Just sitting and breathing

Meditation and mindfulness are powerful tools for mental health

To learn more:
It’s easier to keep a meditation practice going if one sits with a group regularly. See the Body & Soul section of the News & Review for info on local mindfulness practice groups. Also, Enloe Hospital offers a “Meditation for Wellness” program that’s covered by many health insurance policies; call 898-1495 for more. There are also hundreds of books on meditation. Two I recommend are Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by John Kabat-Zinn and The Miracle of Mindfulness by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.

This is an article about meditation, a subject that to some people evokes the New Age airiness of crystal rubbing and channeling mummies. So, to keep it down to earth, I’m going to begin by telling you that one of my favorite times to meditate is when I’m using the toilet.

I mention that only to point out that meditation is an entirely ordinary activity that can be done anywhere. Besides, I like meditating in the bathroom. After all, I’m already sitting still and straight, the best posture for meditating. The room is very quiet. And I know I won’t be interrupted.

I could read a magazine, I suppose, but I prefer to enjoy the moment. It’s a good moment, a fine moment. I am alive and healthy. My breathing is deep and regular, my mind free of thoughts. Soon I will join my family at the breakfast table, where I will enjoy eating melon and toast, turning fruit and grains into human flesh and energy and, yes, waste products. What a miracle!

One of the reasons I try to meditate regularly, and not just in the bathroom, is because I’m old enough to know I don’t have all that many years left to me. Life seems more precious today than it did when I was a feckless youth of 20.

I want to make the most of the time remaining. And the way to do that—and to be calmer and more peaceful in the process—is to learn how to experience each moment as fully as possible—to practice what Buddhists call mindfulness. Life is lived only in the present moment, and the more attention I can give to that moment, to what is happening right now, within me and without, the more fully I am alive and the less likely to do something hurtful to others. Meditation is one of the tools I use to try to develop that level of mindfulness.

Not long ago I was walking by Zucchini & Vine, the downtown Chico home accoutrements store. It was a breezy day, and the wind chimes that usually hang there were bonging away merrily. They’re large, sonorous chimes, and they put out a joyful sound.

What struck me, though, was most people didn’t notice them. They walked right by, lost in their thoughts, oblivious to this small but lovely symphony.

I don’t want to sound superior, as if I’m some kind of adept. Far from it. I too get lost in my thoughts, fretting about the future, regretting things done in the past. We all do that. It’s part of modern, busy life. And it’s the source of much of our stress and anxiety, the angst that characterizes our times and gives rise to unhealthful living, including our many addictions.

If you’re like most people, you accept this mental noise as a normal part of making your way in the world. Sometimes, though, you wish you could just shut it off. On a hike in the park, perhaps, you want to be able simply to enjoy the walking, to listen to the birdsong and smell the earth, but your mind won’t stop churning. All kinds of mental stuff, most of it as useless as static, keeps coursing through your head, taking you away from the present moment.

That’s a frustrating feeling, but it also can be a helpful feeling, because it can be a first step toward developing greater awareness. By recognizing what your mind is doing, you’ve stepped back from it just far enough to be able to observe it. You’ve become a witness of your own mental activity. And this “witness” can be your guide, through meditation, toward greater calmness and mindfulness.

This witness, after all, dwells in stillness. From where it watches your mental activity, it’s quite calm. It doesn’t think. It doesn’t use words. It is pure awareness dwelling fully in this moment, watching.

If you’ve never meditated, try this exercise: Stop reading this article for a couple of minutes. Look away from the newspaper at nothing in particular—the floor, perhaps. Then, just breathe. Take a slow breath in and then let it out. Witness yourself breathing. Do nothing else. If a thought arises, just watch it arise, then come back to your breathing. Do this for, say, 15 to 20 breaths. Then resume reading.

When you focus on your breathing, mind and body are functioning in unity. You are simply watching yourself being alive. When a thought arises, you just witness it arise. But the “monkey mind,” as it’s sometimes called, doesn’t like to be superceded by the “witness.” Just breathing is boring, it says. Let’s chatter instead.

But watching yourself being alive should not be boring. Watching your breathing, feeling your heart beating and blood coursing through your veins, noticing the way your shoulders and legs feel, watching your “monkey mind” as it tries to reassert its control, learning how consciousness works—these are all richly rewarding and endlessly fascinating activities, and they bring with them the great joy the comes from feeling profoundly peaceful, calm and clear.

Meditation is an ancient yogic practice that has been cultivated and refined by thousands upon thousands of adepts through the centuries, and there are many, many ways to practice it. All are very simple at their core, however, and involve merely placing one’s awareness on a single activity or object. Following one’s breath, or “conscious breathing,” is perhaps the most common practice. Nothing connects us to living more than breathing. And it also connects us to spirit. The very word “spirit” comes, after all, from the Latin word for breath.

I use a short cue to help me focus on my breathing. When I breathe in, I say “in” to myself. When I breathe out, I say “out.” Other times I extend the cue: “In, out/ deep, slow/ calm, ease/ smile, release.” And at other times I just breathe, wordlessly.

It’s important to have good posture during meditation. Sitting cross-legged on a cushion is ideal; using a small meditation bench is good, too. But a chair will do just fine. The important thing is that your back and head be straight and supported by your spine, not your muscles. Place your hands in your lap on or your knees. Watch your breathing. If it helps, say “in, out” to yourself or count your out-breaths, starting over when you reach 10. If you find yourself thinking or daydreaming, don’t be discouraged. Just note it—you can say “thinking” to yourself if you like—and come back to your breathing. Don’t strive for anything. Just sit and breathe.

It may be hard at first. Your mind may be full of thoughts. That’s OK. Just watch them. Same with any feelings that arise. Just watch them. Like the thoughts, they’ll go away. Keep coming back to your breath.

After a while you’ll notice your breathing has slowed down, become deeper; it’s easier just to dwell in it. Welcome to the eternal present, to life in this moment.

Don’t expect anything from your meditation, and you will be amply rewarded. Don’t try to achieve any goals, and your life will improve greatly. That’s the paradox of meditation. As soon as you strive for something, it will cease to work for you. Meditation is about accepting, about becoming open, about letting go of judgments and concepts that limit you, about sitting still and allowing life to happen on its own terms, to teach you what it has to teach you and what you need to learn.

It’s best to practice regularly, at least once a day, twice if possible, morning and evening. Start with 20 minutes, then work up to 30, though even five minutes, if done sincerely, is good. Sitting meditation can be augmented by walking meditation, which involves practicing conscious breathing while walking, usually by synching up your steps and breathing—three steps to a breath, for example. It can be done anywhere.

Eventually you will begin to carry your meditation practice into the other moments of your day. The calmness and centeredness you feel while sitting will extend to your other activities. You will find yourself better able to handle crises and less likely to react emotionally, and negatively, to challenges. And when you do need to think—to plan ahead, to take care of work—you will do so in a more focused, productive way.

Used well, meditation can be the key to opening the most important door you face in life: the door to self-awareness. By just sitting and watching, in stillness, you can eventually come to understand how your mind works and who you really are.

As the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki once said, "When you try to understand everything, you will not understand anything. The best way is to understand yourself, and then you will understand everything."