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What exactly is meditation? What’s mindfulness? And what’s the difference?

You know, I thought I knew what meditation was until I sat down to write this.

And okay, I do know what it is, but it’s actually quite hard to define in a way that both considers all the nuances and lineages, and keeps it simple.

So here goes!

What is Meditation?

Meditation is a process.

A process of giving ourselves time out. Not the kind of time out where we zone out, but the kind where we zone in.

A process that pushes pause on our habitual way of doing things and interrupts habitual, automatic thinking.

A process of discovery and contemplation; that develops awareness of ourselves, of others and of the nature of things. 

A process that is both ancient and modern, secular and spiritual, and scientific.

A process with countless techniques and perspectives but only one whose counts — our own.

A process which in the end isn’t a process at all — but a way of being.


So, what do you think? Did I explain it well?

Ha! 

Okay, so that’s a broad, somewhat philosophical or esoteric definition of meditation. 

You’re probably still thinking, but Rebecca, what exactly IS meditation? Like really.

How about this?

Meditation is a process of resting one’s attention on an object or experience, either chosen or received, to develop awareness of our inner and outer worlds and qualities such as calm, clarity and connectedness.

MEDITATION — the WHO, WHAT AND WHY

Is that better? I think this definition likely encapsulates most fundamental ideas about what meditation is. It’s the “who”, the “what” and the “why” that delineates all the different traditions and practices.

For example:

As a Buddhist, you might take time out to rest your attention on well-wishes towards others for the purpose of developing compassion for all beings.

As a Christian, you might take time out to rest your attention on prayer for the purpose of deepening your connection to God.

As a Yogi, you may take time out to rest your attention on your breath for the purpose of experiencing the interconnectedness of everything.

As a Muslim, you might take time out to rest your attention on Allah’s name for the purpose of growing your relationship with Him.

As a practitioner of Vedic or Transcendental Meditation (TM), you may take time out to rest your attention on a mantra for the purpose of transcending thought.

As a New Thought (Law of Attraction) practitioner, you may take time out to rest your attention on a visualisation for the purpose of manifesting a desire into physical existence.

And

As a secular Mindfulness practitioner, you may take time out to rest your attention on your sensory experience for the purpose of being present for your life.

This list is just a small representation of who meditates, what they focus on and why they do it. The permutations and combinations are really endless!

What is Mindfulness?

So, while we’ve landed here on mindfulness, let’s dig a little deeper into what it is.

Mindfulness could be considered the modern definition of meditation relevant to Western, secular (non-religious/spiritual) culture.

In other words, you practice meditation not because you want to grow your connection with God, but because you want to calm down, relieve stress and be happy. (I’m over-simplifying things here, but hopefully, you get the gist.)

If we revisit my definition from earlier — that meditation is a process of resting one’s attention on an object or experience, either chosen or received, to develop awareness of our inner and outer worlds and qualities such as calm, clarity and connectedness — it would equally apply to mindfulness

To simplify again, you could say that:

Mindfulness is observing and accepting your experience while you are experiencing it.

MINDFULNESS OF EVERYTHING AND ANYTHING

To be mindful means you are aware of what’s happening in real-time. It doesn’t require you to be “meditating” (as in, the typical notion of sitting down with your eyes closed.) You can be mindful while doing anything — from breathing to performing surgery and everything in between.

EXAMPLE: MINDFUL DRIVING

For example, when driving to work mindfully, you are aware of the sensation of the steering wheel underneath your grip; you observe all the sights outside like other cars, trees and buildings and you are aware that you’re planning out your day’s to-do list in your head.

This is in contrast to arriving at work and not remembering one thing about the journey there.

Sound familiar?

ANOTHER EXAMPLE: MINDFUL SOCIAL MEDIA

Or, you’ve just seen a friend post something on social media that you find utterly offensive. You observe and (try to!) accept the surge of heat that rises up through your body and into your face; you feel the powerful emotions of shock, disgust and anger present in different ways through your body and surprisingly, you also detect the tone of self-righteousness in your own thoughts. 

Instead of firing off a venomous public comment that sparks even more hate, blocking your friend from social media and deciding that your friendship is done, you send your friend a private message to say, hey, did you know that what you wrote could be taken quite offensively, and here’s why? And you decide where to take things from there.


