Why read this article?

There’s a great deal of information on how to practice mindfulness meditation but it can be hard to understand how and why things are done in certain ways. Part of the reason for this is because mindfulness meditation, as we know it today, normally combines elements from a variety of different Eastern meditation traditions (modern secular Buddhist insight meditation) with cognitive science.

This article explains the different stages in mindfulness meditation based on brining together a selection of useful ideas from modern secular Buddhist insight meditation, Tibetan meditation practice and interdisciplinary subjects that are not, as yet, well integrated (which is largely to do with the way academic disciplines resist cross-fertilisation of ideas). Explaining mindfulness meditation like this has come from many years of study, learning from traditional and secular Buddhist teachers, personal practice and practical experience; training to teach Mindfulness-based Cognitve Therapy at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, teaching thirty or so courses based on the best selling self-help book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman, dozens of introductory workshops and drop-in classes to corporate clients, students at Oxford University and the general public.

Some have mystical ideas about mindfulness. Some modern secular Buddhist mindfulness teachers have materialistic notions akin to scientistic thinking. This article follows the tradition of the Middle Way. It assumes that everything that needs to be explained can be explained and that a clear understanding of the how and why of things provides an invaluable framework for mindfulness meditation. With this approach, there is no need to talk about things mystically or materialistically. Great care has been taken here to explain things clearly to a secular audience, who may or may not consider themselves to have spiritual convictions, with little or no previous understanding of mindfulness meditation, however, many who have significant experience and knowledge have still found these ideas helpful.

What is mindfulness?

Much of what we do is automatic. In fact, much of the time we are acting mindlessly. This cuts us off from the richness and wonder of life and prevents us from fulfilling our potential. It would be impossible to be aware of everything that’s happening all of the time but the trouble is, without understanding ourselves, we can just end up reacting to what happens, acting out old habits that are no longer useful to us.

Mindfulness is understanding what’s going on from moment to moment in embodied experience and, with this knowledge, making better decisions and acting more wisely. Mindfulness meditation helps us to be more mindful in everyday life by learning skills that helps us to release patterns of stress and tension, understand ourselves better and act with conscious intention.

Mindfulness of breathing

In mindfulness of breathing, attention is directed at sensations of breathing. Each time the mind wanders the attention is redirected back to these sensations. This interrupts the wandering mind, developing the ability to focus attention and become aware of the way the mind gets easily caught up in thinking. As well as reducing mental activity, the calming effect of mindfulness of breathing, also reduces stress and tension in the body.

The mind will always wander to some extent. If a negative judgment is made when the mind does wander, the result will be frustration, which will increase mental activity, stress and tension in the body. The key to mindfulness of breathing is to accept the fact that mind wandering is natural, rather than react to it. In fact this is the key to all kinds of meditation.

People often expect mindfulness meditation will quieten the mind and get frustrated when this doesn’t happen. Sometimes people discover layers of thinking going on in the mind that they weren’t aware of before they started leaning to meditate. This can make people feel that mindfulness meditation is not for them.

Sometimes people try to concentrate on sensations of breathing harder, which can just produce greater levels of stress and tension in the body. This is the exact opposite of what is needed.

As well as interrupting activity of the mind, paying attention to the sensations of breath itself triggers a calming effect. However, some people may find that this can cause anxiety. If this happens it can be helpful to focus attention on the sensations of pressure where the body makes contact with the ground. For some people, other forms of meditation and body-work are a better place to start to create a sense of safety before moving on to practice mindfulness of breathing.

After beginners experience the early benefits of focusing attention on sensations of breathing, which produces a sense of ease as a result of reduced mental activity, they may expect to reproduce these effects and become frustrated when they fail to do so. Here, non-judgmental acceptance of the mindstate being experienced during meditation, whatever that is, is needed to make further progress.

Mindfulness of breathing takes some effort but this needs to come with a light touch. People need to feel confident and safe before they start. Learning any new skill takes some perseverance.

The habit of judging things and wanting things to be different to the way they are is so deeply ingrained. The way through this difficulty is to simply notice that a judgment has been made and return the attention to the sensations of breathing, interrupting evaluative thinking. In time, the mind not to get tangled up in making negative judgments or self-critical thinking and progress will follow with an increasing sense of self-acceptance.

