by Michael W. Taft
Mindfulness is awesome because it features a few simple rules that can be recombined to create thousands of different meditation techniques. You could practice a different meditation every day for the next ten years, never repeat yourself, and continuously make progress.
With all that variety, however, it helps your meditation practice if you begin each session in exactly the same way. You want to signal your system that it’s time to meditate, and the optimal way to do that is to always repeat the same set of triggers. Over time you train yourself to recognize the signals that formal meditation practice is beginning, and eventually just experiencing these signals will begin to shift you into a meditative state of awareness. Like Pavlov’s dogs.
The triggers could be anything—bells, candles, incense—but I find the best are some simple activities that jumpstart your mindfulness. They prep you for meditating, whatever the technique is. There are three of these activities: settling into your posture, extending your spine upwards, and relaxing your entire body. I call this series of preparatory activities the “meditation induction.”
Settling into Your Posture — You begin the process by finding your meditation posture. It doesn’t matter which posture you use, as long as you recognize it as your “formal” sitting asana. “Settling” in this case means to find a firm, stable, and sustainable version of the posture. You don’t want to feel like you’re teetering or listing and may fall over, or that your knees are uncomfortable from the first moment. The traditional metaphor for settling into your posture is to “sit like a mountain.” You want to feel that you could sit and not move for a long time, with a sense of great stability.
As you settle in this way, you allow awareness to contact the body sensations associated with sitting in the posture. You feel your butt and thighs touching the chair or cushion beneath you. You feel your knees and your ankles, or any other sensations of sitting. You may also contact a background sense of groundedness or stability.
Extend Your Spine Upwards — The next step is to “come to attention” by extending your spine towards the ceiling. This action has the double effect of both waking you up, and helping you to relax. It wakes you up because straightening your spine signals your nervous system that it’s time to upregulate, to allocate extra resources to wakefulness. There’s a reason we call it coming to attention. As you do this, allow awareness to contact the body sensations of your spine extending and aligning.
Extending the spine upwards also helps you to relax because it opens up the entire lower belly region. When your spine is slumped, it compresses your chest and belly slightly, making it more difficult to breathe. When you straighten up, that compression is released, and you can breathe more deeply and easily. Allow awareness to contact the body sensations of your abdomen relaxing, opening up, finding more space, and breathing more easily.
Somewhat paradoxically, therefore, sitting up straight both wakes you up and relaxes you. That combination is perfect—alert relaxation—and is the beginning of the mindful state. At this point you could say that your body has already begun meditating for you.
Relax Your Entire Body — The final step in the meditation induction is to invite your body to relax. As you feel any muscle relaxing, tune into the sensations of that letting go as clearly as you can. If they feel enjoyable, allow yourself to enjoy them.
Some people are daunted by the word “relaxation,” imagining that it means a feeling like taking oxycontin while getting a massage in a hot tub. But relaxation doesn’t have to be huge or intense. Relaxation can be any feeling that is quiet, soft, small, open, peaceful, unguarded, gentle, or pleasantly neutral. Notice that none of these sensations is “loud” or intense. You’re paying attention to sensations of release and letting go, and these can be very gentle. Nevertheless, by closely paying attention to them, you may also notice that each little release of tension ignites a micro-burst of pleasure. It feels good to relax.
When you complete these three steps, you’re ready to shift gears into your meditation practice. The meditation induction can be something that you do in three seconds, or three minutes, or even thirty minutes. The third step, especially, can be extended into a very thorough body scan of relaxed physical sensations. It’s up to you. Try doing this induction every time you meditate, and you’ll find yourself going deeper more quickly.
photo by Thomas Shahan