Mindful meditation is an insight practice in which a focus anchor is used. The breath, sounds, body sensations, and walking can all be used to anchor our awareness in the present-moment. Basically, that’s what mindful meditation is: bringing full attention to one thing (the attention anchor) in the present moment. By doing so repeatedly and routinely, the body and mind learn to relax and settle into the moment. We call meditation a practice because it takes repetition and commitment.
Just because someone “tried it once” and couldn’t settle their mind doesn’t mean we should give up on meditation. Like any healthy habit, we have to practice to achieve mastery.
All meditation styles use the breath as a concentration anchor. Counting breaths, following the breath through the four cycles (in, pause, out, pause), and simply being aware of the sensation of the breath going in and out of the body. The breath is used as a focus anchor because it is ubiquitous and we can either harness it or just be aware of its natural rhythm.
Other attention anchors would be sound, sensations, body scanning and eventually, open awareness which is where a meditator doesn’t use just one specific anchor. In this practice, we sit and welcome awareness of whatever comes along: investigating and appreciating thoughts, sensations in the body, and feelings / emotions, without attachment or engagement. Just being aware with equanimity and allowing present-moment awareness is a more advanced and freeing practice to which anyone can aspire.
Body scans are an effective way to release tension in the body and mind and are helpful for those who “can’t sit still.” Body scans use breathing and applied focus to release energy within the body in a systematic way.
- The head to toe scan: This body scan takes the practitioner’s attention one area at a time starting with the crown of the head and ending with the toes. It should take about 20 minutes and can take even longer if the practitioner wishes. Starting at the top of the head, using breath and focus, attention is placed on the crown and then moved down the body. With awareness, curiosity and mindfulness feelings or sensations are welcomed. As the body scan progresses, attention is placed one area at a time: the face, forehead, eye area, nose, cheeks, mouth, and chin. The same kind of breathing and focus is placed as attention is moved down the body: back of head; shoulders; chest; mid back, hips, thighs, knees, calves, ankles and feet, ending with the toes.
- The toe to head scan: This body scan is the same as #1 except for the direction of the focus. Starting with toes, attention and breath is directed upward through the legs, abdomen, chest, shoulders, back of head, face, crown.
- Tensing and releasing body scan: This body scan can be effective at helping a person fall asleep as the body parts being focused on are tensed as breath is held and then released as the breath is expelled. The act of alternately tensing and releasing muscles is an effective way to encourage relaxation.
With all these body scans, the key is to go slow and to keep the focus on using breath as an anchor of attention. The mind directs its attention to areas of the body while the breath encourages release of tension and relaxation. Body scans are very effective and can be done any time of the day, including to help induce sleep.
Another mindfulness practice for people who have a hard time sitting still is walking meditation.
In the Zen tradition, walking meditation begins with a very slow walk in which the breath is matched to footsteps. Breathing in when lifting the foot and breathing out when stepping down. After circling around a meditation room a few times, zen meditators generally walk more quickly for a few more rounds, allowing breathing to be natural and bringing the focus on the body. I have done walking meditation more casually during daily exercise walks by placing my awareness on the sensation of my feet on the ground, my breathing and my body. I have also used sounds around me as anchors during the walk, or a mantra or song repeated over and over.
There’s no easier time than right now to explore mindful meditation. During Covid19-pandemic social distancing and isolation, teachers from different meditation lineages are sharing guidance freely and generously. Even the Dalai Lama shares Buddhist teachings and spiritual rituals online. Additionally, there are many mobile apps that offer guided practices and my educational center, Mindful Frontiers, has a YouTube channel with videos for all levels and ages.
Mindful meditation guides us in navigating difficult experiences with calm introspection and balanced outward equanimity. Whether you’ve tried once and couldn’t sit still or you used to meditate and let the practice go, now is a wonderful opportunity to bring hope into our uncertain world. Start here and now; one breath at a time.