To set one thing straight right from the beginning, mindfulness is a type of meditation, or more accurately, a meditation technique. There are many ways to meditate, but it seems to be true that for the western mind, the mindfulness approach often seems to work the best. I also suppose that mindfulness may be considered a very down-to-earth approach, as opposed to other more spiritual practices, some of which might be just a bit too esoteric, and for that reason mindfulness is more accepted, or for some more acceptable.
As to what meditation is, the good thing about it, is that meditation is about DOING NOTHING. You don’t meditate to DO something, you meditate to, exceptionally, take the time to do nothing and just OBSERVE whatever it is, that is already there (your breath for example, the noises around you, whatever feelings that you might have at that moment, aches you might feel in your body etc.) And you may read this and think that this sounds silly or simple, but you have to believe me that doing nothing is extremely difficult for most people.
And to add to this, when you practice mindfulness, you must also practice ACCEPTANCE, which means paying attention to your thoughts or feelings without judging them, without labelling them as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ thoughts or feelings. And again, not judging is something that for us, western people, and especially for people around here – called to make decisions every day – goes so much against how we usually operate.
And a last and, for me, incredibly important aspect of meditation is that it helps you get in touch with the present moment. Studies have shown that we spend most of our time (around 80%, I think) in thoughts connected to the past, events that have already happened, or the future, which has not happened yet. And some wise mind said that this is indeed a pity, if we take into account that all we’ll ever really have is the PRESENT moment. And that’s exactly what you’ll miss by being somewhere else in your head when the present moment happens.
How do you do meditation?
To meditate or to practice mindfulness it is best to sit up straight (either on a cushion or on a chair). Sitting makes it easier to really concentrate and focus and helps ensure you don’t fall asleep. Closing the eyes will allow for a better focus and then there are different ‘tricks’ that will help disconnect from the ‘super-computer’, namely the mind, and connect to the body. The most accessible and easiest one is to bring the attention to the breath.
Breathing is the most natural thing one can do, it does not require any effort, so one doesn’t DO breathing, one just breathes, that’s why observing the breath is such a widespread mindfulness technique. And just in case you think I must be nuts, try for 30 seconds to see how awfully difficult it is, to just close the eyes and instead of allowing 1000 thoughts to cross the mind, pay attention to the breath – from the moment the air comes in through the nose, to the moment it goes to the lungs and is then exhaled.
That is a tiny example of how to meditate.
Why are you meditating? How did you start? Or why?
I was reading a biography about Leonard Cohen and there I heard for the first time in my life about zazen meditation. This guy had an extraordinary life. A part of it, 7 years to be exact, he spent in a zen monastery somewhere outside Los Angeles. So I wanted to see what that was all about and went to a zazen meditation centre in Brussels. I think that if I were to have asked for the most difficult meditation technique, I would have been definitely sent there, but I knew nothing about it at that time. In zazen you sit for quite a while (in the dojo where I went for 2 hours with a small break where you meditate and walk) and you have hardly any guidance to tell you what to do with your attention, which, I think, makes it difficult for the beginner.
After that I encountered Ivan Bel, the meditation teacher I then asked to come and offer classes in DG HOME and with whom I have now learned different meditation techniques and realized, for myself, that in the end, you can make of this technique, putting your attention to whatever happens now, a way you live. But it is still extremely difficult and I am happy I still have many years ahead of me to practice what I now preach!
Who should try meditation and why?
Everybody can try it of course, but I think the most beneficial attitude towards it is to be open and curious. Because, if you really want something out of it, if you want to fix something or if you think that the meditation will fix you, then you might have more troubles getting to the core of this all, which is in the end a state where you are able to see what it is, to accept it and even to enjoy it.
As it is a practice, an exercise, you should not have too many expectations that something incredible will happen the first time you try it. So surely you don’t come in as you and leave as the Dalai Lama at the end of the class. As the purpose of the exercise itself is that nothing specific happens but that you train your ability to pay attention to what is there in exactly that moment, you will probably only notice after a while that this ability, to take a step back, observe and not judge is a great tool, a gift you give to yourself.
As to the benefits of practicing meditation/mindfulness, there are by now many studies that show the positive effects of a regular practice. I will only name a few of these positive effects, which are for me linked to our working environment: it increases positive emotions while reducing negative emotions and stress, it boosts the immune system, it changes the brain – it increases the density of grey matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation and empathy, it helps one become more focussed, it fosters compassion and altruism.
And if this does not speak to you yet, I’ll bring an observation from our working environment.
Do you have colleagues that come to a meeting and while they are supposed to talk and listen to you, they also check continuously their phones and have another file on the side they also ‘read’? I would say that a practitioner of mindfulness would wonder to what these persons are really present, focused and engaged? Is it in the conversation with you, is it in the exchange with their phones, or with their other files? I think that it is a wrong message that was sent that the busier you look, the better achiever you are. One can only do, really do, one thing at a time. Someone who thinks or tries to personify the opposite is nowhere, he/she is not present in the conversation you are having with them, and I don’t think they do justice to their emails or their other files either.