Practicing meditation is the art of resting in the present moment with open awareness and in a non judgemental manner. That sounds great, doesn’t it? Yet, if you have ever try to meditate and you may have noticed the opposite occurs. After a few seconds or minutes, your mind has a thought. Then without being aware of it the mind rolls into a succession of associative thinking and we are caught in our thoughts unconsciously. We discover that being able to focus our awareness takes a little more training than we imagined. Plus, we may realize we have the tendency to have a restless mind. Good news, none of this is a problem. Like any endeavour, it is good to search out some wise advice before you begin your meditation journey.
Similar to a long hike, meditation requires you are well equipped, in shape and have all the pertinent information you need to have a satisfying experience. This article is a beginning step in how to start a meditation practice for the restless mind.
In this article, I will describe:
- what vipassana meditation is,
- what obstacles you may encounter
- how to work with thoughts in your meditation
- how to start a practice.
What is Vipassana meditation?
Vipassana meditation is a mental training practice that teaches you how to strengthen your awareness so you will relate to your thoughts, ideas and body with more skill and compassion. When practiced regularly, the practice trains you to meet your inner world with interest. You will be able to slow down racing thoughts, let go of negativity, and calm both your mind-body (your whole being). It combines meditation (concentration) with the practice of mindfulness, which can be defined as a mental state that involves being fully focused on “the now” so you can acknowledge and accept your thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgment.
Techniques can vary, but in general, mindfulness meditation involves deep breathing and awareness of body and mind. Practicing mindfulness meditation doesn’t require props or preparation (no need for candles, essential oils, or mantras, unless you enjoy them). To get started, all you need is a comfortable place to sit, three to five minutes of free time, and a curious mindset.
What Obstacles May Arise in Your Practice
First, we need to understand that the mind has many mental states. To train the mind to be attentive and equanimous takes time. Because of this, there are three main obstacles that may arise in your practice.
The first obstacle may be is your need to have each moment filled with something to do. Man of us have the strong mental habit of needing to complete “to do” lists or be engaged all the times. Or we may always need our attention to be entertained. This first obstacle is the restless mind.
The second obstacle is our anxiety and fear about ourselves and the world around us. In meditation, we call this the “comparing mind”. This mental state finds it difficult to settle and be with what is unfolding moment by moment. It is constantly “thinking” that this moment is not enough, could be better or needs to be fixed in some manner so we can be happy. Because of this mental jockeying, our minds can never settle and relax. As a result, these mental demands or compulsions create a sense of being ungrounded, irritated and unsatisfied.
The third obstacle is the loose mind. The mind can not focus and rest on an chosen object for very long. This may be because of over fatigue and exhaustion. Or, this can be because someone has not been introduced to anchoring their experience in their body. There can be many reasons for this lack of mental tone. Yet, repetitive kind training can reduce it.
Noticing these mental states is monumental. Because when we notice them, we are actually meditating and using our awareness. The more we notice our focus wonders, the more we can work with it. In the process of noticing the wondering during meditation, the more we can use our awareness to intentionally return to the present moment. This will happen several times in your practice. There is nothing wrong with you. It is just you never where taught to recognize your awareness and let it support you to rest in the present moment.
How to work with thoughts in our Meditation Practice
Thoughts in and of themselves are not the problem. It’s our relationship to our thoughts that is the issue. We become obsessed with our thoughts, engrossed in thoughts. We react to them, fight with them or suppress them. All of this takes energy, consuming our attention and exhausting our reserves.
The aim of meditation is not to stop thinking. It is to be more aware of thinking, so that our thoughts don’t control us.
Thinking is as natural to the mind as hearing is to our ears. If you believe that you are supposed to stop thinking, then meditation will be a struggle filled with frustration and tension. However, if you understand that getting lost in thought and beginning again is simply part of the practice, then the whole process becomes more easeful and enjoyable.
Meditation doesn’t entail manipulating, controlling, or trying to achieve, as these are mental movements that take us away from our essential nature. All we need do is gently relax into and abide as unconditioned awareness. This entails listening, welcoming, accepting, and responding to what is, where the mind’s compulsive absorption with thoughts and we relax into an attitude of authentic and responsive receptivity, free of anticipation or striving. Meditation allows us to recognize and abide in our natural underlying condition: silent presence in direct knowing.
How to start?
- Take time to be a Sensing Body
To calm our mind and train our attention, we need to give ourselves the time and space to be a sensing body. This is the first stage in meditation called Shamatha (calm abiding). This stage is crucial because it acknowledges the essential connection between the body and mind. When we learn to focus on our body sensations, it provokes the body’s relaxation response. The more we train in this technique, the more we are creating the neural connections to support self regulation and grounded being.
The first practice is to sit or lay down. Next, feel your body touching the ground. Feel your feet touching the ground or the back of your body contacting the floor. Usually, this takes a few minutes to move our attention from a “busy” mind full of thoughts, to a mind attentive to the sensations of our body.
To help notice body sensations, move your hands and feet gently. Notice the sensations that accompany these movements. If this does not work for you, another technique is to do gentle stretches. Welcome, feel and connect with the changing sensations of you shift for position to position. Bring awareness to your breath in each posture, noticing what it opens or tones in your body.
After you have a direct connection to your breath, let it be your guide to sense your body deeper. Notice how the sensations of your body are in fluctuation. At times, sensations are bold and at other times, they are subtle. Be attentive the changing nature of them. yet, notice they are always present. As our somatic (body) attention deepens, this grounds our nervous system so it can down regulate, soothe and decompress. Body scan meditations allow us to connect to the present moment where we can live with skill and compassion.
2. Take time to be a Breathing Body
The next meditation tool is Shamatha Meditation. Shamatha means calm abiding. This technique uses breath as our awareness anchor. It teaches you how to become your best ally.
Once again, sit down and get comfortable. When you have found a posture that you can relax in, then turn your attention to your breath.
Follow the movement of your breath. Breathe in, feel the sensations that arise. Breathe out, feel the sensations that pass away.
When you can feel your breath moving in your body evenly and deeply, then let your attention follow your breath. As you become comfortable not controlling the breath, your awareness can perceive subtle sensations. The more subtle the sensations, the more your body and mind are relaxing. Intuitively, follow the stream of sensations from the top of your head to the tip of your toes. All the time, let the breath be your guide.
This breath practice develops our neural straits to naturally accommodate changes. Over time, this Shamatha practice helps us meet our emotionally and mental states with kindness, wisdom and curiosity. This is mindful neural plasticity in action.
Meditation isn’t about achieving some special state, but rather learning how to live well. Meditation provides a laboratory to study how the mind works. Take time each day to feel, breath, and rest in the present moment. These techniques lead to a calmer mind, a balanced nervous system and emotional resilience. If you need support, please attend one of my mindfulness meditation courses.
In Metta (loving awareness), Allison Ulan B.F.A., E-RYT 500, YACEP