There’s a seemingly trite truth that we always live in the now. When we try to grapple with the present moment, however, we find that focusing our attention and not getting swept away in the flow of our own thoughts and emotions is extremely difficult. Few people are aware of just how chaotic their minds are moment-to-moment—ideas, thoughts, images and feelings just emerge and our drive to immediately identify with them is so strong that many simply believe they are their thoughts.
“Our minds are like furry little gibbons: always agitated, never at rest,” writes Dan Harris in his bestselling book, 10% Happier (2014). What he’s referring is Homo sapiens’ inherited “monkey mind”, the fact that our minds are fast and frantic; when we try to examine them, our subjective experiences suggests more chaos than order. How can we prevent our attention and emotions from being ‘captured’ by the constant rush of mental activity and impulses? How, in order words, can we control, channel or even exorcise the monkey from our minds? Are there any mind-crafting tools or practices accessible to all sapiens? This is where mindfulness meditation comes in.
“At first the flow of thoughts rushes like a waterfall, which sometimes discourages beginners, who feel their mind is out of control… As our concentration strengthens, wandering thoughts subside rather than pulling us down some back alley of the mind. The stream of thought flows more slowly, like a river—and finally rests in the stillness of a lake, as an ancient metaphor for settling the mind in meditation practice tells us.”
— Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body
To put it simply, mindfulness, as Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson describe it in their new book on the subject, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body (2018), “lets us observe what’s happening in the mind itself rather than simply be carried away by it”.
The scientific study of mindfulness meditation is revealing some fascinating insights about this ancient practice and its long-lasting effects, and Goleman and Davidson’s book is a great place to start if you’re curious and want to dig deeper into the science, but for this post, I want to focus on two basic types of meditation you can immediately get going with.
“There is nothing spooky about mindfulness. It is simply a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and undistracted attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.”
— Waking Up (2014)
The following two meditations are taken directly from Dan Harris’s first book, 10% Happier. (Harris also recently released a follow-up title, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-To Book (2017), and he has a popular podcast that is worth exploring, too.) There are no tricks here, and you don’t need to take anything on faith…
Basic Mindfulness Meditation
1. Sit comfortably. You don’t have to twist yourself into a cross-legged position—unless you want to, of course. You can just sit in a chair. (You can also stand up or lie down, although the latter can sometimes result in an unintentional nap.) Whatever your position, you should keep your spine straight, but don’t strain.
2. Feel your breath. Pick a spot: nose, belly, or chest. Really try to feel the in-breath and then the out-breath.
3. This one is the key: Every time you get lost in thought—which you will, thousands of times—gently return to the breath. I cannot stress strongly enough that forgiving yourself and starting over is the whole game. As my friend and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has written, “Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome so that one day we can come to the ‘real’ meditation.”
Compassion meditation (aka metta)
At first blush, most rational people find the below off-putting in the extreme. Trust me—or, better, trust the scientists—it works.
1. This practice involves picturing a series of people and sending them good vibes. Start with yourself. Generate as clear a mental image as possible.
2. Repeat the following phrases: May you be happy, May you be healthy, May you be safe, May you live with ease. Do this slowly. Let the sentiment land. You are not forcing your well-wishes on anyone; you’re just offering them up, just as you would a cool drink. Also, success is not measured by whether you generate any specific emotion. As Sharon says, you don’t need to feel “a surge of sentimental love accompanied by chirping birds.” The point is to try. Every time you do, you are exercising your compassion muscle. (By the way, if you don’t like the phrases above, you can make up your own.)
3. After you’ve sent the phrases to yourself, move on to: a benefactor (a teacher, mentor, relative), a close friend (can be a pet, too), a neutral person (someone you see often but don’t really ever notice), a difficult person, and, finally, “all beings.”
According to Goleman and Davidson’s work, compassion meditation (and/or “loving-kindness” meditation), “may be particularly helpful to patients suffering from trauma, especially those with PTSD.” Here’s what else they wrote about this kind of meditative practice:
“Loving-kindness and compassion practice over the long term enhance neural resonance with another person’s suffering, along with concern and a greater likelihood of actually helping. Attention, too, strengthens in many aspects with long-term practice: selective attention sharpens, the attentional blink diminishes, sustained attention becomes easier, and an alert readiness to respond increases. And long-term practitioners show enhanced ability to down-regulate the mind-wandering and self-obsessed thoughts of the default mode, as well as weakening connectivity within those circuits—signifying less self-preoccupation. These improvements often show up during meditative states, and generally tend to become traits.”
That last line is particularly important: this kind of practice has the potential for lasting effects. But just as no one should expect to pick up a musical instrument and record a platinum album over a weekend, mindfulness meditation requires a certain level of commitment. Can you spare 30 minutes a day? How about 15, 10, 5, or even just 2 minutes a day? No matter how busy you are you can find, make or take the time to cultivate these powerful tools into your daily life. Your future self will thank you later.
There are also different types and varieties of mindfulness practice to explore (e.g. walking/jogging meditation and “transcendental” meditation), and using a guided meditation (there are lots of apps for that) might help you get started (calm music and/or natural sounds are favourites, too). The point is to experiment and find what works for you and, perhaps most importantly, don’t be afraid to fail—the quicker you learn to fail, the more you’ll be able to manage and master your own monkey mind for good.
And remember: there’s no time like the present!