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Mindfulness meditation, also called insight meditation, is an exercise that trains your mind to stay present.

What it isn’t

It is not a practice that clears your mind. This is probably the biggest misconception about mindfulness. If you were to clear your mind of all thoughts and awareness, you’d be unconscious. But the effect of practicing mindfulness is that there is a lot less clutter in your mind.

Mindfulness is not about intense focus.  Focusing alone will get you deeply involved in a thought.  Mindfulness meditation helps you be aware that you are having a thought or feeling, helps you note it and then you can once again pay attention to your breath.

What it is

Mindfulness looks like this:

You sit erect (imagine standing at attention.  Now change that to sitting, with the same posture, but not the stiffness of standing at attention.)

You observe your breathing. Every single detail is important. How your chest rises and falls, your belly rises and falls, how the air fells coming into your nostrils, how it feels going out of your nostrils and anything else that you can notice about your breath. Pay attention to the details, notice the changes–and most importantly–do not not control it but follow it.  Observe it without changing it–to the extent that that is possible.

It very simple.  What’s hard is what actually happens while you are doing this. You, (no matter how highly practiced you are) will find your mind wandering away from its job of attending to the breath. You’ll start thinking about something you should do, or something you shouldn’t have done or something someone said or you’ll have a great idea that you’d like to think about.

When that happens, note it. Say to yourself, “I was thinking about the fact that I forgot to write a meeting in my calendar,” or “I’m feeling scared.” Go back to the breath. You might have even spent a few moments on this thought or feeling before you realize that you got away from paying attention your breath. Be gentle about this transition. Don’t judge yourself in any way. This is the way the mind works.  If you meditate for ten minutes, you may find yourself noting your thoughts and feelings scores of times and going back to the breath.

Jack Kornfield has compared mindfulness practice to training a puppy.  If you want the puppy to sit, when it runs away, you gently place it down again and show it what sitting is. You don’t berate the puppy or force it. You gently bring it back over and over again until it learns.

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I was meditating this morning and I started going over an exchange I had with someone at work that became heated.  I thought about how wrong the person was. I thought about how I might have had a better comeback. I went over it in my mind and I was tempted to spend my meditation time this way.

It’s so easy to get caught up in my own thoughts and to replay a scene.  Of course,  that is not the point of meditation.  So, how do you avoid the temptation?  Today, as I was thinking about that conversation, I realized that beneath the “figuring” mind and beneath the “mental chatter” is information that I need.  I reminded myself that everything I need to know, I already do know.  All I have to do is get out of the way and let the information surface. It is actually quite comforting to have this thought.   It takes away the struggle, the searching, the desperate energy I feel when I’m in “solve” mode.

I’ve read in books about meditation, that when the mind is still,  it is like a body of water that is still–you can see to the bottom.  That’s the image that helps me move easily back to focusing on my breath.  When I got up from meditating I realized that I would also have been better off during that heated exchange to be quieter.    I decided that next time I feel my anger beginning to rise, the best thing to do is react less and listen more so I could better understand what was really happening.

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I have always felt a little weird sitting on the floor with my eyes closed doing nothing.  When I am home alone and I sit down to meditate it’s not a problem but if I’m going to meditate every day, I’m not always alone.  Fortunately, over time, my husband has come to not only accept my practice but to support it.  Maybe he notices how much calmer I tend to be after sitting or maybe he notices that after consistently practicing, I have actually changed the way I respond to him.  Whatever the reason, it helps to have the support.  At the very least, it’s necessary to help others in the household understand that when you practice, you would appreciate not being interrupted.  At best, they would actually encourage you to keep it up.

I once had a meditation teacher that said, “Don’t make a big deal out of practicing. Don’t ask everyone to change their habits to accommodate you.”  I would agree with that, but there is something in between.  It is so hard to get to that pillow every day and to commit to setting aside time, that you need support from people around you to make it work.  Here are a few suggestions about how to go about doing that:

1. Help your family understand that this is a commitment you are making to yourself.  Just like losing weight, getting a new job, or getting a degree, it requires application and energy and that they can help by doing what any family does, which is support each other in achieving their goals, without judging them.

2. Let members of your household know when you would like to practice.  Try to pick a time that works for you but takes into consideration the needs of others.  If you let others know what time and where you will be sitting, it will be easier for people to know when not to interrupt.

3.  Address any concerns that people bring up about the fact that you are going to be meditating.  Although we are a society of doing and moving, there isn’t anything objectively strange about sitting quietly.  Some people also think that meditation is a religious activity that is associated only with Buddhism.  There are meditation traditions in in Jewish and Christian religions as well as many others so if your family is concerned that you will be living on a commune in India, reassure them.  Mindfulness meditation is now used by medical, legal and business people and other “mainstream” people to improve concentration, improve performance,  reduce stress, improve decision making and promote healing.

