Mindful Practice: A Neophyte Buddhist Shares His Story

Mind Full and Mindful

Mind Full and Mindful

I’ve been practicing mindfulness in one form or another off and on for years (reflective humility can constitute mindfulness), but mostly inconsistently–and that’s the one thing that people who want “results” cannot afford to do: practice inconsistently. Nope, it’s only those who practice, practice, practice (consistently) who tend to get results and rewire themselves for their brans for mindfulness. Second, being “solo” and practicing mindfulness on your own can certainly work, but there is a strong argument to be made for self-improvement in a group. After all, we’re wired for the group–it was the only way our ancestors survived and were able to pass down their genes. The planet has evolved to “reward” groups of beings with further existence–those who go it alone, tend to face earlier demise; research backs up this claim:

In one of the recent studies on the health benefits of social relationships, published earlier this year, researchers provided evidence that social ties and increased contact with family and friends are associated with a lower risk of death in young women with breast cancer. Another presented a similar conclusion with respect to surviving heart surgery. What’s more, a 2010 meta-analysis of 148 other studies showed that social connection doesn’t just help us survive health problems: the lack of it causes them. [source: Scientific American]

Loneliness has a wide range of negative effects on both physical and mental health. Some of the the health risks associated with loneliness include Depression and suicide, Cardiovascular disease and stroke, Increased stress levels, Decreased memory and learning, Antisocial behavior, Poor decision-making, Alcoholism and drug abuse, The progression of Alzheimer’s disease, and Altered brain function. All this scary stuff is intuitive: groups of people can help each other in a way that simply trying to help one’s self cannot do.

That’s why I decided to start attending a weekly mindfulness meditation practice in my town–and lean into the discomfort of uncertainty in a group situation.

This was no mean feat, to be honest–after years of thinking I was a social creature (if you met me, you’d see why), but when it comes to actually leaving the house and joining groups of people–especially those I don’t know–that’s a different story. Once I’m in said situation, I’m good to go: garrulous, confident, inquisitive, engaged. But getting there, for me, is most of the battle. So I leaned into my discomfort to start a more consistent practice of mindfulness meditation, left the comfort of my home and headed out into the Vermont night to join strangers in the practice of Buddhist meditation. These occasional entries will address what I feel and think as I go through the process.

The first day of the ancient practice of Vipassana (“see things as they really are”) meditation was eventful, and frankly, I couldn’t help but smile most of the time. The teacher, a kind, patient, experienced and engaging woman who co-founded the Insight Meditation Center, made the process accessible and fun. Each student picked a Zafu (small cushion) and Zabuton (larger cushion) for sitting. After introductions of our small group for why we were there and where we were from, the teacher explained everything that we were going to do throughout the course. A engaging, thoughtful woman, she explained what Buddhism is and what it is is not, and the importance of practice. I felt a kindred connection not just to her, but to the other classmates, as well, right away.

Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein Meditation Kit

After discussing proper sitting positions and and hand placement (comfort comes first!), we engaged in introductory mindfulness meditation exercises: Listening, Breathing, Sensation. Our homework? Read the first chapter of Insight Meditation Kit, by well-known teachers/practitioners Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, create a peaceful, quiet meditation space in our homes, and practice meditation every day. The 1.5 hour class left me refreshed, engaged, and happy. I don’t know about you, but meditation at  home can be challenging sometimes with all the distractions (my dog wondered why I was sitting and came up and licked my face, just to challenge my focus! ;)), but I felt that this meditation class enabled me to be somehow more intentional and focused. For a beginner, I think that’s especially important; perhaps less so for an old hand!

I practiced daily to guided meditations for breathing and sensory awareness, and felt uplifted after each 20 minute session. I admit, it takes getting used to a “new habit,” but that’s exactly what this is–a way to develop a new habit of mindful awareness every day. This isn’t a ritual so much as a mental and emotional lifestyle choice. And the more you do it, as I like to say, the more you do it. There’s also an ethical component (well, many, truth be told…), based on what’s known as the Five Precepts, paraphrased here:

1. Commit not to cause physical harm to anyone.

2. Commit not to take that which is not freely given.

3. Commit not to engage in sexual misconduct (i.e., hurting our selves or others through sexuality)

4. Commit not use the power of speech in hurtful manner; speak truthfully and helpfully.

5. Commit not to keep my mind clear (and avoid intoxicants).

All of these are reasonable and good practices in and of themselves that require only common sense. That said, I do enjoy a glass of wine now and again! 🙂

Next week: walking meditation!

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness


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