(Editor’s note: Writer, blogger, brain injury survivor, caregiver and creator of A Changing World: How One Survivor and Family Caregiver is Trying to Keep Up, Rod Rawls, recently shared a comprehensive article on what he has learned about mindfulness meditation and his experiences with the practice. Below, is Rod’s original article, which he kindly granted permission for BEST to reprint on our blog. Thank you, Rod! KT)
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
This approach was my first step into the world of meditation, hoping to improve the chronic symptoms from my traumatic brain injury. My search for learning materials led me to an audio book called, Mindfulness, Six Guided Practices for Awakening by Joseph Goldstein, which is more of a guided meditation series than an actual discourse on meditation (and it’s highly recommended) This resource offered me a solid foundation for developing my mindfulness meditation practice.
The term mindfulness can have different connotations depending on how it’s applied, but simply put, it encourages conscious awareness of whatever your focus is. For example, mindful eating is a process of focusing our attention on our sensual awareness as we eat. Depending on your level of mindfulness, as you eat you might notice the visual appearance of your fork as you reach for it, feel the coolness of the metal against your skin as you pick it up followed by fully experiencing the colors and aromas of your food, and finally immersing your awareness into the temperature, texture, and complexity of tastes in each bite you take as you chew and swallow.
In the context of meditation, mindfulness is being focused in the present moment, paying close attention and accepting what you find without judgement. When meditating, we can be aware of different things; the relative firmness or comfort of our chair/cushion, the temperature of our environment and the air movement against our skin, sounds we hear either close or in the distance, our posture, thoughts we are having and our overall state of mind are at the core of our present moment meditation experience. Mindful meditation is also commonly practiced as walking meditation, which means that we are fully immersed in the experience of here and now as we walk.
But Aren’t I Always in the Present Moment?
The fundamental mental trait shared by all humans is a strong survival instinct that’s based in our ability to think. This instinct drives us to continually evaluate our environment, analyze possible futures and determine potential responses in the context of previous experiences in our memories. And we do this in every waking moment. Conservative estimates suggest that humans process up to 50,000 thoughts per day. Allowing for 8 hours of sleep, this means we could be processing 3,000 thoughts in the space of an hour. We might be remembering a conversation we had or thinking of how we’ll handle a situation that’s coming up. Maybe we’re considering opening the curtains, noticing a table that should be dusted, or wondering if the snow will need shoveled again today. The point is that much of what we think about, and almost everything we ruminate on, is either in the future or in the past – removing us from the present moment.
How Do I Stay in Present Moment Awareness?
This truly is a foundational aspect of mindfulness meditation. Being in the present moment isn’t about preventing thoughts of future or past – it’s about noticing when your mind isn’t focused on the here and now and gently guiding it back. For me this works best when I establish a solid anchor, one of the best being my breath. When I notice that my thoughts have drifted to a current project at work, an upcoming meeting, or dinner last night, I focus back on my breath. I notice the in-breath, the out‑breath, the feeling of the air in my nostrils, the rise and fall of my chest and belly, and even the sound of my breath. My breath is happening right now, not in the future and not in the past. When I am fully focused on my breath, I am living in the present moment.
This isn’t a one and done exercise, our thoughts will continue to wander over and over again. Each time, we bring them back to the present moment. The breath is a great anchor point, but there are others we can use as well. Another common method is noticing physical sensation, referred to as open awareness or open monitoring. It may be noticing temperatures, textures or pressures on your skin, points of comfort or discomfort, random sensations like mild tingling or itchiness, and anything else that comes into your awareness as a physical sensation. As you notice these things, let them pass without judgement. Our minds will wander over and over, each time we gently bring our focus back to what’s happening right now.
Here’s my understanding of this concept. It basically means not evaluating and labeling what you perceive as either good or bad, rather just taking it for what it is and accepting it. The idea here is to avoid the busy mind that comes from evaluating a given experience.
My Mindfulness Meditation Experience
For me, meditating really wasn’t easy at first. My mind ran everywhere, bouncing here to there and back again. At first, I tried to force my mind into quiet submission, and of course that was doomed to failure. With practice however, I found I could continually return my focus to my breath – well, I could return once I actually noticed my mind had wandered off into a memory or planning an activity for tomorrow.
When I’m focusing on my breath, I know that I’m breathing in or breathing out and feeling the air movement in my nostrils, feeling my body expand or contract. Then after a breath or two, suddenly I’m remembering something that happened today or thinking again of things yet to come. It’s ok, just return to my breath again, right?
Well, sometimes my breath just won’t hold my attention enough to keep me in the present moment, so I expand the scope of my physical awareness. When we mentally observe our bodies, we encounter any number of physical sensations – the soft cushion we sit on, the hard floor under our feet, the feel of our shirt sleeves against our arms. A more focused version of this is called a body scan. This can be done systematically, starting at our toes and ending at the top of our heads. Just change our mental focus from place to place as we go, which is remarkably effective at keeping our awareness in the present moment.
Between my breath, open monitoring, and body scanning, I’ve gotten to a point where I’m able to mindfully stay in the present moment fairly well. It took time, it took practice and yes, it took more than a little work…but I’m now at a point where I can meditate mindfully and set aside mindful moments during the day when I just need to calm my mind and get a new perspective.
Today’s references are to offer some additional resources, including reading materials and audio guided meditations, to assist in your explorations.
The Mindful Open Awareness Meditation: 5 Minutes to a Happier, Calmer You
Benjamin W. Decker
Getting Started with Mindfulness
Mindfulness: How to Do It
A Daily Mindful Walking Practice
(Article reprinted with permission from the author)
Rod Rawls is the creator, writer, blogger and moderator of A Changing World: How One TBI Survivor and One Family Caregiver is Trying To Keep Up . Rawls sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in a motorcycle accident several years ago. In his writing, he documents his journey forward after brain injury and offers tips and strategies for fellow survivors and caregivers.