Mindful meditation is an insight practice in which a focus anchor is used: the breath, sounds, body, walking can all be used for present-moment awareness. Basically, that’s what mindful meditation is: bringing full attention to one thing in the present moment. By doing so repeatedly and routinely, the body and mind learn to relax and settle into the moment. We call meditation a practice because it takes repetition and commitment. Just because someone “tried it once” and couldn’t settle their mind isn’t a reason to give up. Like any healthy habit, we have to practice to achieve mastery.
All meditation styles use the breath as a concentration anchor. Counting breaths, following the breath through the four cycles (in, pause, out, pause), and simply being aware of the sensation of the breath going in and out of the body. The breath is used as a focus anchor because it is ubiquitous and we can either harness it or just be aware of it. The next level of anchors would be sound, sensations, body scanning and eventually, open awareness which is where a meditator doesn’t use one specific anchor. They just sit and welcome awareness of whatever comes along: investigating and appreciating thoughts, sensations in the body, and feelings / emotions, without attachment or engagement. Just being aware with equanimity and allowing present-moment awareness is a more advanced and freeing practice to which anyone can aspire.
I propose that a meditator who is challenged by an active mind (called “monkey mind” in Buddhist teachings) engage in Mettá (loving kindness) and Karuna (compassion) meditation where phrases are recited while visualizing the self, a person or a group of people. Common phrases are: “May (I) you be safe and protected from harm”; “May (I) you be healthy and strong”; “May (I) you welcome joy and gratitude in your heart”; “May (I) you find ease in your daily life.” These are repeated over and over as the heart and mind focus on the words and sensations generated by the phrases.
Body scans are an effective way to release tension in the body and mind and are helpful for those who “can’t sit still.” Body scans use breathing and applied focus to release energy within the body in a systematic way.
- The head to toe scan: This body scan takes the practitioner’s attention one area at a time starting with the crown of the head and ending with the toes. It should take about 20 minutes and can take even longer if the practitioner wishes. Starting at the top of the head, using breath and focus, attention is placed on the crown and then moved down the body. With awareness, curiosity and mindfulness feelings or sensations are welcomed. As the body scan progresses, attention is placed one area at a time: the face, forehead, eye area, nose, cheeks, mouth, and chin. The same kind of breathing and focus is placed as attention is moved down the body: back of head; shoulders; chest; mid back, hips, thighs, knees, calves, ankles and feet, ending with the toes.
- The toe to head scan: This body scan is the same as #1 except for the direction of the focus. Starting with toes, attention and breath is directed upward through the legs, abdomen, chest, shoulders, back of head, face, crown.
- Tensing and releasing body scan: This body scan can be effective at helping a person fall asleep as the body parts being focused on are tensed as breath is held and then released as the breath is expelled. The act of alternately tensing and releasing muscles is an effective way to encourage relaxation.
With all these body scans, the key is to go slow and to keep the focus on using breath as an anchor of attention. The mind directs its attention to the body parts while the breath connects with these parts and encourages release of tension and relaxation. The reason body scans can release and relax is because in meditation, we use the breath as our anchor of attention. As our focus is directed, so does the breath and between attention and breath, the formula leads to relaxation through mindfulness of intention.
Another practice for people who have a hard time sitting still is walking meditation. In the Zen tradition, this practice begins with a very slow walk in which the breath is matched to footsteps. Breathing in when lifting the foot and breathing out when stepping down. After circling around a meditation room a few times, zen meditators generally walk more quickly for a few more rounds, allowing breathing to be natural and bringing the focus on the body. I have done walking meditation more casually during daily exercise walks by placing my awareness on the sensation of my feet on the ground, my breathing and my body. I have also used sounds around me as anchors during the walk, or a mantra or song repeated over and over.
On the whole, there are many meditation practices that guide in navigating difficult experiences with calm introspection and balanced outward equanimity. For this reason, body scans, Mettá and Karuna and walking meditations are calming and soothing to the active mind and can be easily adapted to a active mind and busy lifestyle.