Since returning to the practice of counseling and therapy I’ve begun to develop an approach to working with people that uses mindfulness practice and meditation in a systematic way. Its begun to take shape as a four step process which first involves creating space for ourselves then using mindfulness to become aware of thoughts, feelings and behaviors. With this awareness the next aspect is identifying, accessing and feeling frozen or stuck emotional energy so as to release it. Following this, one is more able to connect with and access a deeper level of consciousness to find greater peace and happiness.
In order to get in touch with our experience in a more direct way I usually suggest to people that they create some sort of sacred space at home that they can use to spend quality time with themselves. Having a personal sacred space is a very powerful thing to create because it is a place to let go of the roles and dramas of everyday life and just be. This space should be peaceful and set to some degree away from the rest of the living space. It should be created with objects and images that remind one of peace and stillness and whatever one finds sacred. Creating it is a very personal experience. Once a sacred space has been created we can begin to spend time in it with ourselves, something much of our culture is designed to distract us from. This time initially should be unstructured without any kind of expectation or agenda and it can just be a regular time each day to be with ourselves. Here we can just sit and reflect or we can do some activity that grounds us and brings us peace but doesn’t distract us in a way that takes us away from the moment. Such an activity could be journaling, making art, listening to peaceful music or anything else that reflects who we are rather than who we should be. The creation and use of this kind of space is also a way to bring meaning back into our lives if we are feeling disconnected from ourselves and overwhelmed by life, it is a sanctuary.
Once a sacred space has been created and we have begun to spend some time in it each day we can introduce a mindfulness practice which is basically just being intentionally aware of what we are doing, thinking and feeling in the present moment. This sounds very simple but it can be quite challenging at first and also quite profound because we may not be aware of how much of our experience occurs unconsciously or without much awareness. If we are wanting to change our lives or experience we will not have much success doing that if the causes of our difficulties are unconscious so we need to start off by making more and more of our experience conscious. I usually ask people to start by being aware of their environment focusing on the sounds, smells, sights and sensations they experience as they sit in their personal space. Then we can add the body focusing on how our body feels and noticing all its nuances. Next we can start noticing our thoughts and feelings, the keyword here is noticing we just want to be aware of what’s happening at this point without judgment or shame regardless of the content. From here we can focus our awareness even more and bring it to something such as the breath.
Breathing meditation is a basic yet very powerful mindfulness practice. The breath is always available and is always connected to both the body and mind in the present moment. To practice breathing meditation we begin by sitting on a chair or cushion in a position that is comfortable but allows us to keep the back as straight as possible. Keeping the back straight enables our energies to flow more easily and aids in concentration however we can use support cushions or something else if needed because we want to balance that with comfort so we are not too distracted by pain. Once we have a comfortable sitting position we rest our hands in our lap or on our knees and tilt the head slightly forward while we rest our gaze on the floor a few feet in front of us. At this point we slowly bring our awareness from our environment to our body and try and let go of any tension we may be feeling. When we are ready we bring our awareness to our breath at first just being aware of the flow of the breath in and out. Next we pick a specific point to use to focus our attention. This could be the tip of the nose and the sensation of the air moving past it or it could be the rising and falling of the abdomen or some other area. The important thing is that you pick one place to pay attention to the breath that feels right to you and you stick with that place for the duration of the mediation.
To do the practice we now keep our attention on the breath at the place we chose. If we find it difficult or the breath too subtle to focus on we can mentally say “breathing in” when we breath in and “breathing out” when we breath out to help our awareness stay on the breath. Naturally our attention is going to wander and we will get distracted by thoughts, feelings and external distractions. This is perfectly normal so when we find that our attention has wandered from the breath we simply and gently place it back on the breath without any kind of judgment. This is a key part of the practice, focusing-realizing we are distracted-putting our attention back on the breath. Over time we will be able to remain focused for longer periods and the distractions will lose strength. When we have finished it is good to slowly allow ourselves to come out of the meditation by bringing our awareness back to our body in general and then to the environment and slowly rising from the cushion.
