A quiet mind is a blessing you can grant yourself with practice. Can you remember a time when all you were doing was sitting and maybe looking? Hearing sounds, sensing your body, feeling your breath, but not creating a narrative about what was happening? Can you remember times when you were simply being not doing anything – not even meditating or “relaxing”? When you are still but highly observant, not bothered by assessments (good or bad, okay or not okay) but simply allowing everything around you to be what it is, you are in a meditative state.
I have found, in my years of leading mind-body groups, that this is a good place for beginners to start exploring the mindful state. I’ve had wonderful experiences of this in airports, riding in cars (not while I was driving!), while lying in the snow after falling down skiing, and at family gatherings, among other places. Time seems to standstill. I’m quiet on the inside, but acutely observant in a curious, gentle way of everything within and around me. Moments like those convinced me that I could use meditation to calm my sometimes manic mind.
How to relax your mind
Here is a good way to begin practicing mindfulness. Find a time when you can take ten minutes to yourself. You do not have to be in a darkened room with candles and incense in order to do this. You can be outside, in the lobby of a large office building or a hotel, on your front porch – even in your car, if it’s not moving. All you need is to sit and be fairly confident that you won’t be interrupted for a few minutes. Now, get comfortable in your seat. Adjust your clothing or glasses so you aren’t distracted by anything tugging or compressing parts of your body. Uncross your legs, if you’re comfortable with that. With both feet on the ground and your hands in your lap, check your whole body once more to make sure you can relax.
Now, start thinking about the fact that you’re breathing. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Just notice that Hey, guess what, there’s air flowing in and out of me every few seconds. And the air is a bit cool as it flows into my nose and into my throat. I can feel my chest expanding as the air fills it. As I become more relaxed, I’ll feel my belly expanding too. And just at the moment, my lungs are full, everything stops for a second, and then I’m exhaling. The air, now warm, is flowing out of me, and my chest is falling. Just notice this for a minute or so. If your mind wanders away from the miracle that is your breath, just let go of whatever your mind has got its teeth into, and return your attention to the air flowing in and out, in and out. This is a good thing, this breath. It brings life in, and it carries used-up old stuff out. It keeps you fresh from moment to moment. Just keep going back to it, and your mind will gradually stop jumping around.
Now, start to pay attention to what is going on around you. This is a shift you need to make carefully, because you might find your mind flooded with words about what things look like and whether things are okay and what’s she wearing? And who did her hair? If this happens, gently return your narrative mind to your breath. Say to yourself, “air in, air out” with the movement of your breath until you can be curiously attentive to the world around you without the running commentary. The goal is to appreciate, perceive, and allow all you see, hear, feel, smell, and sense with a quiet, nonjudgmental mind.
A better way of being in the world
Simple awareness is something humans are born with – babies and toddlers, use it all the time. They’re just observing. As you practice this, you’ll slowly develop the ability to shift into simple awareness a few times each day. It’s a very different way of being in the world, one that short-circuits stress because there’s no need for self-consciousness, for comparing yourself to other people, for complaining or ruminating over past or future problems.
Eventually, you’ll want to make the connection between occasionally practicing simple awareness in the world and practicing it continually with respect to your own thoughts and perceptions. Think about this: You can observe your thoughts and actions the way you observe the world, without constant judgment, and simply allow yourself to be as you are. If you notice things you’d like to change, that’s fine, but begins by simply allowing yourself to be, and by cultivating an attitude of friendly curiosity about what’s going on in your mind and spirit. This type of self-acceptance is something you have to relearn because it gets drummed out of you by the culture of materialism and competitiveness, but you can do it.
Meditation for maniacs
Are you a person who always has something to do? Life is demanding, pulling you in all different directions. There is always something to buy, to do, to see, to figure out, or to fix. The demands on your attention are never-ending, starting with the alarm clock in the morning and ending with the late-night news and its dire warnings of the latest health threat or severe storm somewhere across the planet. You, like most people, probably feel like a maniac at least some of the time, rushing about in your head, your car, and your home to maintain some control over what seems like relentless chaos.
It’s vital to your physical, emotional, and psychological health to break the spiral of intensity. You can learn to stop the madness for a few minutes and then dive right back in, refreshed and better able to cope.
A technique for inner calmness
One excellent way to do this is to use the three – breath technique. You can do this anytime, anywhere. All you have to do is recognize the signs of stress. As soon as you start to feel overwhelmed, stop for a minute. Say to yourself, I need a Break. Then take it. Take three breaths with your full attention on each one. Start by fully exhaling, and then calmly, carefully observe the next breath coming in. Feel it expanding inside you, and think to yourself, Thank You. Hold the breath for an instant, and then let it out slowly, thinking to yourself, Let go. Repeat this twice more. Don’t cheat yourself. You have time to do this carefully, slowly, and mindfully. Just give yourself one minute to reconnect with the miracle of your breathing, and then get back to work. If you practice this every day, you’ll notice a shift in the way you perceive stress, from something that just keeps happening to you to something you can observe with detachment.
I can’t write about meditation, mindfulness, and flow without mentioning my favorite type of meditation: mindful walking. This is simply the act of taking a very slow walk during which you pay close attention to everything that happens. This is a nice thing to do in your neighborhood, in your yard, or in a natural area near where you work. Start by coordinating your breath with your steps. Take a step as you inhale, take a step as you exhale. Continue this for a while, noticing how each foot touches the ground, how your chest expands, whether or not it feels awkward to be walking so slowly. Gradually, turn your attention to your surroundings. It’s amazing to discover how many details you’ve been missing.
If you like mindful walking, you might enjoy tai chi, qi gong, or yoga. Each of these practices involves intense awareness of the body in space, close attention to how you’re moving and coordination with the breath. Each is different, and which you choose may just be a matter of taste. There are classes in each of these at community centers, colleges, and gyms all over the country.
This article was excerpted with permission from the book 10 Simple Solutions to Stress: How to Tame Tension and Start Enjoying Your Life by Claire Michaels Wheeler, MD, Ph.D. (New Harbinger Publications, Inc. c2007). Dr. Wheeler is on the faculty of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine of Portland, OR; and an instructor at Portland State University’s School of Community Health.