Sunday, July 29, 2007

Meditation 101

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Micki Fine
Photo by Sean Fitzpatrick

Learning how to meditate has been on my “to do” list for some time now. Therein lies the problem, how can I live in the moment when I am already exhausted just by looking at my schedule for the week. Plus, I have to admit I’ve had some fears. Will I be thinking about all the things I could be doing instead of meditating? Will I get bored? Will my back hurt from sitting still so long? Do I have to become Buddhist? What if I empty my mind and there’s no there there? What if Nirvana is too long a drive?

All of my concerns and more are addressed by Micki Fine, a Mindfulness Meditation teacher during her introductory session at the Jung Center. In fact, just entering the arched doorways of the Center and taking in the calm atmosphere makes me think that mindfulness is already in motion. Fine has a way of letting the group know that wherever we find ourselves is a good place to start. And that includes incredibly high strung, anxious, type-A people like myself.

According to Fine, our “do more, have more, be more” culture exists in exact opposite to living in the moment. “We miss so much of our lives because we are not paying attention,” says Fine. “In mindfulness we practice paying attention on purpose.” I’m all for that; living on auto pilot seems a dicey prospect at best. I am amazed at how many others admit to driving home and not remembering how they got there. I thought I was the only person on earth that multi-tasks, lives 10 steps ahead of myself, and spends too much of my life on cruise control.

Fine likes to give her students a break. “Our minds our designed default into our habits,” she says. “When we are in the shower the mind can be doing something completely different. That’s part of human nature.” We are born mindful. Just spend some time with a toddler and you will see each moment unfold one after another with little attachment to the past or future. “The trouble with living on automatic is that we are not living our own lives as if they mattered. It doesn’t help that our culture is fixated on the next big thing. “We becoming human doings instead of human beings, says Fine. “We are not simply in our lives.”

We live in a world obsessed with busyness. The never-a-dull moment lifestyle has a way of catching up with us though in terms of stress and its effects on our health. Fine makes her point by handing out two raisins to each participant. She asks us to eat each raisin as if we are from Mars and have never seen or tasted a raisin. I begin by carefully observing my raisins. If you crinkle your raisin near your ear you can even listen to your raisin. Finally we get to taste the raisin. I feel my whole body meeting this sweet item, my blood sugar rising, and silently wishing I could eat the whole box. That’s that mindless eating we all do when we are simply not in the “raisin” moment. Each time our mind wanders away from the raisin Fine suggests we come back. It feels a bit like taming our unruly attention. Fine calls this process looking with “bare attention.” It’s easy living in the moment when we are standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. When we have one of those “I am so here” moments. But what about the other billions of less spectacular moments? How do we inhabit the whole of our lives?

Mindfulness Meditation was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, Wherever You Go There You Are, and his most recent book, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn’s westernization of Buddhist practices made enormous strides in bringing meditation to the medical community. Mindfulness teaches meditation independent of ideological and religious frameworks out of which these meditative practices emerged, which makes it particularly user-friendly. In 1979, he founded The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society (CFM) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The research in peer reviewed journals is vast, covering everything from the effect of meditation on blood pressure to heart disease. Fine has studied extensively with Kabat-Zinn and considers teaching meditation her calling and vocation.

Next, Fine has us lying down as she gently leads us through an inventory of our sensations she calls a body scan. Our breath becomes the channel that is always on and ready to serve as a focal point. Simply the act of stopping and observing feels good in and of itself. I’m not even officially meditating yet and already I feel better, calm, relaxed, and at ease with myself.

Fine is quick to dispel the myths surrounding meditation. “One of the worst is that meditation is some esoteric practice and if I hold my fingers in certain position I will be in nirvana,” says Fine. “Meditation can be anything if you pay non-judgmental moment to moment to what’s going on. Eating, bathing, or walking can all be forms of meditation.”

Another myth is that you are clearing your mind and that the goal is to have an empty mind. “Mindfulness is about knowing the mind. It’s OK when the mind wanders,” she says. “We notice that and bring it back.” It’s in these moments that we get to know the mind more intimately and become more forgiving, compassionate, and accepting of our own humanity.

Meditation is all about relaxation, right? Not exactly, relaxation may very well be a by-product of the process, but it’s not the goal in and of itself. The harder we try to relax the more difficult it becomes. Relaxation comes as a result of not trying to get anywhere at all. I must say I did feel relaxed after each session of mindfulness but it wasn’t a kind of zombied out feeling like I had spent an hour in a hot tub. I felt at ease, but also alert and attentive to the world around me.

After the body scan we tried a walking meditation. Fine likes to ease people into the process. For beginners it’s nice to have a bit of something to do. Being alone with our minds can be a frightful prospect. A guided meditation with some instruction calms the fears of the “what should I do next” types. That way her soothing voice can ease us into the quiet and wonder of our own perceptions.

“Taking a class is also an excellent way to start,” says Fine “When people meditate together people feel it more intensely.” I definitely felt the support of the group. There’s something calming knowing you are in a room full of like-minded people that are all trying to live more fully.

Fine also works one-on-one with people who require more individualized attention. “It takes some discipline to get your butt on the cushion every day,” says Fine. Coming to a class sets a certain commitment to practice. Speaking of the cushion, sitting on a chair is also an option. Zoning out is not in the plan as sitting meditation requires a kind of upright dignity to encourage wakefulness. If we notice our back is hurting we attend to our discomfort without judgment. Bracing against the pain may amplify our aches. You can be present even in the midst of difficulty. Part of meditation is waking up to how we participate in our own suffering.

Fine suggests starting with short sittings of between 5-15 minutes and work up to longer stretches. After the walking meditation it almost seems like a relief to be finally just sitting, doing nothing, paying attention, watching and following my thoughts come and go. “Simply allow for things to be as they are,” she says. “Let go of struggle.”

Through continued practice we can hope to be less reactive, relate to our family and each other differently and simply become more adaptable in a changing world. I’ve started a modest practice of 10-15 minutes a day using a timer. Sometimes I spend the whole time running to catch my mind, reeling myself back to the home of my body. I’m not good at this yet and that’s fine for now. I do feel different, less ahead of myself, less reactive, more attuned to the moment to moment unfolding of life, my life— the one I don’t want to miss.

Reprinted from Total Body Magazine.