Mindfulness refers to the feeling of a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, physical sensations, and environment. It’s a practice that can help us learn to regulate emotions and decrease stress and anxiety. It’s a state of mind. When you’re mindful, you’re not “stuck in your head” or “lost in your thoughts.” You’re focused on the moment at hand, without all the chatter and concern for the future or the past.
Learning to Meditate
Clients who are interested in using mindfulness to help deal with stress and anxiety often start with meditation. It’s the most familiar of the mindfulness practices. Learning to meditate is not easy, although it seems like it should be. You’re just sitting there doing nothing, right? It makes sense, but once we try to meditate, we realize it’s not that easy to do nothing. The pace of modern life, with all its responsibilities and expectations, as well as our own evolution-shaped brains trained to analyze past experiences and anticipate future ones, are in direct opposition to the concept of meditation. I find that the more overwhelmed I feel by my to-do list, the more I feel recharged by the experience of a good meditation session. It can be a wonderful practice once you find a way to do it that suits you.
There are a variety of styles of meditation. There’s mindfulness meditation, progressive relaxation, Transcendental Meditation, Kundalini yoga, Zen meditation, and many others. There are also apps like Headspace and Insight Timer that can provide a framework that is user-friendly and takes advantage of technology to facilitate the experience. The reality is that there are as many ways to meditate as there are people who meditate. This can make it difficult when you’re starting out, trying to find an entry point among so many choices to start your own meditation practice. It took me a long time to develop the style that suits me best. Much of that time was spent trying different practices, not enjoying them, and then feeling like I was failing to do them correctly, and then feeling bad about that. If this is similar to your experience, I would encourage you to keep trying and keep experimenting, until you find a way that works for you. That’s what I did.
When I meditate, my goal is to be in the moment, meaning to be aware of the environment around me. More specifically, my goal is to not think about the past or the future—things like what I’m going to cook for dinner, whether I should have chosen a different major in college, or how much my estimated taxes for the second quarter are going to be. I like to imagine these thoughts as pebbles tossed into the pool of my mind, and the goal is to stop tossing those pebbles. One of the ways I do this is by hearing the ticking clock.
The Ticking of the Clock
I sit on my couch in my living room when I meditate. As I start my session I can hear the birds outside chirping and the low hum of traffic passing on the street. I focus on these sounds, breathing slowly and deeply through my nose. There is some back and forth between my mind and my thoughts, as my mind tries to focus on the moment while my thoughts race around trying to distract me. Then I hear something that’s always there but I hardly ever notice: the ticking of the clock hanging on the wall.
It’s your standard black-and-white IKEA clock. When I notice the ticking sound, I’m always a little surprised. This is a sound that happens every second of every day, at the same volume, a volume at which I can clearly hear in the moment. Yet, during the rest of my day, I don’t hear it. Most of the time it’s because there are other sounds that drown it out. Sometimes it’s because the thoughts in my head drown it out. But it’s always there, whether I hear it or not. This ticking sound represents the moment. And most of the time, my mind is too busy thinking about other things to notice it. But by focusing on the ticking sound during meditation, I find myself in the present. I’m not thinking about what happened in the past, or what might happen in the future. I’m focused on being here right now, and the ticking clock reminds me of this.
And then, of course, my mind starts to wander, and I find myself thinking about what groceries I need or how much I don’t like my new haircut or something my mom said last week that annoyed me and then led to feelings of guilt for being annoyed at my mom. And then I realize my mind has wandered, so I refocus, take a deep breath, and listen for the ticking clock again. By repeating this process of being aware of the moment, feeling at peace about it, then feeling my thoughts run away and refocusing again, I’m learning to train my brain to be less obsessed about thoughts of the past and the future. It gets quieter inside my mind.
This approach to meditation is what works for me. You should feel free to try it without feeling like it has to work for you. I encourage you to read books on meditation, search for information about it, be curious about how other people approach it and how they meditate, and then to take what you like from each to build your own practice. If it’s something you enjoy, keep at it. If you don’t enjoy it, try something else. Do it your own way. Find your own ticking clock!