3. Show your appreciation when get support.

Have you come up against obstacles to your practice from others?  What have you experienced?

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That little span of time of just sitting may not feel like much while I’m doing it, but it has a perceptible effect after I’m done.

A conversation with my husband today ended well because I didn’t react to everything he said, but listened without responding for a much longer period of time than I normally would.  This morning my husband was talking about a situation with his work. He was upset with the way the owner of his company was handling a situation that he felt would hurt the company and he was hurt by the way this man had spoken to him.  Usually, I would have jumped in to advise or debate. I would have reacted to my fear of his getting fired. Instead, I just listened to the whole thing. He needed to vent and to know that he could talk about “dangerous” thoughts safely.  In the end, because the conversation was allowed to progress past the anger, he got to a point where something positive, something with great potential, had happened at work and we talked about how that might develop.

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I wanted to give some focus to this blog, rather than writing about mind-body medicine in general.  I have been dancing around the commitment to a daily mindfulness meditation practice and making that promise publicly should be a good motivator.  I like the idea of writing about the act of sitting on a cushion and doing nothing–every day for a year.  What’s interesting about it is that, ironically, there should be a lot to talk about.  There should be plenty to say about the flurry of mental activity that I’ll observe when I sit and the way a meditation practice effects me when I’m not meditating.  We’ll see.

This is my process: I sit in my living room in a cozy corner between a big plush chair and a bookcase.  I use a purple meditation cushion filled with kapock.  I’ve heard that kapock is a good type of filling for a meditation cushion and I like the exotic nature of it.  I use an app on my Android (I think iPhones have one too) called the Zen Timer.  I love using it because before the age of apps, I had to peek at a clock to see where I was.  This app has chimes that sound like real beautiful chimes and since the sound on the Android is so good, it’s a real pleasure.  You can set it to the time you want to sit, the number of chimes, the style of chime, whether you want to hear a sound half way through, etc.  When you are done, you can type a journal entry and the app automatically logs your sessions so you have a record of when you sit and for how long.  The journal entry is wonderful because just as you finish, you can write a brief sentence that encapsulates something that came up or a feeling about the session.

I’m starting with 18 minutes because the Gematria for “life” is 18.  In mystical Jewish thought, words are translated into numbers and visa versa, showing a deeper meaning.  When you take the Hebrew letters for the word life, and translate their numerical value, it comes out to 18.  So, 18 is considered a lucky number.  And that’s where I’ll start.

It often happens when I’m meditating, that I start thinking of things to add to my to do list.  The temptation is to write these things down, but it interferes with the process.  I just write down the things that come up as long as I remember them when I’m done and I’m happy these things come to mind.  The quiet mind does not lose track of things as easily as the distracted mind.

While I was meditating, in addition to remembering things to do for the day, like check an email address I hadn’t checked in a while,  I had some ideas for this blog. I want to create links to blogs that I think you might like.  Later in the day, I caught myself daydreaming as a I walked down the street and remembered to stay in touch with where I was, to literally ground myself physically and mentally.  That was a good sign because it means that the practice is working beyond the sitting to make me aware, if even for one moment that day, of the fact that I was distracted.

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The 'vegetable garden' at Eden, with Cynara ca...
Image via Wikipedia

I know I should eat more green, leafy vegetables but I’m not a big fan of spinach and the rest seem foreign to me. Quite by accident, the other day, I discovered the wonder of kale, one of the foreign vegetable characters. I was in Garden of Eden, a wonderful little chain of stores in New York City, and saw a package of raw, crispy kale with coconut. I like to keep snacking food in my desk and thought I’d give it a try.

It was outragiously delicious and the best part is that kale is one of the lowest calorie foods you can eat, especially for its nutritional value. Kale is a great source of vitamin K, calcium, Vitamin A and magnesium and has shown to reduce the incidence of cancer.

It’s a shame that apparently has a low p.r.budget because there is no question that it’s combination of great taste and health benefits should make it much more popular.

There are lots of recipes of preparing kale in tasty ways and, take it from someone who is cooking challenged–they are easy. From Whole Foods to Bobby Flay, you’ll find some great, fast and easy ways to eat it.

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The Journal, Explore, is a scientific journal with an editorial board comprised of medical doctors and PhDs from distringuished universities including Harvard, Columbia, and The University of Pennsylvania. What’s surprising are the topics that are discussed with studies that provide evidence for non-traditional healing methods, premonitions and remote viewing.

Other topics that the journal presents include integrative medicine including shamanic and mystical traditions as well as more traditional healing methods such as nutrition and stress relief for improving immune function.

Explore is understandable to a lay person and provides a fascinating look at the esoteric forms of healing from a scientific perspective.

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