Self-acceptance and self-compassion

Mindfulness has little benefit without self-acceptance and self-compassion. Without these qualities, focusing attention on sensations of breathing can easily just increase stress and thinking resulting in frustration. With increased effort it can become just means of controlling thinking emotions.

An accepting and light hearted attitude to the unruly behaviour of the mind will create a sense of safety and allow the mind to become more relaxed. A greater sense of ease then increases our sense of self-acceptance and self-compassion. Mindfulness meditation is as much about cultivating these qualities as it about focus, increasing a sense of ease or understanding ourselves and others.

Limitations of mindfulness of breathing

Mindfulness of breathing has many benefits. One of which is using it to reduce stress by reducing mental activity. This, however, has only limited value and can become counterproductive if it is used to control emotions and devalue independent thinking.

Focusing attention on sensations of breathing produces the short-term effect of relaxing the mind but this may not help to undo deeper patterns, which drive automatic behaviour. It’s important to relax the focus of attention in mindfulness meditation for more profound benefits to be experienced.

Relaxing the focus of attention

Relaxing the focus of attention in mindfulness meditation develops awareness and understanding of what’s going on in experience. This gradually releases patterns of stress and tension imprinted on the body.

Psychological patterns are expressed in the body and what’s going on in the body affects the mind. Being relaxed and aware allows cellular regeneration and tissue repair, while habits of thinking and emotions reveal themselves in the conscious mind, however, this isn’t just about gaining perspective and releasing tension, this makes it possible to see things differently. With curiosity, this creates new possibilities, developing intuition and creativity.

Following a period of focusing attention on sensations of breathing, it’s helpful to expand awareness to include sensations in the whole of the body, before attention is allowed to wander where it will. Grounding awareness in the body prevents the mind from getting lost in thought and helps a person to discover how the body and mind are connected. In time, it becomes possible to notice thoughts arising and dissipating in the mind. Then, thoughts and emotions may even cease just leaving fluctuations in a field of body-based sensations.

If the mind becomes absorbed in thinking, attention can be first redirected to the breath before the focus of concentration is relaxed again to take in a sense of the whole body. Then mental activity can again be observed while awareness is grounded in body-based sensations.

Deeper states

Deeper states of concentrative stabilisation may be experienced in mindfulness meditation. Perceptions may be affected temporarily. Images may arise. Sounds may cease or. There may be hallucinations of sound. Breathing may slow down or even stop altogether for some time. The heart beat may slow down. Unusual sensations in the body may be experienced. Time may seem to stop. A sense of a separate self may dissolve into an expanded awareness of things.

Experiences like these can have a profound impact. They may radically change the way a person sees things, releasing them from limiting ideas about themselves and the nature of reality, however, because they can seem so different from everyday experience, they may also cause concern.

This is why it’s of paramount importance to develop body-based awareness with self-acceptant and self-compassion in mindfulness meditation to remain grounded in the body and to feel safe. This is where the support of others with more established meditation practice and a supportive community can be invaluable.

People may also need to explore philosophy and more traditional approaches to meditation to make sense of these experiences as a psychological understanding of mindfulness meditation doesn’t account for them adequately. In fact, clinicians with a therapeutic mindset, may have a damaging effect if they are concerned that such experiences are symptoms of psychosis as people in these states are likely to be very vulnerable to suggestion and sensitive to being pathologised.

Posture

A upright confident posture is a sign of social dominance. This reduces stress hormones and increases levels of testosterone. A submissive, hunched posture increases stress hormones and reduces testosterone. This triggers mental activity, disconnected to the body. A slumped or slouched posture induces drowsiness.

When sitting to practice mindfulness meditation it’s important to sit upright. An upright open chested and relaxed posture embodies confidence, self-acceptance and wakefulness. This is important as it’s only possible to be generous and self-accepting if one feels confident and at ease, grounded in the body.

Just sitting, monitoring the posture from moment to moment, can be a meditation in itself. In mindfulness meditation, the posture is set up at the beginning of the practice and embodies the intention to be awake to experience. It’s helpful to come back to the posture intermittently during mindfulness meditation to refresh the intention to be confident, grounded in the body and awake.

Body-based awareness

Body-scanning combines focusing attention and grounding awareness in the body. Purposefully directing attention to different parts of the body develops the ability to direct attention, explore sensations without thinking about them and to notice the mind’s habit of wanting things to be different from the way they are. None of these learning points are exclusive to body-scanning.

