Mindfulness Meditation: A Man’s (or Woman’s) Best Friend
“It seems we all agree that training the body through exercise, diet, and relaxation is a good idea, but why don’t we think about training our mind?” - Sakyong Mipham
Training the mind is a lot like training a puppy. Imagine your mind as the cutest puppy you have ever seen. Not wanting to leave the adorable animal alone and abandoned, you take it home. His playful nature and friendly demeanor lead you to name him “Goofy.” When you get Goofy home he is into everything – on the furniture, in the trash, barking at the birds, etc. When we take the time to sit down, pause, and watch our mind; we realize that our mind is not much different from Goofy. Like our adorable puppy, our mind is all over the place.
We must learn to teach Goofy how to follow our commands to sit or stay so that he does not wander in a state of endless distraction at the first sign of new stimulation. Our mind tends to chase after thoughts like a puppy running after a squirrel, or cling onto thoughts like our dear Goofy clings to his favorite toy. How can we train our “Goofy Mind?” How can we learn to sit and stay?
One method of training the mind is through the practice known as mindfulness meditation. If you were already thinking of turning the page as soon as you saw the word “meditation” or thought “this isn’t for me,” I challenge and encourage you to be curious – to sit and stay! Notice that your mind already wants to wander off, just like Goofy. Gently bring it back to the present.
So what is meditation? The Tibetan word for meditation is "gom,” which means "to become familiar with”. Shamatha or mindfulness meditation is an organic practice of becoming familiar with being present and becoming aware of those things which keep us from being present. Being present is noticing where our attention is in relation to our current situation and circumstances. Our body is always present in the moment. It cannot be anywhere but here and now. However, because we live in a world with many distractions, our mind is often elsewhere - usually off worrying about the future or replaying the past. When we are not present, the body and mind are not integrated.
Meditation provides a training ground for integrating the body and mind so that we can relate to both ourselves and the world in a more aware, less distracted way. Going back to the puppy analogy, mindfulness meditation is simply learning to “stay.” We allow our “Goofy” mind to be curious. Goofy can learn to watch the squirrel but he does not have to chase after it. But if Goofy does wander off and grab hold of the squirrel, he can learn to let it go and come back. This is the practice of mindfulness meditation: to let go and come back, let go and come back, let go and come back. We can learn to simply observe our thoughts, but don’t need to grasp or cling onto them.
How to Meditate: Below are simple instructions for a Mindfulness Meditation practice. We can relate them to commands used in training a puppy: “Sit,” “stay,” and “come.” Like training a puppy, it takes patience and practice.
Step 1: Take Your Seat “Sit”– Find a comfortable and stable seated position such as cross legged on a cushion or sitting upright in a chair. Your spine should be upright with a natural curve in the low back, but not uptight. You want to be neither too tense, nor too loose. Place your hands on your knees or thighs and relax your shoulders, arms, and jaw. Tuck your chin in slightly. Keep your eyes half-way open with a soft downward gaze between four and six feet in front of you. The purpose of having the eyes half-way open is to allow your entire environment (internal and external) to be part of the experience.
Step 2: Place Your Attention on Your Breath “Stay”– Focus your attention on your natural breathing. When you notice your “Goofy” mind wandering elsewhere, just bring your attention back to your breathing without any judgment. Think of your breath as a leash used help you “stay” in the present moment.
Step 3: Label Thoughts as Thinking and “Come” Back – As you sit, breathing and “staying,” your mind will begin to wander. When you become aware of your mind thinking and that you are no longer present just say to yourself “thinking” and return your attention back to your breath. We can think of this as training your Goofy mind to “come;” training the mind to simply come back.
When Should I Practice? From my own experience, I find that first thing in the morning after I brush my teeth and during my lunch break work best. However, that may not be the case for you. Meditating in the morning before I exercise helps me feel centered and grounded before training the body. I like to think of it as training the mind before I train the body. At lunch, I usually do a shorter session after I eat. This helps prepare for the rest of the day. This can be seen as a time to nourish the mind as well as the body. If you plan to meditate after eating, I would encourage not eating a heavy meal as it may make it difficult to “sit.” Some people meditate when they get home from work or before they go to bed. Be open. Don’t be afraid to explore and find out what time or times work best for you.
How Often Should I Practice? Like brushing your teeth or taking a shower, make Mindfulness Meditation a daily practice. Five minutes every day is more effective than one hour, once a week. It is a cleansing practice. With the increased stress in today’s society our mind can become clouded with worry and anxiety. Often times we are not even aware of the mental chatter in our minds. In a mindfulness meditation practice, you are not trying to “clear your mind.” Instead, you are becoming aware of our inner dialogue and it is this awareness that opens us to possibility of having a quieter mind.
Why Meditate? People start meditating for different reasons: Decrease stress and anxiety, improve sleep, manage anger, lose weight, improve performance at work or sports, find peace, overcome depression, stop an addictive behavior - the list goes on. What I have found is that those who start to meditate are usually looking to “change” and become a “better” person. Meditation is not about changing yourself. Rather, it is about changing how you relate and connect with yourself by accepting and befriending who, what, and where you are. In puppy training, the owner and Goofy develop a strong and stable relationship with one another - they become in sync. The same thing can occur in training with the mind. The body and mind become in sync. By synchronizing the body and mind one develops mental strength and stability. With a stronger, more stable, mind we are able to look at the pattern of our life with clarity. That clarity will allow us to work from where we are right here, right now.
What if “Goofy” can’t stay? No big deal. We do not have to create drama. We simply notice, start over, and gently come back. In Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now, he states “The moment you realize you are not present, you are present.” We are learning to rest in attention with whatever surfaces in our mind.
As we continue to practice learning to “sit,” “stay,”, and “come,” we learn how to “heel.” Learning to “heel” is integrating the practice of mindfulness meditation into our everyday lives. When we can learn to “heel”, we can learn to heal. Remember that mindfulness meditation is something that requires practice. Every experience is different. Some days are harder to stay than others - that is why we call it a practice. So I challenge you to take time - maybe just five minutes (less than 1% of your day) - to stay and get to know your “Goofy” mind with gentle, fearless curiosity. After all, learning to stay and be with ourselves is learning to become friends with ourselves.
“When that kind of friendliness towards oneself occurs, then one develops friendliness towards the rest of the world.” – Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche