Mindfulness meditation (also called attentive meditation) seeks a different type of quieted mind; one that is wholly focused on the present experience and dedicated to observing life as it exists in the moment. Rather than trying to remove your mind from its surroundings, you’re trying to fully immerse yourself in the present experience.
What is mindful meditation?
Mindfulness is based on the premise that we get so caught up in the mundane hassles of our everyday lives that we get stuck on autopilot. As a result, we go through much of our life in a fog or a haze, disconnected from our senses and surroundings. Dwelling on past experiences, stressing out over house payments or car loads, worrying about things in the future; all these things preoccupy our thoughts and keep us from experiencing life in the present. Our mind is always off somewhere else rather than being attentive to the here and now.
Mindfulness teaches people how to break from this pattern and be fully attentive to their present experience in a non-judgmental way. By doing so, we can disrupt negative thought patterns, reduce rumination, and relieve stress.
The benefits of mindful meditation
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is the most common type of meditation recommended by doctors and used in hospitals. (Reddy, 4-16-2013) Mindfulness can increase both positive feelings and antibody responses in the
immune system. (Davidson & Kabatzinn, 2003) Studies have found that mindfulness based meditation was able to decrease loneliness (one of the primary causes of heart attack and stroke) as measured by levels of stress proteins and proinflammatory gene expression. (Rodriguez, 2013E)
Mindfulness-based stress reduction can lead to structural changes in the amygdala, resulting in a reduced stress response. (Holzel, 2010) One study found that an 8-week mindfulness training program creates measurable changes in brain structures associated with learning and memory, empathy, stress, and the sense of self. (Lazar et al., 2011) It’s been found that long-term mindfulness practitioners have greater brain volume, stronger neural connections, and less atrophy than non-practitioners. Mindfulness training may even prevent dementia. (Luders, 2009) Finally, a meta-analysis of 39 studies found it to be effective for relieving anxiety and improving mood. (Hofmann, 2010)
How to perform mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation is best practiced outdoors (settings in nature are ideal), but it can be done just about anywhere you can sit for 10 or 20 minutes without interruption.
Mindfulness technique #1: Sensory meditation
Start by finding a comfortable spot where you won’t be interrupted. Silence isn’t as important for this type of meditation; in fact, you want there to be some stimulus in your surroundings. Then close your eyes, and pay close attention to the sounds you hear all around you. What bursts into consciousness? Is it the chirping of a bird nearby? Children playing at a playground off in the distance? The sound of a car driving down the highway? Immerse yourself in that sound, bringing the focus of your thoughts toward it. What is creating it? Why? Imagine yourself as a guest being temporarily invited to share an experience from the world of these other things. Then gently let your mind wander when some other sound captures your attention.
As Amisha P. Jha explains, “Think of hearing the faint sound of a fire truck siren in the distance. The sound becomes louder as the truck approaches, then fainter again as it passes. You may notice that initially the siren is part of a vast sea of sounds, later that it is the most salient sound, only to fade into the background again. Thoughts, emotions and other sensations may similarly grow and diminish as we remain in a watchful monitoring mode.” (Jha, 2013)
The same exercise can be done with sight as the primary focus rather than sound. Find a spot in nature, perhaps somewhere where you can stare at a flowing river or stream. Or you might choose a place overlooking a lake filled with boats, or perhaps a spot at the park where you can observe others from a distance as they go about their business. Secure a comfortable spot to sit, get into a meditation pose, and then keep your focus straight ahead, paying attention to whatever enters your field of vision and captures your attention. Just like with the sounds, focus on that object until something else draws your attention away.
The goal of these exercises is to become fully immersed in your current surroundings and the present experience. You want your focus to be attentive yet fleeting; pouring your thoughts into whatever captures your attention while remaining nimble enough to let your mind jump around so that it doesn’t cling too tightly to a single thought or sensation. Through these exorcises we become better at living in the moment.
Mindfulness technique #2: Body attentiveness
This mindfulness technique brings the focus of attention to your own body and its sensations. First, attend to your breathing. Follow the sensations as air moves throughout your body. Focus on your belly as each breath flows in and out. Unlike traditional meditation and focused breathing techniques, the goal here is to control your focus as opposed to the breathing itself.
Move awareness to your heart. Make yourself aware of its beat, both as a sound and as a sensation. Think about your heartbeat and form the intention to slow it down. Now bring the attention to your hands. Try to perceive the tingling of warmth that emanates from your heart; the heartbeat throbbing in each finger. Move your awareness to your eyes, and then your face, and finally throughout your body. Focus on the sensations of the breeze as it hits your skin, or the feeling of warmth from the sun.
After 5 to 10 minutes of this, change your approach from focusing to monitoring. Pay attention to the thoughts and stimulus in the present. Imagine your mind as if it were a vast blue sky, and your thoughts and sensory experiences like clouds passing through it. Attend to each perceptual experience in the moment and then clear it away so that you can devote your attention to other experiences that enter your consciousness. Conduct this for another 5 minutes or so and then open your eyes to end the session.