The following is an excerpt from Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman (Rodale, 2011). Toss out any notions you may have about meditation: It’s neither complicated nor time-consuming, and you needn’t sit cross-legged on the floor to reap its benefits. In this practical, down-to-earth guide, Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, and award-winning journalist Danny Penman instruct readers on the art of mindfulness meditation, which focuses on being aware of your actions, thoughts and feelings in the present moment (without judging yourself) as a means of achieving inner peace and improving your health. This excerpt is from Chapter 1, “Chasing Your Tail,” and Chapter 3, “Waking Up to the Life You Have.”
Numerous psychological studies have shown that regular meditators are happier and more contented than average. These are not just important results in themselves, but they have huge medical significance, as such positive emotions are linked to a longer and healthier life.
- Anxiety, depression and irritability all decrease with regular sessions of meditation. Memory also improves, reaction times become faster, and mental and physical stamina increase.
- Regular meditators enjoy better and more fulfilling relationships.
- Studies worldwide have found that meditation reduces the key indicators of chronic stress, including hypertension.
- Meditation has also been found to be effective in reducing the impact of serious conditions, such as chronic pain and cancer, and can even help relieve drug and alcohol dependence.
- Studies have now shown that meditation bolsters the immune system and thus helps to fight off colds, flu and other diseases.
Doing vs. Being
“Doing” mode needs to think. It analyzes, recalls, plans and compares. That’s its role, and many of us find we’re very good at it. We spend a great deal of time “inside our heads,” without noticing what’s going on around us. The headlong rush of the world can absorb us so much that it erodes our sense of presence in the body, forcing us to live inside our thoughts rather than experiencing the world directly. And those thoughts can easily be shunted off in a toxic direction. It does not always happen — it’s not inevitable — but it’s an ever-present danger.
Mindfulness is a truly different way of knowing the world. It is not just thinking along a different track. To be mindful means to be back in touch with your senses so you can see, hear, touch, smell and taste things as if for the first time. You become deeply curious about the world again. This direct sensory contact with the world may seem trivial at first. And yet, when you begin sensing the moments of ordinary life, you discover something extraordinary; you find that you gradually cultivate a direct, intuitive sense of what is going on in your inner and outer worlds, with profound effects on your ability to attend to people and the world in a new way, without taking anything for granted. This is the very foundation of mindful awareness: waking up to what’s happening inside of you, and in the world, moment by moment.
Untwist Your Thinking
When in “Doing” mode, the mind uses its own creations, its thoughts and images, as its raw material. Ideas are its currency, and they acquire a value of their own. You can begin to mistake them for reality. In most circumstances, this makes sense. If you have set out to visit a friend, you need to hold your destination in mind. The planning, doing, thinking mind will get you there. It makes no sense to doubt the truth of your thinking: Am I really going to see my friend? In such situations, it’s useful to take your thoughts to be true.
But this becomes a problem when you feel stressed. You may say to yourself: I’m going to go mad if this goes on; I should be able to cope better than this. You can take these thoughts to be true as well. Your mood plummets as your mind reacts in a way that is often very harsh: I am weak; I’m no good. So you strive harder and harder, ignoring the messages of your punished body and the advice of your friends. Your thoughts have ceased to be your servant and have become your master — and a very harsh and unforgiving master at that.
Mindfulness teaches us that thoughts are just thoughts; they are events in the mind. They are often valuable, but they are not “you” or “reality.” They are your internal running commentary on yourself and the world. This simple recognition frees you from the dislocated reality that we have all conjured up for ourselves through endless worrying, brooding and ruminating. You can see a clear path through life once again.
A One-Minute Meditation
1. Sit erect in a straight-backed chair. If possible, bring your back a little way from the rear of the chair so that your spine is self-supporting. Your feet can be flat on the floor. Close your eyes or lower your gaze.
2. Focus your attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Stay in touch with the different sensations of each in-breath and each out-breath. Observe the breath without looking for anything special to happen. There is no need to alter your breathing in any way.
3. After a while your mind may wander. When you notice this, gently bring your attention back to your breath, without giving yourself a hard time — the act of realizing that your mind has wandered and bringing your attention back without criticizing yourself is central to the practice of mindfulness meditation.
4. Your mind may eventually become calm like a still pond — or it may not. Even if you get a sense of absolute stillness, it may only be fleeting. If you feel angry or exasperated, notice that this may be fleeting too. Whatever happens, just allow it to be as it is.
5. After a minute, let your eyes open and take in the room again.
Reprinted with permission from Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, published by Rodale, 2011.