Mindfulness Meditation 101: Introduction

What Mindfulness Meditation Does

Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation 

First, here is a little cartoon that I made that lightheartedly dispels any misconceptions that meditation is going to make your life better:

 Chuck Discovers the Truth about Meditation, Peace, and Equanimity

What is mindfulness meditation?

The word “meditation” has become pretty loaded in this culture. For some, it might conjure up images of white-clad yogis sitting and chanting mantras while entering metaphysical altered states. For others, it might mean lying down and deeply relaxing to soothing music. It might mean using visualizations, doing Qigong, or even praying. All of these are perfectly valid forms of meditation, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with them. The Buddha even said that there are 84,000 paths to awakening. (Given the current human population, there are probably even more now.) 

However, what I'm talking about is known as “mindfulness meditation”. In the mind map below, there is a star next to the particular flavor of meditation I'm talking about, just so you have an idea of where the meditation that I teach comes from. 

The image is by no means a complete rundown of every kind of meditation out there; it is heavily biased toward the particular style that I know. So if you're looking for information on, for instance Sufi Muraqaba, you're not going to find much about it because I don't know much about it myself. There is tons of information on the Internet on the other styles of meditation if you'd like to know more.

 Just click on the image to make it bigger.

Mind Map of Types of Meditation, with an emphasis on the Tibetan style of mindfulness meditation



Let’s unpack the word “mindfulness” for a minute, because it has become somewhat of a buzzword and accumulated some baggage along the way. 

Mindfulness is not something you achieve. It is something you already are. It’s like the alertness that you use when walking on ice; you are aware of where you’re putting your feet, but not so absorbed in the act of walking that the rest of the world disappears. You are already mindful; you just need to practice doing it consciously. So mindfulness meditation isn’t going to magically transform you into a new person; unfortunately, it’s a lot more boring than that. Even the Buddha didn’t transform into someone different when he became enlightened. He simply sat and watched his own mind for six years until he remembered who he truly was. 

Sometimes, people hear that the goal of meditation is to stop your thoughts, or to eliminate your ego. This is kind of like trying to keep ants underground; you might be able to fill up one hole in their nest, but as soon as your back is turned, they pop up somewhere else, usually in the form of projecting it onto other people. Carl Jung called this the Shadow. Here's another cartoon about the Shadow: 

So the purpose of meditation isn’t to try and manipulate your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, or any of the other phenomena that arise while you are practicing; it is simply to notice these things,  make them no big deal, and then let them go. If you have an unpleasant sensation – say you smell a bad smell -- you simply notice the smell. If you smell the smell and then get irritated about it, you notice the smell and the irritation. On the other hand, if you notice a pleasant sensation – for instance, recently David and I taught our first Intro to Meditation class, and we had a great time fantasizing about it during our meditation sessions – you simply notice the pleasant thoughts, feelings, and sensations and let them go. This can be quite difficult if what you're thinking about really feels good!


So what IS ego, really? Is ego something you can eliminate? 

Let's differentiate between Freudian “ego”, which is simply the part of our consciousness that controls executive functioning, and the traditional Buddhist interpretation of ego, which is the self-referential thoughts, feelings, stories, and ideas of who we think we are, want to be, want NOT to be,  etc. A good example is mine and David’s daydreams about our meditation class. These are simply mental constructs. They get in the way of experiencing reality as it is, and according to Buddhist tradition are the source of all suffering and confusion. So for clarity, let’s call this the ego-mind.

David observed that the ego-mind is like an irritating little middle man who loves nothing more than to photobomb your experience and then try to convince you that he’s the source of it. There’s even a theory that our egos were an unintended side effect of the development of the human species’ frontal lobes and our ability to reason. If our brains had developed properly, the ego-mind would never have developed at all. At any rate, as you practice mindfulness meditation, it becomes easier and easier to spot the ego-mind when it shows up and take it with a good dose of salt. Garlic salt is best, of course, but sea salt also works nicely.

The benefits of meditation

I am often asked, "so, do you see a return on your investment in meditation?"

Yes, I do, but it might not be in the way that you think. As Chuck and Christy showed us in the cartoon, meditation isn’t going to make your life better; in fact, it’s quite common for new practitioners to say that their lives have gotten WORSE since they started practicing. This isn’t necessarily because things have actually gotten worse; it’s because, as your mind settles and your perception clarifies, you see more things – good things AND bad things.

It’s like someone who is learning to draw portraits. At first, when their subject sits down in front of them, the artist sees two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, and they draw what they think eyes, noses, and mouths look like. The result is a figure that has eyes, a nose, and a mouth, but bears no resemblance to the person sitting in front of them. However, as the artist practices drawing and becomes more skilled, gradually they begin to set aside their stereotypes and actually see the features of their subject, imperfections at all. The resulting figure might not be quite as pretty as the stereotype, but it is more accurate – and inherently more respectful of the person being drawn.

So meditation is about developing the ability to see clearly, to get to know our ego-minds so well that we know their hijinks. We wear away the old, pre-defined scripts that tell us that we must always respond in a certain way to certain things. The flexibility and discernment that is uncovered makes us capable of great creativity. We develop the ability to respond to situations that arise in a way that is logical and appropriate in the moment, not based on past experiences or our assumptions about the future. This ability makes us much more useful to others and to the world.

Is creativity, flexibility, and discernment a benefit? I think it is. And that's why I practice meditation.


Would you like to try out mindfulness meditation for yourself? 

Subscribe to this blog, and you'll be directed to a link where you download a FREE guided meditation audio that will get you started.

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