The point of mindfulness is to increase the richness of our experience by being present for all the little things, and decrease our reactivity to people and circumstances.

In other words, with mindfulness, you give yourself a pause. A space to appreciate the beauty of life on one hand, and on the other, an opportunity to respond to life in a way you won’t regret.

What is Mindfulness Meditation?

To get better at being mindful of everything and anything (i.e. the present moment!), you can practice it in meditation, either as spot meditations dotted throughout the day or in a more formal way at a particular time, in a particular place.

As I noted earlier, there are countless techniques to try, even within the subset of Mindfulness, however, the one thing that seems to define mindfulness over other types of meditation is that you are resting your attention on your sensory experience.

By sensory experience, I mean the experience you have through one or more of the six senses: Hearing, Touch, Sight, Smell, Taste and Thinking.

(In Buddhism — where mindfulness originates — the activity of thinking is regarded as a sense. This is so important, because the aim of mindfulness meditation is not to try and stop your thoughts.)

As a beginner, you could approach this in a couple of ways:

1. Narrow — Focused Attention

Probably the most instructed method for someone dipping their toes into mindfulness meditation is to start narrow, by choosing one of the six senses to engage with for say, 2 minutes at first and building up from there.

For example:

Hearing. Rest your attention on all the sounds around you. Accept the sounds with kindness and curiosity.

“Welcome, Sounds. Oh really? That’s interesting.”

Touch. Rest your attention on a physical sensation like your breath or the touch of a body part. Accept it with a gentle curiosity. 

“Hello, Breath. Hello, Body. I didn’t realise how interesting you were.”

Sight. Rest your attention on what you can see with your eyes open. Accept the sights with an attitude of wonder.

“Welcome, all you Sights. Ohh, so interesting.”

Smell. Rest your attention on any fragrances or odours you can detect. Accept these smells with fascination.

“Come in, Smells. I accept and understand you a little better now.”

Taste. Rest your attention with the flavours in your mouth, either while eating or simply as it is. Accept and notice the flavours.

“Ohh, Taste, you are so interesting!” 

Thinking. Rest your attention on your thoughts as they come and go. Note them. Accept them. With kindness and curiosity. 

“You are welcome here, Thoughts. Come and go as you please. There’s plenty of space here for all of us.”


With one of these “objects” of meditation selected, use it as your “home base”; as your “lighthouse” for reorienting yourself after your attention has been called elsewhere for a period of time.

The idea is to develop concentration, understanding, clarity and acceptance by repeatedly remembering this one sense experience.

2. Broad — Open Awareness

Alternatively, you can zoom right out in a technique known by a few names: open awareness, open monitoring or bare attention. Here, you allow your attention to shift between all of the sense experiences, noting whichever is most dominant, moment by moment.

In this context your practice might sound internally something like:

Hello, breath.
Ooh hello, sound.

Hi there, itch.
Itch.
Itch.

Welcome, thoughts.
Hello, frustration.

Hello, restlessness.
Hi, again sound!
TV.
TV.

Etc!

Which is best?

It’s not for me to say which of these approaches is best for beginners or indeed any level meditator. Some beginners will enjoy having the simplicity and structure of just one thing to rest their attention on. (Focused Attention.) Others will prefer a more relaxed, hands-off approach that says just follow whatever sensory experience is dominant moment by moment. (Open Awareness.)

When I was first starting out several years ago, I tried the “single-pointed” attention method because that’s what was presented to me in a book. Who knows whether that was the right way for me to start? I’ll never know!

Meditation as an Umbrella Term

As we circle back on meditation as a broad concept, another way meditation has been described is as an “umbrella term” for a whole variety of practices and traditions, much like the broad category “sport.”

But I’m not so much into sports! So I like to think of this as a different umbrella term:

Cooking!

In cooking, there are cuisines — for example, Italian, Mexican and Thai (yum) — which can be likened to some of the major meditation traditions — for example, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian.

In cooking, there are also recipes — instructions that combine ingredients and methods together for the purpose of creating the dish.

In meditation, there are thousands of “recipes” or techniques.

  • Some “family recipes” have been handed down from generation to generation, preserved for their history and authenticity. (Om, Breath Counting, Loving-Kindness.)
  • Other recipes are modern fusions, borrowing an ingredient from here and a method from over there to keep things fresh, interesting and relevant.
  • And then there’s the cooking you do when you open up the fridge, see what’s in there and make it up as you go. (Open Awareness or Bare Attention).