Initially it is good to do this practice for short periods of time and not to force the process but keep it light and gentle yet with intention. The most important thing with meditation practice is consistency; it is effective if its done regularly over a long period of time and the effects are cumulative. Ideally a short period everyday at the same time will eventually establish it as a pattern. You can work up to longer periods as you become used to the practice but its good to try and always finish a session when you still feel fresh so you will want to come back to it. One common misconception about this kind of meditation is that it is designed to help us stop thinking. This is not the case at all because directly trying to stop thinking is rarely effective and usually results in frustration. Instead we allow ourselves to have any thoughts or feelings that come up without any judgment. We however don’t give them our attention; instead we place our attention on the breath while the mind continues to do what it will. If we get distracted we return to the breath. Over time thoughts and other internal distractions will slow down on their own due to the lack of attention paid to them. Another obstacle people commonly run into is feeling like they can’t do the practice because of the state of mind they are in. If one is feeling angry or anxious its easy to feel like we can’t meditate or like we can’t sit still but this is often because we feel like we need to change our state of mind or we have judgment on ourselves for feeling such things. When these states of mind come up the solution is to accept them and allow them to arise, we simply practice where we are without trying to change it.
Once we have begun doing mindfulness practice and developing our concentration by focusing on the breath or some other object we can use that skill to go more deeply into our experience. In the practice we will begin to notice what’s happening in the mind, our thought processes and emotional patterns. Often people especially struggle with certain emotions that cause them suffering or discomfort such as depression, anger or anxiety. These emotional patterns can be caused by past traumas, conditioning and experiences that created an emotional response that was not fully felt and healed. We all carry such stuck emotional energy and it usually exists buried in the unconscious where it wreaks havoc on our experience and health without our conscious control. In my view, emotional energy is a free flowing aspect of life in the moment. It is energy that needs to flow freely as we engage life and have emotional experiences generated by it. If we carry significant amounts of stuck or frozen emotional energy the free flow is blocked and we are not able to fully experience life but rather we consistently re-experience the stuck emotional pattern. Our resistance to feeling these so called negative emotions openly is what keeps them stuck as does our judgment and shame for having them. We continually re-solidify them in this process rather than releasing them.
In our practice when we are feeling negative emotions we can apply our meditation technique to them in such a way as to facilitate their release. We do this by first being aware of the emotion using mindfulness. Then we give the emotion space and permission to fully arise while we make it the focus on our meditation practice much the way we did with the breath. We place our awareness on the emotion we are experiencing and allow it to arise fully. As we begin to feel it we can bring consciousness to the experience by understanding we are intentionally inviting the emotion to arise and seeking to release it. The only way to release it however is to fully allow ourselves to feel it and cease labeling it as problematic. During this process it is also important to bring in compassion for ourselves by realizing that we are human and feeling this hurts and that it’s natural for us to have these reactions but we don’t have to hold onto them anymore. In this way we can begin to more fully and openly feel our experience and break through the pattern of avoiding feeling certain unpleasant emotions while we chase after and try to grab onto pleasant ones. It becomes a process of accepting what is in the moment and allowing it to flow.
As we develop more mindfulness and awareness and learn to openly feel our experience allowing it to be what it is we can begin to access a deeper level of consciousness. This level of consciousness you could call your higher self, or inner nature or your truth. Whatever you label it, it is a deep level of consciousness that is unaffected by external situations and by internal states of mind. Its nature is clarity, joy, power and peace. This is the internal ground of being and is the ultimate source of happiness described in all the major religions and mystical systems. Ultimately this is what we need to get in touch with to find happiness, freedom and peace because the source of those things is within us and not generated by anyone or anything externally. By practicing mindfulness and meditation and learning to focus our awareness and by clearing away emotional baggage we open the door to this level of being because it is always there in the moment if we can learn to pay attention properly. The more we cultivate it the more power we will realize in our life and the more we will be able to create what we want and realize our full potential.