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Exercises in Mindfulness Meditation: Part 3 of the Meditation Series
Meditation is a broad range of mental and physical activities that focus on personal development and well-being. Although diverse, the bulk of meditation practices can be broken down into two main methods: concentration methods and insight methods (Bogart, 1991). In concentration methods the practitioner attempts to create sustained attention on a particular object or activity (e.g. a mantra, spiritual energy, etc) and curb attention away from the environment around them. Additionally, they attempt to dismiss distracting thoughts and ideas and maintain focus on their particular activity. In insight meditations the practitioner allows outside thoughts and ideas to enter their awareness and attempt to understand why those thoughts appeared and how they make them feel.
Mindfulness meditation is most closely associated with insight meditations because its purpose is to train the practitioner to detect emotionally stimulating thoughts, and learn how to not react to them. For instance, while meditating, a practitioner might become aware of thoughts about an upcoming deadline for work. Those thoughts may stimulate feelings of anxiousness, stress, or worry. According to mindfulness principles, the practitioner would not dismiss those thoughts, but instead attempt to disentangle their emotional response to those thoughts, and remain detached from them. This is the foundation of mindfulness; to train yourself how not to react emotionally while meditating, and explore thoughts and feelings as they enter your awareness. There are several ways that this principle can manifest itself, and we’ve outlined a few techniques that are commonly used. Each technique requires the practitioner to find a place and time where they won’t be disturbed for a few minutes; as well as be able to sit or lay down comfortably.
Each technique should begin with the practitioner finding a comfortable position, where they won’t be disturbed. Begin by taking slow, deep breaths and slowly letting your thoughts drift.
- BodyScan: In this meditation technique, the practitioner directs attention to parts of their body in a systematic way, focusing on the sensations around that region. For instance, they might begin by focusing their attention on their feet, feeling the sensation of shoes around them, and concentrating on the pressure they feel when the body’s weight is distributed across them. They will often explore these sensations for a few seconds, or until they lose interest, and then move up to another body part. The meditation concludes when a practitioner has either finished exploring the sensations of their body, or they feel that they have accomplished all they had to for the meditation.
- Breathing-Oriented: The breathing technique is more reminiscent of what people might typically consider to be meditation. A practitioner is typically found in a sitting or relaxed position and focuses on their breathing - counting the length of time they take to breathe in, hold the breath, and then breathe out. The physical goal of this meditation technique is to try to extend the amount of time the practitioner takes to breathe. Additionally, the practitioner focuses on the sensations of breathing- feeling the way that air travels through their esophagus and into their lungs, and how it feels leaving the body.
- Mind Wandering: In many ways, the mind wandering technique combines the aspects of the last two techniques, as well as other meditation practices. In mind wandering, the practitioner attempts to cultivate a state of calmness (typically through either breathing or bodyscan exercises) and allow their awareness to drift. As thoughts enter their mind, they gently investigate them, remembering to not react emotionally, and then allow those thoughts to drift away. In many ways, mind wandering is similar to daydreaming. However, unlike daydreaming, mind wandering contains the active component of not reacting to emotionally triggering thoughts and maintaining a state of calmness.
Within each of these techniques, the practitioner attempts to cultivate a state of calmness and focus. But unlike other meditation traditions, mindfulness doesn’t train the practitioner to reprimand themselves when their thoughts wander. Instead, it attempts to train them to learn how to react to these thoughts with awareness, but without emotion. This is the primary function of mindfulness meditation.
Below we have provided a 10 minute example of a mindfulness practice using the BodyScan technique. This audio clip isn’t meant to be instructional, but rather provide an example of what a guided mindfulness meditation practice looks like. If you’d like, follow along with the instructions as they appear in the clip.
Mindfulness meditation is a varied and broad class of meditation practices that attempt to teach practitioners to cultivate a state of calmness and learn how not to react to emotionally triggering thoughts. Though much of the research on mindfulness meditation (as well as our general understanding of it) is still very new, it seems to show promise as a non-invasive and easy technique for breaking down periods of fixating on negative thoughts, and increasing the awareness of a practitioner’s body and environment.
The information presented in this article series is meant to give a broad overview of meditation and mindfulness, and is not meant to be comprehensive or instructional. However, if you’re curious about trying mindfulness meditation for yourself, I suggest that you look to your community to see if there is a local instructor. Or, if you are in a therapeutic setting, ask your therapist or counselor their thoughts on mindfulness meditation and whether it would be beneficial for you.
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Josh is a cognitive scientist, acting as the Research and Evaluation Lead at mindyourmind. He enjoys playing games, recording music, cooking big meals, and bugging his cat Sim.
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