What body-scanning does that other practices do not do in the same way, is to develop body-based awareness. Most people will find there are certain parts of the body where there is little sensation or even no sensations at all. As, patterns of sensitivity to body-based awareness reflect embodied patterns of stress and tension, the body-scan may have a direct beneficial effect just by increasing sensitivity to body-based sensations.

Significantly, however, sensitivity to body based sensations is important when attention is relaxed and the mind is allowed to wander in mindfulness meditation. Without body-based sensitivity, attention can easily get drawn into thinking when attention is allowed to wander where it will.

Body work

Mindfulness meditation is all built on body-based awareness. Uncomfortable sensations may come with sitting still and upright even for a short time. Then becoming aware of how the mind tends to want these sensations to be different to the way they are then how sensations change form moment to moment is an essential element to mindfulness meditation, however, this is not the whole story by any means.

Mindfulness meditation is not just about becoming aware of the way our personal narrative and emotional patterns are imprinted on the body, it’s about unravelling them. Unravelling these patterns of the mind and their imprints, not only brings an understanding of how they become part of us but teaches us how to undo them. Combining sitting mindfulness meditation with bodywork is the most effective way of doing this. In it’s simplest and most important form, this means stretching gently before and after a period of sitting mindfulness meditation.

Putting things together

Mindfulness meditation meditation will include all the elements described above. It’s helpful to understand each step as they support each other. With practice, each stage will be repeated many times during a period of mindfulness meditation.

Transformation will only take place with practice. Regular small periods of practice are useful to build up a nourishing habit that motivates further practice

Transforming life

The primary cause of the embodied patterns of stress and tension is our personal narrative. As social animals, our sense of self tells us who we are in relationships with others.

We can think of our life is a series of activities that ensure our needs are met. If we do not feel safe, avoiding threat becomes our primary concern. This creates habits of thinking, emotions and behaviour that produce chronic stress and tension in the body, which may eventually lead to mental and/or physical illness.

In mindfulness meditation, we will soon become aware of some kind of discomfort. It could be emotional. It could be frustration or boredom. It could be doubt or anxiety or it could be some kind of physical discomfort. Normally we react to discomfort by trying to find ways of making it go away. Perhaps the whole point of mindfulness meditation is this encounter with discomfort and discovering how we react to it.

Mindfulness meditation helps us to reframe our relationship with discomfort. This helps us to become aware of patterns of avoidance that shape our personal narrative and how our thinking and emotions cause stress and influence our behaviour. In time, understanding and self-acceptance releases us from these destructive patterns in our lives.

As we become more understanding and patient with ourselves, we naturally become more understanding and compassionate with others. As we become more confident and at ease with ourselves and in the company of others, our personal narrative adapts opening up new possibilities. We make better decisions, build better relationships and experience improved health and well-being in our lives.

The power of connection

Recognising that mindfulness meditation improves our relationships with others brings a deeper sense of connectedness, self-acceptance and self-compassion. We need those around us as much as they need us and mindfulness meditation is enriched when we are motivated, not just for our own benefit, but for others too.

We don’t just have relationships with friends and family. Those who’ve caused us harm or threaten us in some way make us feel unsafe. Even if we can’t improve these relationships, the feelings that come with them are uncomfortable. Holding onto anger and fear causes us harm.

Mindfulness meditation helps us to see our reactive patterns. This helps us learn to build better relationships even with people we find difficult in our lives. If we have better relationships with them, they also benefit by having better relationships with us. It helps to recognise the benefit mindfulness meditation brings in our relationship with people we find difficult because this helps us to feel more confident and free from self-critical thinking.

We are all interconnected: those we are close to, those who have caused us harm to us and those who we don’t even know. Reducing the collective sense of threat and increasing kindness in the world makes the world a better place for all. Dedicating our mindfulness meditation to the benefit of all collectively gives it a profound meaning and helps us develop an expanded sense of self, which frees us from self-critical thinking.

The most profound self-interest comes when we have the same desire for good for ourselves as for others. Reminding ourselves of this in mindfulness meditation helps us to release ourselves from patterns of fear and anger that drive our reactivity. This brings us rewards of confidence, compassion for others and ourselves. It is this sense of compassion that not only gives us the deepest sense of ease and well-being but motivates us to take action with others in ways that make a better world for all.