Meditation and mindfulness – Part II

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Kihikihi-based Elizabeth Day has lived a life full of adventure. Among her life experiences includes a period of time as a monk (ordained monastic).

Elizabeth Day

The meditation and yoga coach now offers classes at her studio (Kihikihi Meditation & Yoga) and teaches a yin yoga class and mindfulness meditation at Balance Yoga (Cambridge), where she also has a clinical practice offering psychotherapy and mindfulness training.

This month we find out more about Elizabeth and her thoughts on yoga and meditation. (Check out part one of our profile on Elizabeth Day in our February issue or online at fitnessjournal.co.nz)

What is yoga?
Yoga is a system of internal practice to unite attention on the mind, breath and body for the primary purpose of awakening full consciousness.

The practice of yoga also generates wellbeing and vitality, soothing the nervous system and reducing stress.

So it can be taken simply as a form of enjoyable tonic and stress relief, or it can be taken to its full capacity as a vehicle for the complete development of one’s human potential.
Yoga is not merely an exercise system, nor does it require flexibility or youth.  Yoga suits practitioners of any age, gender and physical condition.

What is meditation?
Meditation is a practice of turning the mind inward to investigate itself, so to speak.  At its most basic, meditation can provide relief from everyday stresses, increasing a sense of perspective, lessening emotional reactivity, clarifying the mind and deepening the capacity to concentrate and complete tasks well.  This is generally the goal of mindfulness meditation.
At its most profound, meditation can transform our lives utterly, leading to the fulfilment of our human potential –to master our own mind and live in open joyful presence.

Common misconceptions?
It is understandable but nevertheless mistaken to think:

1. “I can’t meditate because I can’t stop my mind.”
In meditation we don’t intentionally stop the mind from thinking. Instead we step back and witness its thoughts, moods and feelings.  It is as though we move out of the tumbling river and sit on its shores, witnessing the flow of water but not falling into it.

2. “I can’t meditate because I can’t sit still.”
We can meditate in any position. At its essence, meditation is an internal movement to witness the mind’s conditioned habits and let them go, not by force of will but gradually by seeing the negative effects of these habits.  

Wherever we are, our minds are there too, so we can meditate anywhere at any time. However, it can be easier to develop a good practice of meditation if we can remain quite still.
Over time it is beneficial to try practising in each of the four main positions: sitting, standing, walking, lying down. The traditional cross-legged seated position provides the firmest basis for long and sustained periods of meditation, so it is highly effective but not essential for practice.

3. “Meditation belongs to eastern religions and I can’t practise something from another faith.”
While it is true that traditions of meditation have been largely transmitted through the East, meditation practise transcends specific cultures and religions. Meditation is a broad practice.  Within it there are some teachings specific to Hinduism, Buddhism, and possibly also Christianity and Judaism. However, just as gravity binds things to the earth, irrespective of whether they know about or believe in the laws of gravity that bind them, so meditation is a support for freeing the mind, whatever belief system shapes our mind.

4. “If I meditate I’ll lose my motivation to be proactive”
Because it is regarded commonly as a sedentary practice, some fear that meditation is inimical to the requirements of everyday life. Don’t just sit there, do something.  In meditation practice we can flip this assumption on its head: don’t just do something, sit there. This is an injunction to train the mind to reflect rather than react, so than when we do need to be proactive, we do so from greater awareness of what we are doing, rather than from mindless habit.

Who can benefit?
Anyone who wants to live beyond their everyday habits; who is looking for more from life; who is confused and feels alone or empty; who needs relief from basic existential angst; who wants to lift their energy levels; improve their ways of relating, refine their thinking processes, focus their mind and see with greater clarity. Those who want more ease, peace and joy. I think that covers pretty much everyone.

What should people expect?
With practise, meditation can start to feel more natural and easy. Mindfulness develops and that in turn makes it easier to pay attention in the present. As we increase our capacity for mindfulness, we are able to stay present for longer and see things as they really are, rather than through the filters of our conditioned thoughts.  

Mindfulness brings perspective so that we are less identified with our thoughts and feelings. Rather than bursting with anger or sorrow, for example, instead we have more space around the thoughts and feelings. Because we are not identified with them we don’t think “I’m angry!”

Instead we notice angry thoughts and we have time to respond appropriately rather than react.
Over time this frees us from our conditioned responses. Neurologically we are generating new neural pathways for enhanced responsiveness.

Expect to feel frustrated initially, because facing the mind fully for the first time can be a shock. It moves more like a monkey flitting aimlessly from branch to branch, than the measured genius you might have imagined.

It can be painful to sit still and witness the madness of a murky and hyperactive mind, but the act of witnessing gradually slows and clarifies the mind.  

So, expect it to take time before you see real results. You might feel even worse for a while – like when you start spring cleaning and you see that the job is bigger and grubbier than you’d guessed.
Expect to find yourself having to go back to the start, again and again, just trying to keep the mind on the breath or body for a moment, without it flying off on a stream of thought or feeling.

But, as with anything worth doing, perseverance brings great results. It helps if you can be patient and understanding of your wandering mind. Avoid judging yourself for the thoughts and feelings that arise. They are conditioned, and they are not you or yours in a true sense.

Expect to invest some time and effort to set the practice rolling. Even only five minutes a day of concerted practise for a few weeks is a good enough way to start.  Ideally you practise in the same place at around the same time each day.

This makes it easier to build a good habit. If this is not possible, then an intention to practise for five minutes a day, no matter what or where, will do. Increase this incrementally over the following months until after about 6-12 months you might be enjoying your daily practise of 30-60 minutes of meditation.

It is generally considered essential to have a teacher if you intend to deepen the practice, as the mind is a difficult, invisible landscape to navigate on one’s own.

What are people often most surprised about?
How crazy and pre-conditioned the thinking mind is; how quickly relief can come, initially.  Some people are surprised to learn that they are not their thoughts; others that there is much more space in them than they realised.   

What is mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness is a state of mind that results when we focus on the present moment, so that we can calmly notice and accept the thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that arise and pass from moment to moment.

Everyone has the capacity to be present. We are present whenever knowing (consciousness) and being (embodiment) converge. We don’t need to acquire special skills or change ourselves in overt ways in order to practise mindfulness. But we can cultivate our inherent capacity for mindfulness by simple and regular practice.

Whenever we bring awareness to our direct experience we are practising mindfulness. When we train the brain to be mindful, we remodel the physical structure of the brain. Mindfulness lights up parts of the brain that are not activated when we operate from mindless habit. [See mindful.org for more on this]

Mindfulness meditation is a practice of learning to be present to our everyday experience. This allows us to see that thoughts and feelings are conditioned.  They are not who we are.

How could they be, when they change from moment to moment? As we gain perspective and start to lose identity with the contents of our mind we start to experience inner peace.

Reflection on ‘things as they are’ attunes us to the realities of our experience and the world around us. This develops the heart qualities needed to respond freely to life.

Mindfulness meditation is a practice that protects the mind from stress and distress, and cultivates awareness. The greater our awareness, the greater our freedom to choose how we respond to and construct our own life.

This is why I support people to practise mindfulness, whether I am teaching yoga, meditation, or offering counselling and psychotherapy.

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