Is meditation essential to mindfulness?
A friend of mine recently led a meditation session which involved eating a raisin mindfully, and after the session there were some interesting questions. In particular, a couple of people shared that they didn’t realise ‘this was what meditation was’. So, it got me thinking…. what is meditation and why do we do it?
There are many different definitions of meditation but one way of looking at it, is making a choice to set aside some time to give your full attention to something that’s happening in the present moment. That focus could be given to your breathing, the flame of a candle, a mantra, your thoughts and bodily experiences, a sound, physical activity (which is the ultimate aim in yoga) or as we did in my friend’s session, the practice of eating. In fact, bringing the practice of mindfulness to our normal every day activities, is a great way to give meditation a try.
A common question, that I often get asked is ‘Is meditation essential to mindfulness?’ Great question. To answer this, it’s useful to draw a distinction between the formal and the informal practice of mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness informally simply means that you bring present moment awareness, along with certain attitudes such as compassion, non-judgement and curiosity, to everything that you do and everything that you experience. The formal practice of mindfulness is meditation. The informal practice of mindfulness is straightforward, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Most of us have developed the habit of living much of our life ruminating on the past, or thinking about the future, and overturning these mental habits of a lifetime is challenging. We also live much of our life on automatic pilot- acting without much or any conscious thought or effort. To appreciate this, think about what you’ve been doing in the last few hours. How much of what you’ve done have you done with conscious awareness and how much have you done without giving it a second thought. I’ve driven to the train station this morning and I can safely say that most of the journey passed in a blur of thinking. That in itself isn’t necessarily a problem, as long as my whole day doesn’t pass me by in the same way.
Because of our tendency to live so much of our lives in our head- rehashing the past and predicting or planning the future, the practice of bringing ourselves squarely into the present moment, takes practice. Just like the development of any new habit, we may need to practice in a very deliberate and concerted way. This is where meditation comes in. It’s like mental training for the brain.
Setting time aside to meditate and to flex our mindfulness muscles, is no different to devoting time to flexing our physical muscles through exercise. We don’t expect our physical muscles to miraculously get stronger without exercise, and the same is true of our mindfulness ‘muscles’. If you want your body to be strong and able to cope with sudden and unexpected physical exertion, you need to have devoted time to developing it. Exactly the same applies to mindfulness. If you want to be able to approach all areas of life mindfully, and to avoid reacting to challenges and difficulties on auto-pilot, you need to have taught yourself how to do this. And this is the power of meditation.
And it’s in those difficult moments, that we want to be able to fall back on a well-established habit of taking a moment to see things as they really are, and being deliberate and wise in our response. This is because when we’re challenged in some way and in the grip of a stress response, our primitive response is often to fight, flight or freeze. But, rarely in our modern world, do we face dangers that require aggression, running away or to ‘play dead’, and one of the beautiful things about mindfulness is that it can stop us acting on auto-pilot, particularly when we have the potential to be ‘triggered’ by something that challenges us in some way. These challenges might be harsh criticism from a colleague, some perceived rudeness, a brusque email, a ringing telephone or an overly demanding deadline. If we can start to cultivate a pause between the trigger and our response, we then have the option of choosing our response more wisely. This is important, because often a knee-jerk reaction can make matters worse.
Flexing your mindfulness muscle, through the regular practice of meditation is really worthwhile. As some people found in the eating meditation, bringing very deliberate attention to something often heightens your experience, and can make it more enjoyable. So much of our life passes us by without us being truly present, which is sad because none of us knows what’s around the corner. I can honestly say that I didn’t fully savour many of my children’s childhood moments, because I had my head in work mode- doing work, thinking about work, feeling guilty about work undone, compounded by guilt about working too much and not having enough time with the kids! Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I think I’d do things differently now. But of course, I’ll never get the chance, because those moments are gone.
The present is the only moment guaranteed, so live the hell out of each & every precious moment! (Click to Tweet)
Over to you: for those of you that are contemplating adopting a more mindful approach to life, I challenge you to pick one activity today and to carry it out with single-pointed, present moment awareness. Try and immerse yourself in the activity and experience it with all of your senses. Stay curious about it, perhaps imagining that you’ve never carried out this activity before, and perhaps you’ll find that the experience is different in some way. Please share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!