Much like the food you eat, there are endless flavours to explore and try until you land on something you enjoy.

But it’s not all about how delicious it tastes.

THE NUTRITIONAL VALUE OF MEDITATION

Just like the ingredients you use in cooking have different nutritional and sensory values, so do different meditation practices.

So, in the same way you reach for different foods for comfort (pasta), bliss (ice cream!), or relaxation (tea), in meditation, you could sit down with a guided visualisation of the ocean or forest for a similar response.

On the other hand, there are the foods that you eat because they are good for you – even though the initial flavour is gross and hard to swallow (your greens.) Similarly, there are meditations, like mindfulness, that ask you to look within; to examine something matter-of-factly even if it brings up emotional discomfort. 

And no, we don’t want to eat only greens all day long without the enjoyment of a bit of chocolate here and there, but neither do we want to overindulge in cheese and wine without also fuelling our bodies with healthy stuff.

As you grow into a more mature meditator, you come to love eating your “greens” as much as you do “chocolate.”

Conclusion

How did I do? I hope this exploration of meditation and mindfulness has been as illuminating for you as it was for me. If nothing else, then, some food for thought!

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Body Scan

Unwind from stress with this grounding body scan meditation

Thinking harder doesn’t solve problems. Creating headspace does.

This working from home bizzo has seen the English language adopt a new phrase: Zoom fatigue. And with a sample size of me, I concur – this sh*t is real! From work and homeschooling to catchups with family and friends, our screentime has ballooned (as has my waistline) and my eyes have never been so stingy and dry.

Zoom fatigue is real! But not with my new glasses.

And that’s just the physical side effects. Without the twice-daily commute and alone time in the car, I’ve definitely noticed, come 5pm, my head is so chock-full with thoughts, tasks and deadlines I can barely string together a sentence.

It’s at this point I realise the alarm bells have been ringing for some time but I’ve only just bothered to look up and see what the fuss is. Oh yeah.

GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD.

But if we’re not in our heads, then where can we be? Here, in our body. Back down on Earth.

Here’s a grounding body scan meditation you can try to relax, unwind and clear that mental mud. xx

Gravity

– MEDITATION –

Grab your headphones, settle in and enjoy.


Hello.

Get yourself set up, nice and comfortable, wherever it is that you are.

MOVEMENT

Perhaps doing some gentle stretches to start things off. Tilting the head from side to side. Feeling the lovely stretch up the sides of the neck. Rolling the shoulders backwards three or four times… and then forwards.

And if it doesn’t feel too odd, try rocking your body; gently swaying from side to side as a way of preparing for stillness.

And if you’re laying down then you might like to move your hands and feet in a circular motion a few times one way and a few times another.

Just feeling into what the body is experiencing with these gentle movements.

And when you’re ready just becoming centred and still, readjusting yourself into your preferred meditation position.

BREATH

So, I invite you to make contact with the breath now.

Taking a deep refreshing inhalation… and a long cleansing exhalation.

Really feeling the chest open up and expand as the oxygen comes into the lungs. And allowing gravity to pull your muscles downward as you expel all the air out of the body.

Repeating that a few more times. Breathing in that energising in-breath. And on the out-breath allowing the body, and the muscles, to sink further and further towards the earth, allowing gravity to do its thing.

BODY SCAN

In times of stress, busyness or anxiety, feeling grounded and supported by the earth can help us relax, unwind and give us the headspace to navigate difficult situations.

And so, with your breathing returned to its natural state, what might be helpful now is to visit each part of the body and consciously invite gravity to connect it down with the earth.

We’ll start with the most obvious place: the feet. For as Thich Nhat Hanh said, it’s the feet that kiss the earth every time we walk.

Allowing the feet to sink into the floor, imagining if you can, or getting a sense that, they are rooted into the earth.

Then, feeling the underside of the thighs and the bottom making contact with your cushion or the chair… Allowing gravity to draw this base towards the earth, creating a sturdy and solid foundation. Feeling supported by the earth.

