Meditation: Is it always mindful?

Meditation is a term that everyone has heard of, yet few are aware of what it actually entails. Several scientists have attempted to come up with a unified definition for meditation, which has recently been conceptualised as “a form of mental training that aims to improve an individual’s core psychological capacities, such as attentional and emotional self-regulation” (Tang, Hölzel, & Posner, 2015). This, of course, cannot adequately describe all that meditation is.

The most common misconceptions about meditation is that it always involves: 1) sitting cross-legged on a cushion on the floor, 2) with your eyes closed, 3) your hands gently resting on your thighs with your thumb and forefinger touching lightly, and 4) clearing your mind of everything. The first three of these are choices you make when you meditate, while the fourth one is a pure misconception.

In this post, I will briefly discuss meditation and its relation to mindfulness in the current environment. However, I also want to remind my readers that I am a beginner when it comes to meditation myself, and I write, as always, from my specific point of view (about me). You may join me on my journey, while also engaging in your own practice, for everyone’s path is always unique and personal.

It is beyond the scope of this blog to list all the different meditation techniques out there, and also not the purpose of it. Additionally, while meditation may have originated to some extent through spirituality and religion, I will for now focus on meditation practices that have been applied outside of religious situations. Through my academic work on mindfulness, I have come across three types of meditation practices: specific mindfulness techniques, Vipassana, and Zen.

Vipassana and Zen meditations originate from Buddhism, and thus inevitably contain an important focus on mindfulness. Zen meditation includes various types of practices, which increase in difficulty with experience of the meditator. The first meditation often practiced by novice meditators is Su-soku, where the practitioners count their breath to sustain focused attention. This type of meditation is often used in mindfulness meditation as well, where practitioners sustain their attention on their breath, or the still-point between breaths, and bring their mind back to this every time it wanders. On the other spectrum of difficulty, more advanced Zen meditators practice Shikantaza, where an object of concentration is omitted, and practitioners remain simply aware of the present experience.

Vipassana meditation stems from the Theravada tradition, and entails mindful breathing, as well as an open awareness of bodily and external sensations. In this sense, mindfulness is deeply rooted in all meditation practice, through open monitoring of sensations and thoughts that arise, and focused attention on an object, the breath, or simply the present moment. However, in true Buddhist traditions, mindfulness would not be used as a separate component and practiced alone. Rather, mindfulness is integrated within a complete spiritual system of meditation practices, ways of engaging with the world, and ways of understanding reality.

In modern psychology, mindfulness has gone beyond a component of traditional meditation practices, and is used in a variety of mindfulness-based interventions, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (Vipassana oriented), Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (Zen oriented), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. As I have mentioned in a previous blog post, mindfulness-based interventions have been applied somewhat successfully to treat a wide range of psychological disorders. However, they have also been modified to fit the current psychological context, and the roots of mindfulness have been severed along the way. Moreover, not all mindfulness-based interventions include meditation practice as part of their treatment content. Mindfulness is in its essence a skill, if not a state of being, and it must be practiced to develop. This can only truly be achieved with formal meditation practice that has some basis in the origins of mindfulness.

This is not to say that one must be religious in order to practice mindfulness, and there are a wide variety of meditation techniques available, including: Hatha yoga, breathing meditations, sitting meditations, Vipassana, Zazen, and many variations of them. Additionally, there are a variety of informal mindfulness exercises one can do, some of which are listed in “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hanh: half-smiling upon awakening, doing dishes/ drinking tea/ doing chores mindfully and deliberately, the pebble meditation, slow-motion bathing, deep breathing, following your breath, and many more.

Finally, there are many ways in which you can meditate, including: different sitting or lying positions, different locations, different hand positions (mudras), different surfaces, with eyes closed or open, focusing on your breath or an object, or simply being aware of the present experience. Most importantly, the purpose of meditation is not to clear your mind of all thoughts, as this is practically impossible, but rather to notice when the mind wanders and gently bring it back over and over again. From my point of view, meditation should always be done mindfully, and mindfulness practice should always include meditation.

Articles for further reading: 

Embodied Mindfulness

Yoga and Mindfulness

Zen Meditation

Mindfulness-Based Approaches



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