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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Mindfulness: Aids to meditation

The things we notice when we pay attention. Julie Saint-Mleux, 2015

"You don't learn to sail in stormy seas. You go to a secluded place, not to avoid the world, but to avoid distractions until you build your strength and you can deal with anything. You don't box Muhammad Ali on day one." - Matthieu Ricard

If you're anything like me (and the average meditator), you will encounter obstacles on the path to making meditation a habit in your life. Meditation is not complicated in itself, but its simplicity can be precisely what makes it so difficult. Meditation implies being here and now, without giving in to external or internal distractions. It's hard. Especially in our fast-paced, hyper-stimulating world.

I have been meditating trying to meditate daily for almost six months now, and there are still days when I struggle. I love to sit still and alone in a quiet spot, but my mind does not always join in the stillness - thoughts go in all directions with no intent to quiet down. My other issue, and I'm kind of embarrassed to admit it, is that I tend to fall asleep a lot when I meditate. It could be a sign that I am not well rested, though I do usually sleep eight hours, or it could be a sign that my body and mind are not used to stillness enough yet - they interpret my immobility and regular breathing as an invitation to sleep

Luckily, there are many strategies to help your mind focus or to prevent it from drifting away (including to sleep). I've listed them below:

1) Tire yourself out before you start meditating. Ending a demanding yoga session with meditation can work wonders. I also find that I meditate ''better'' after working out and stretching;

2) Create a rhythmic movement such as walking, running, cycling, rowing, or even sitting in a rocking chair;

3) Engage your sense of sight: look at a flower, at a lit candle, at a campfire;

4) Engage your sense of hearing: sit by the ocean (in a quiet spot as crowds can be distracting) and let the waves rock you into meditation, or sit in the woods listening to the birds. You can also listen to soothing music, or even try chanting mantras;

5) Engage your sense of smell: aromatherapy can help as long as you don't have any adverse reaction to the scent;

6) Engage your sense of taste: eating very slowly, paying all attention to the sensation in your mouth, can be a meditative experience;

7) Last but not least, and probably the most accessible technique, focus on the breath.

Learning to meditate can be quite a steep learning curve, but I remind myself that ''bad'' meditation is still meditation. Sometimes it's only once it's done that you realize the actual realm of its benefits. 

Eventually, meditation will sneak up on you: more and more, I find myself in a meditative state when it wasn't even planned. At random moments, I seem to land into a state of combined calm and alertness that improves my interactions with people, my work, my respect for my own physical and emotional needs. 

Sometimes, what I notice isn't pleasant in itself: For example, I realize that being around certain individuals is draining. I realize that I have muscular tension or other types of discomforts. I realize that I am tired. Sad. Anxious. Noticing those things isn't particularly positive, but it does help me take the necessary steps to well-being. 

Sometimes I notice neutral things, such as my heartbeat. It is neither negative nor positive, but it is strangely comforting.

Sometimes, I notice positive things, such as peacefulness, warmth, lightness, joy, all those things that were probably there all along but only became perceptible once I paid attention. 

Mindfulness this Week

What specific challenges and strategies have you experienced in your meditation?

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Friday, May 13, 2016

Mindfulness - Feeling alive, in the body and in the mind

enneafive, Flickr

Spring is finally showing some timid signs of a comeback in Canada, and many of us are feeling alive again.

It would be tempting to call it spring fever, but really, the way I personally feel is closer to waking up after a long night of sleep. I don't know if I'm particularly excited, or simply aware of my surroundings after a long hiatus. I feel like opening my eyes, stretching, looking around, noticing what is going on.

It's in the little things: 

  • Hearing the birds in the morning, and the peepers at night. In the winter, unless you are walking on crisp snow on a very cold day, everything is so overwhelmingly silent.
  • Smelling the leaves, the grass, the budding flowers. In the winter, unless you walk by a house heated with a wood stove, the absence of smell is striking.
  • Seeing in color again, thanks to the different shades of green and, gradually, other hues as the flowers begin to bloom. In the winter, need I mention, everything is white.
  • Feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin, and allowing the breeze to play with my hair. In the winter we are so covered that nothing gets to us (apart from an unpleasant dampness that chills us to the bone. Or when the wind does manage to get to our skin, it pinches, bites, and burns it's so cold).

It's nothing short of a reawakening of the body, and it has more impact than one could imagine. 

One of the first things I noticed when I "officially" decided to be more mindful was a new relationship with my body. Paying attention in general had the almost immediate effect of making me reconnect with physical sensations that I had been ignoring or downplaying. This had wider implications. At first I mostly noticed the unpleasant stuff - ranging from a diffuse feeling of fatigue, tension or heaviness all the way to specific and precisely located discomforts, aches and pains of varied intensities. One of my first "epiphanies" was that migraine affects me more than I ever allowed myself to admit. On the "lighter" side, I started making clear connections between the way I felt and my posture, my eating habits, my physical activity level, my reaction to stress, how much I had slept, etc. I adjusted my lifestyle to limit the negative outcomes, and to foster physical well-being.

Gradually, this new awareness started encompassing the good sides of the physical experience as well. I noticed pleasant sensations more. The softness of my bed sheets. The warmth of my sweater. The taste of my food. The colors in the sky. If my toes were in the sand, they felt "happy". It was as if all fives senses had gained acuity (and a renewed enjoyment of simple pleasures). 

I realized that one of the quickest paths to mindfulness might be to start with the body. Indeed, meditation neophytes are often encouraged to do a "body scan". I now believe that a lot of my initial encounters with a meditative-like state happened while I was stretching after my workouts. Of all moments that make up a day, the 15 minutes I devote to stretching might be the time when I am most "awake", focused on how I feel in the moment, attentive to my breath, taking the time, completely oblivious to anything that came before or that will come after. 

As my physical awareness increased, so did my overall "presence". I can "sense" things as they happen, and avoid acting or reacting in an autopilot manner: 

  • Faced with a stressful situation, I will spontaneously take a deep breath, center myself, and realize that no action or reaction is actually required on my part at the precise moment. Or that my reaction can be very low-key, subtle, peaceful. (This is particularly true during interactions with "demanding" individuals.)
  • Faced with a pleasant situation, I will also spontaneously take a deep breath, center myself, and realize that no action or reaction is actually required on my part at the precise moment. Or that my reaction can be to simply take it all in, instead of rushing to the next thing.

This has made life easier to handle AND more enjoyable.

Mindfulness this Week

What is your relationship with your body, and how does it impact the rest of your life?

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