Moving upward a little to the pelvis and stomach. Allowing these body parts to yield to gravity. Taking a breath and letting the tummy hang loose. Giving permission for everything to relax and soften and be supported by your base. Your foundation.

As you’re sitting here breathing, you may be able to detect the ribs and the chest expanding and contracting. Moving in and out. So, on the exhale, as the chest contracts, let the gravity centre you, and root you further towards the earth. Imagining that out-breath is like a chord travelling downward, plugging into the earth, like a tether.

So, next, we’ll move up to the shoulders and the arms and surrender these to gravity. Letting them hang and drop, very comfortably and loose.

And finally, reaching the head and the neck. Noticing if there’s any tension… in temples, the jaw, the eyes. The neck.

Allowing the shoulders to support the neck and the head.
Allowing the chest and the ribs to support the shoulders and the arms.
Allowing the pelvis and the tummy to support the chest and the ribs.
Allowing the legs, the buttocks and the feet to support the pelvis and the tummy.
And allowing the earth to support your entire body.

Feeling that gravity attract you further down. Down, down, down towards the earth. The earth that is here to support you. And gravity that’s holding you here in place.

CHECK-IN

So, have a little check-in with the breath, once more. Perhaps, for you, it’s flowing a little more freely now. Or maybe it’s not and that’s okay. Whatever your experience, is completely valid. It will be different every time you meditate.

So, for now, I’ll leave you to go on with your own unguided practice and finish up in your own time.

See you next time.

Articles

6 things I’m doing to self-isolate from negative thinking during coronavirus

SOME TIPS ON SURVIVING LOCKDOWN DURING COVID-19

1. Writing a gratitude journal

Okay, so I’m not doing this the old-fashioned way, putting pen to paper inside a padlocked diary or anything. I’m doing it via Instagram and Facebook stories, which for me is way more fun and it also helps me tick off tip number three, below.

I have found this to be really, really helpful. And because I’m publishing mine to social media, it’s keeping me accountable to show up every day and think of at least one thing that’s bought a smile to my face, even for just a moment.

I know I’m in a much better position than so many that have been affected by coronavirus. My family and I all have our health. We have a home. My husband and I have our jobs. We all have each other. I can’t compare any suffering I’ve felt the past few weeks with that of so many others.

But I truly believe this gratitude practice has kept me from turning to the dark side of a spiral of negative thinking. So I’m keeping it going indefinitely.

2. Meditating, obviously

Ha! This goes without saying. But actually, when COVID hit, my meditation practice went AWOL. It was temporarily replaced with obsessive news-watching, social-media checking and phone calls with friends.

Thankfully, my meditation group was able to move online pretty quickly, and now that the dust has settled a little (and toilet paper’s not such a hot commodity), I’ve found my practice is returning and I’m remembering how bloody good it feels.

Here are a 10 meditations that may help ease coronavirus anxiety:

3. Creating more than I consume

This one’s hard. The urge to watch news and check social media can be fierce! But I know how I feel in my body if I’ve consumed too much Instagram or Facebook. I know how it feels to have sat around watching news report after news report.

On the other hand, creating is so much more rewarding. It doesn’t need to be artistic. It can be cooking, making, planning, problem-solving, caring, building, entertaining, practising or inspiring – doing these things yourself instead of watching others do it on YouTube.

My family and I are currently doing what ScoMo said we all should: stay home and do puzzles. This thousand-piece patience tester will hopefully end up the Lion King motif it is meant to.

4. Moving my body

Another thing I’m SO grateful is that my hubby has become the family PT! He’s had us out doing laps of the local oval, riding bikes, walking, shooting hoops and doing circuit training at home. Our very own PE Joe!

My Pilates studio has also recorded these YouTube workouts which is great (and my pelvic floor thanks me.)

5. Connecting with others

Even though we can’t see each other like we used to, how amazing is technology!? It’s not quite the real thing to catch up with friends and family over Zoom, but it’s a pretty decent substitute. We may not be able to have a change of scenery but these FaceTime catch-ups make all the difference.

6. Limiting news coverage

I’ve never been a big consumer of news. Anything important that I need to know has always managed to find me. I’ve probably watched more news in the past few weeks than I have in 12 months. Even so, I’m still limiting my news intake to once per day, and it’s usually via The Project.

I’d love to hear your tips for staying sane during COVID-19. Share your ideas in the comments below!