ones).
Where to from here
I plan on continuing my daily 10-minute meditation.
Rather than moving to longer meditations, I think a better goal for me would be to meditate more frequently during the day. For example, take 10 minutes before eating my lunch to repeat the meditation from the morning.
This is because I tend to spend the days engaged in a single activity – writing on the computer. That singular focus leads to fatigue, which I hope to address through letting my attention expand to what else is happening around me.
If you are interested in trialling mindfulness meditation in your own life, consider starting with the Australian Smiling Mind app. However, don’t be afraid to do your own independent research to find an app that suits you better. Articles like this might help. Apps vary in their focus, underlying philosophy, quality of teachers and price. I use a paid app – Waking Up because I find the teacher Sam Harris, very engaging. Whilst free apps are desirable, sometimes paid apps are better because they have funds to cover the ongoing development of the app. In the world of apps, I occasionally find that ‘you get what you pay for’.